Blood and Sand (1941)
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Blood and Sand is a 1941 epic about a bullfighter named Juan Gallardo, played by Tyrone Power, who makes a high-style Hollywood entrance. In the first part of the story we met Juan as a boy, spiritedly portrayed by young Rex Downing, and in the second part we meet him as a man, traveling back to his hometown after starting his toreador career in the big city. Before seeing Juan we see his four assistants, idly chitchatting about the pleasures and perils of their trade. Then the camera cuts to a charismatic close-up of Power, hair dyed inky back, eyes flashing into the lens. A hero this alluring must surely be on his way to a triumphant welcome by the townspeople who knew him when he was a mere whippersnapper with dreams of bullfighting glory.
The situation isn't quite so simple, however. In the next few minutes we learn while Juan is certainly handsome, he's also illiterate. And he has a badly inflated idea of his talents, which are so meager that he's just received a scathingly bad review from a big-deal bullfighting critic. Since he can't read the review, he doesn't know how bad it really is, but he starts getting the picture when his train pulls into the station. Far from a triumphant welcome, hardly anyone notices that he's arrived except Senora Augustias (Nazimova), his loyal mom.
Things perk up when Juan tosses flashy gifts to old friends at a neighborhood party, and it's clear that his desire to succeed burns as brightly as ever. Can he energize his career so it's headed to victory instead of a dead end? He solves this problem by marrying Carmen (Linda Darnell), his childhood sweetheart. Sure enough, her love and encouragement turn him into a brilliant bullfighter with dexterity to spare. But then another woman - the sultry Dona Sol (Rita Hayworth) - turns a burning gaze on him in the arena, and distraction is a luxury no torero can afford. Therein lies the rest of the dramatic tale, which also involves a disgruntled assistant named Nacional (John Carradine) and a rival named Manolo (Anthony Quinn) as well as the bullfighting critic, Curro (Laird Cregar), who reappears at key moments in Juan's troubled career.
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, this is the third film based on Sangre y arena, a 1908 novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who made the first movie version himself in his native Spain in 1917. The previous Hollywood adaptation was Fred Niblo's silent movie Blood and Sand, a 1922 release starring Rudolph Valentino as the matador, Lila Lee as his longsuffering wife, and Nita Naldi as the vamp who brings him to ruin. The acting, camerawork, and décor in Niblo's version are first rate throughout, and while Niblo shows only fleeting glimpses of what happens to bulls in the arena once the fancy cape-work is over, he gives a more candid sense of blood-sport violence than Mamoulian does.
Mamoulian is working from a different agenda, though, and his Blood and Sand is magnificent on its own terms, thanks to his visual brilliance plus the cinematography by Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, who deserved every inch of the Academy Award they received. (Art directors Richard Day and Joseph C. Wright also got Oscar® nominations, and should have won.) Mamoulian had been a highly respected Hollywood filmmaker since his debut picture, the 1929 musical Applause, widely hailed for its mobile camera and on-location shooting at the beginning of the talkie era. Later he had major productions like the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Greta Garbo's 1933 romance Queen Christina to his credit. But his most historic contribution came in 1935 with Becky Sharp, the first film shot - with Rennahan behind the camera - using the three-strip Technicolor process that made color cinematography more captivating than ever before.
The same vitality is on full display in Blood and Sand, and while its pictorial values may disappoint viewers looking for gritty realism, they're a thrill for people who give a high priority to aesthetics. The colors, shadows, lighting patterns, and compositions are so elegantly arranged that they weave a sort of aura around many scenes, lending the film an ethereal beauty that verges on spirituality at moments when religious imagery - a solemn chapel, a sacred statue - figures prominently in the film's quintessentially Spanish look. Scenes of comedy, carousing, and bullfighting are more naturalistic, of course, but even they benefit from Mamoulian's meticulous attention to light and hue, and some tense moments are punctuated with bars of shadow that add a subtle film-noir effect. Even the coming-attractions trailer was in Technicolor, a first for Twentieth Century Fox.
Mamoulian doesn't resist the temptation to overdo some visual elements, especially in the symbolism department - when Nacional lies dying after being gored, for instance, it's a bit much that his arms are arranged to mirror the large crucifix hanging behind his bed. And some quiet, static moments risk stopping the movie's momentum, as when people at church are positioned in unmoving tableaus. To my eyes, however, these shots have a meditative calm that makes them enthralling instead of dull. Like the visual scheme as a whole, they reflect Hollywood artistry at its spellbinding best.
Although the acting doesn't reach such lofty levels, it gets high marks nonetheless. Power makes Juan as supple and sympathetic as he is flawed and ultimately pitiful. Darnell is sufficiently adorable as the faithful and forgiving Carmen, and Hayworth - who got to play Dona Sol after glamorous Jane Russell, Dorothy Lamour, Maria Montez, and Gene Tierney were eliminated - couldn't be much sultrier. Nazimova rarely stands out as Joan's aging mother, but she is very moving at the crucial moment when she tells anxiety-ridden Carmen that she regularly prays for her son to be gored just badly enough to be forced out of bullfighting for good. Carradine is excellent, Quinn brings Manolo fully alive in a short amount of screen time, and Cregar is splendid as the self-important corrida critic. The supporting cast also includes reliable J. Carrol Naish and ill-starred George Reeves, later to play the eponymous superhero in television's Adventures of Superman (1952-1958).
Blood and Sand was made long before the American Humane Association started monitoring animal action and assuring us that no animals were harmed. Some bullfighting footage was shot in Mexico City - where future director and bullfight enthusiast Budd Boetticher helped Power master his toreador moves - and some bulls must have met unhappy fates during this time. Still, the shots containing both matador and bull are photographed at extremely long distances (thereby covering body doubles) and edited so tactfully that few eyes will be offended. I've seen just enough bullfighting in Spain to know that I have no use for the sport, if it is a sport at all, but Blood and Sand captivated me with its artistry despite its subject. In later years, poorly chosen projects and McCarthy-era blacklisting put an early end to Mamoulian's career, but he was a tremendous talent in his way, and this colorful melodrama is a heartening reminder.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay: Jo Swerling; based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez
Cinematographers: Ernest Palmer, Ray Rennahan
Film Editing: Robert Bischoff
Art Direction: Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright
Set Decorations: Thomas Little
Costumes: Travis Banton
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Tyrone Power (Juan), Linda Darnell (Carmen Espinosa), Rita Hayworth (Dona Sol), Nazimova (Senora Augustias), Anthony Quinn (Manolo de Palma), J. Carrol Naish (Garabato), John Carradine (Nacional), Lynn Bari (Encarnacion), Laird Cregar (Natalio Curro), William Montague (Antonio Lopez), Vicente Gomez (Guitarist), George Reeves (Captain Pierre Lauren), Pedro de Cordoba (Don Jose Alvarez), Fortunio Bonanova (Pedro Espinosa), Victor Kilian (Priest), Michael Morris (La Pulga), Charles Stevens (Pablo Gomez), Ann Todd (Carmen as a child), Cora Sue Collins (Encarnacion as a child), Russell Hicks (Marquis), Maurice Cass (El Milquetoast), Rex Downing (Juan as a child), John Wallace (Francisco), Jacqueline Dalya (Gachi), Cullen Johnson (Manolo as a child), Larry Harris (Pablo as a child), Ted Frye (La Pulga as a child), Schuyler Standish (Nacional as a child).
by David Sterritt