BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY, like some of the macho, honor & tradition-bound matadors it salutes, lived to fight another day, but only after surviving a gore. When released in 1951 at 87 minutes it had been shorn of fully 37. That drastic 30% editing job may have played artistic havoc with director Budd Boetticher’s intent, but the end result at least saw that his film got into sufficient circulation to recoup costs, and garner enough peer notice to earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Story. The long-delayed, gratefully restored 124-minute version is a jewel.
Visiting Mexico, brash young American movie producer ‘Johnny Regan’ (Robert Stack), smitten by beauty ‘Anita de la Vega’ (Joy Page), impetuously decides to take up bullfighting, under the tutelage of ‘Manolo Estrada’ (Gilbert Roland), a veteran torero. Manolo patiently teaches the nervy but impatient gringo the skills demanded for the ring, but the equally delicate art of adapting to Mexico’s codes of conduct tests Johnny’s temperament and naivete. Moments of truth arise, in and out of the arena.
A passion project for the 35-year-old director, it was semi-autobiographical. Boettticher, with 10 low-budget B-pix under his belt, had spent 12 years working up the chain, including serving as advisor on the 1941 Tyrone Power hit Blood And Sand. That advice came from his own bullfighting experiences in Mexico in his early 20s. John Wayne, who loved Mexico, took on Boetticher’s story as producer, turning the script duty over to his buddy James Edward Grant. Filming in Mexico, Boetticher shot his own script anyway (though credit went to Grant), then turned the editing over to John Ford.
Boetticher: “John Ford cut the picture to help me get it out. He said “You’ve got about 40 minutes of chi-chi crap.” Well the chi-chi crap that he cut out was the sentimentality of Mexico, the children of Mexico, the real romance between Stack and Roland. Men who are real men can show affection for other men, and that was cut out of the picture.”
Though at 208th place, way down in the year’s boxoffice roll, the $400,000 production did make around $1,000,000, matching cape action with the same year’s The Brave Bulls (also a good movie, now forgotten, it earned three times more), and, compromised cutting to the side, it moved Boetticher’s career into higher gear.
Restored, other than a few supporting performances (Virginia Grey and John Hubbard) that clunk obvious, it’s a knockout. More than an ode to the archaic, ritualized sport (revered by some, deplored by others), as captured by Jack Draper’s dramatic black & white cinematography and Victor Young’s atmosphere-redolent score, it emerges as a love poem to Mexico, its proud people and traditions. Playing into that is the perfect casting of Roland, 46 (his father and grandfather were bullfighters)—it’s his career-best performance—and the vital Katy Jurado (27, her first American film) as his wife: she gets a choice scene to deliver a Spanish blast of breathtaking vituperation to the great character actor Rodolfo Acosta.
The offbeat casting of Stack, 32, works quite well: not only is his appearance altered (hair dyed blond to match Boetticher’s, who doubled for him in some bull ring shots), but it’s one of the rare roles that makes good use of his disarming smile (scarce in his usual terse dramatic parts), and lithe fitness (the guy was buffed, who knew?), along with a neat sequence that fits into the plot a skeet shooting sequence: Stack held two world records in it. He also does a bit of his own arena work, so kudos for genuine Eliot Ness-style cojones.
The well-integrated footage of actual bullfights provides considerable danger-daring, but the film’s quieter moments are just as strong. Others in the cast include Paul Fix, Ismael Pérez and Ruben Padilla.
* As the bulls charge—Boetticher put on another arena affair a few years later in The Magnificent Matador, but even with Anthony Quinn, Maureen O’Hara and Mexican locales in color and widescreen it didn’t raise an “Ole!” from critics or crowds. His love-hate relationship with Wayne paid off in 1957 when the Duke gave him the script for Seven Men From Now. Wayne produced it, and cast Randolph Scott, who then became Boetticher’s western hero in the half-dozen collaborations that followed, tough and stylish loner sagas that cemented the maverick director’s reputation.