Bullfighter and the Lady

(USA - 1951)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Robert Stack, Joy Page, Gilbert Roland, Katy Jurado, Virginia Grey
Genre: Horror/Drama
Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Budd Boetticher and James Edward Grant
Cinematography: Jack Draper
Composer: Victor Young

Budd Boetticher’s journey into the film industry was far from conventional. The college boxer and football player took a trip to Mexico after graduating. Though purportedly healing a football injury, he became so enamored with the art of bullfighting he befriended some of the top matadors and trained with them long enough to become a matador himself. In the early 1940’s, an old buddy hired him as a technical advisor for the mediocre Hollywood bullfighting film Blood and Sand, and once again Boetticher was captivated to embark on a new endeavor and work his way up the ranks.

A decade later, with a dozen films under his directorial belt, Boetticher took a big step forward by finally securing the opportunity to direct a personal film. A semi-biographical work, The Bullfighter and the Lady essentially added a love story to a somewhat mythically enhanced version of Boetticher’s own journey from uninitiated gringo to mature bullfighter. It’s one of the first and only films of the period to show any real respect for the Mexicans, and is all the more surprising for showing the American to be brash, arrogant, and selfish until he grows up by toning down his exhibitionist bend and becomes a simply portrayer of a timeless art through accepting their codes of honor and conduct, and perhaps more importantly, their serenity. Boetticher continued down this path of sympathizing with the oppressed in Seminole, feeling for the Native Americans before almost anyone else in Hollywood.

John Wayne believed in Boetticher’s ability enough to use his considerable leverage at Republic Pictures to secure the financing, producing the picture with some of the money they owed him for Wake of the Red Witch and Sands of Iwo Jima. However, in the end, John Wayne felt a sub 90 minute B film was the only chance the movie had to recoup his investment, which was problematic given Boetticher’s cut came in at 124 minutes!

Boetticher agreed to let John Ford cut the film, not realizing Ford would be excising 40 minutes of mostly “chi-chi shit”. Ford’s editing essentially undermined the film, as in cutting the majority of the lengthy bullfighting scenes the meaning of the bullfight, determined by men’s rituals, codes, machismo, and struggle for individualism is largely lost. The true purpose of these scenes is to show the true ritualistic art of bullfighting is one of formalism rather than the initial egoism of main character Johnny Regan (Robert Stack). Luckily, Boetticher lived long enough to see the real film restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The Bullfighter and the Lady is far from Boetticher’s best film, but it’s notable for being the precursor to his Ranown series, the great westerns with Randolph Scott including Seven Men From Now, Ride Lonesome, Decision at Sundown, & Comanche Station. Both the bullfighting film and his subsequent westerns find the balance between grace and brutality, which ultimately comes to a head in a primal showdown where violence tends to override artistry, even if artistry is ultimately what trumps pure elemental rage. Each of the films maintain a somewhat ironic tone, in that they are marked by a physical elegance that is impermanent due to being applied to a primitive sport/pastime/job that is ultimately nothing more than survival.

Boetticher’s films could hardly be called humorous, the life of their lonely isolated main character is more than a tad morose despite the breathtaking scenery they inhabit, but their backbone is the irony of human existence. No matter how determined and driven their star is, he loses a piece of his soul as the innocence of his existence is stripped, and becomes hell bent on accomplishing a task he ultimately cannot succeed at. Yes, he can beat a bull, take the bad guy in, or kill him, but it will never really satisfy him because life will just bring more of the same and nothing can return what’s been taken from him.


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