Several months ago, I did a week-long special featuring Robert Mitchum. In the course of that week, I reviewed one of my favourite Mitchum films, Not as a Stranger. Watching Blood and Sand—a film Tyrone Power cited as among the favourites of those he’d worked in—I was struck by the similarities between the two films. Both are about ambitious men who don’t let anything get in their way of making it to the top, men who fall prey to a femme fatale despite being married, men who falter both in their professional and personal lives.
But Power’s Juan Gallardo is also different from Mitchum’s Lucas Marsh. And his story too is eventually different.
The film begins in Seville, where a poor teenager named Juan Gallardo (Rex Downing) lives with his mother (Alla Nazimova) and elder sister Encarnacio. Juan’s father was a bullfighter who died in the bull ring, but that has not deterred Juan: he wants to be a torero too. His mother, now reduced to scrubbing floors to make ends meet, tries to plead with Juan. She tells Juan that his father died only once, but she had died a thousand times—every time he went into the ring. Will she have to die a thousand deaths for Juan too?
But Juan, young, ardent and mad about bullfighting, isn’t about to listen. Every night, when his mother and sister are asleep, he sneaks out to swing a stolen sheet at the bull in a nearby ranch, and to say hello to his little sweetheart Carmen Espinosa (Ann E Todd):
This night is a significant one, because Carmen’s father has an important visitor, a man who had once admired Juan’s father. When Carmen’s father—who looks fondly upon Juan, even bestowing old clothes upon the boy—introduces Juan to the visitor, the man promises Juan that one day, when Juan is a famous matador, he will be Juan’s manager, his impresario.
There are others who are less kindly disposed. In the local tavern, a loudmouth called Curro (Laird Cregar) is talking about the greatest matadors Spain has ever seen—and is very vociferous in abusing Juan’s father, whom he brands a coward. Juan loses his temper and bashes Curro on the head with a bottle of wine, knocking him unconscious and with a head wound that will leave a scar for the rest of his life.
And Juan is doing all he can to fulfil his dream. The next morning, he leaves Seville for Madrid (because you can’t become a matador unless you go to Madrid) with four other boys, all of them eager to become toreros. Of these, Manolo is the rebel, a boy who won’t knuckle under to Juan. They have an altercation, in which Juan comes out victorious—but Manolo sulks all the 600 km to Madrid.
Cut to ten years later. A grown-up Juan Gallardo (now Tyrone Power), big, beautiful and very sure of himself, is on his way back to Seville with his four friends. Juan is bursting with self-satisfaction at his work in the bullring in Madrid. But the years have obviously been spent only in bullfighting; he can’t read or write, not even enough to be able to read a newspaper article written by the famous bullfighting critic Curro (the man who’d once criticised Juan’s father). Curro has lambasted Juan in his latest article, calling him a “…flat-footed novillero from Seville, taking money under false pretenses. He has nothing to recommend him but a certain, stupid animal courage that makes his work in the ring look more like suicide than battle…”
Neither Juan nor his equally illiterate comrades realise what Curro has written, and a passerby, summoned imperiously to read out the article, is too scared of the novilleros to spell out the truth: he concocts praise for Juan.
Back home in Seville, Juan receives a surprise: the entire town turns up at the railway station, with flowers and music and much rejoicing to welcome—not Juan, but someone else. Juan and his comrades, including Manolo (now Anthony Quinn) alight, feeling decidedly deflated.
Juan’s mother, though, is immeasurably happy to see her long-lost son again.
So is Carmen Espinosa (now Linda Darnell). She soon cottons on to the fact that her beloved can’t read or write, but it doesn’t rattle her too much. Juan is back. He loves her. She loves him. They can get married.
Juan is initially reluctant (he wants to make millions so that he can place the world at her feet before he sets about marrying her), but the gift he’s brought her from Madrid—a wedding dress and veil—makes him change his mind.
The film now moves forward another few years, and to changed circumstances. Juan is no longer the nobody he had been when he returned to Seville. This young man is now the darling of the crowds at the bullring, much loved and much fêted. The critic Curro, who had written that long-ago scathing article about Juan, is now Juan’s most flowery, flattering admirer. And Juan basks in it all, like an all-powerful potentate who knows he can’t be bested.
Juan’s brother-in-law, Antonio Lopez (Monty Banks), whom Juan had given a large sum of money to help set up a business so that he could marry Encarnacio (now Lynn Bari) is also among Juan’s oiliest and most insincere of sycophants. Behind Juan’s back, he’s going about taking the credit for Juan’s success.
And the four boys with whom Juan had once left Seville are still with him, three still as friends. Nacional (John Carradine) is always threatening to leave because he’s had enough of the blood and gore of bullfighting, but he continues to stay on—and Manolo has broken away, striking his own path which will eventually bring him into competition with Juan.
Juan is wealthy, successful, famous. He is still illiterate, but that doesn’t faze him, or at least not often enough to make a difference. Carmen is a devoted wife, so in love with her husband that she’s even indulgent: when a resplendent Juan preens before her and asks how he looks, she smiles and says, “Like a king. Or a little boy, all dressed up for a party.”
She adores this man, failings and follies and all.
But, though he’s at heart a little boy grasping at all the glittering things he can lay hands on, and playing with fire all the while, daring fate to come and get him, Juan is also a man—a man susceptible to temptation. And one day, in the audience at the bullring, he meets his nemesis, the beautiful Doña Sol (Rita Hayworth), who changes men as often as she changes her very expensive dresses, and whose eye has now alighted on Juan.
To Sol, too, Juan’s illiteracy doesn’t really matter; his animal attractiveness compensates for his lack of table manners, his lack of conversation, and his excessively strong perfume. Her friends—whom she introduces to Juan at a banquet to which she invites him—treat Juan with derision, but Sol herself disregards his failings. She sings to him, plays the guitar, turns on the charm of a practised seductress—luring him away into a mad affair that sends Carmen fleeing from home…
…and plunges Juan’s career into a spiral of growing debt, falling reputation, and increasingly poor performances. Will Juan ever be able to surface? Will he again become, as he once was, ‘the greatest matador in Seville’? And will he ever again see happiness—gold, not the dross of Sol’s superficial world?
What I liked about this film:
Tyrone Power. In most other films, I’d have said this was mainly because he looks so wonderful. In Blood and Sand, it’s also because his acting is so good. Power portrays the many facets of Juan’s character excellently: the arrogant, self-assured and egoistic young man, illiterate but utterly ambitious; the small boy in a man’s body, wanting everything that’s expensive and smart because it is expensive and will be a testimony to his success (does a rich and beautiful mistress qualify?). The loving husband. The unfaithful husband. The man entranced by a siren, looking on with wide, wondering eyes at this gorgeous creature from another world. The very human matador who kneels in front of a crucifix before every appearance in the bullring, but whose nonchalant grace in front of the bull is almost proof of his freedom from fear… and—did I mention?—he looks jaw-droppingly handsome through it all. I’ve never seen Ty Power look so perfect.
The music. Very Spanish, very intoxicating and infectious, all the way from the dancing in Seville when Juan comes home, to the song Sol sings to him, strumming on her guitar, one quiet night in her villa.
The colour. Blood and Sand is drenched in glorious Technicolor, with many frames composed almost like a painting: Juan standing in his room, clad in his shimmering costume. The cape, red on one side and yellow on the other, whirling across a background of dun-coloured sand. The flowers, red and white, yellow and blue, flung into the bullring by adoring crowds. Sol, dressed in a deep pink dress (which she dramatically reveals by removing an all-enveloping black cloak) dancing with Manolo, only their figures lit against a roomful of dark dancers, singers and diners:
It’s no wonder that the film won Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan an Oscar for Best Colour Cinematography.
What I didn’t like:
The end. Cinematically, there’s nothing wrong with it, except for a bit of melodrama. But from someone who’s a diehard Tyrone Power fan: this was just not done!
Other than that, I think the roles of the other toreros—especially Nacional and Manolo—weren’t etched adequately. Both seemed interesting characters, and men whom I’d have wanted to know more about.
But, all said and done, this was a film I liked. A lot. I must admit to having had some qualms about watching it—bullfighting holds no appeal for me, and having read the synopsis online, I was not looking forward to the film, except for Tyrone Power himself. It proved, however, a far more intense and satisfying experience than I’d imagined. The bloodiness of bullfighting is not what Blood and Sand, notwithstanding its name, is all about. This is a story of human frailties, of human ambition and dreams. It is about passion, jealousy, loyalty, faith, egoism, disillusionment—everything that makes humans human. And it brings to the fore the utter fickleness of humans when it comes to their idols: worshipped one moment, forgotten the next.
Blood and Sand is a tragic film about a doomed life, but it’s also a vibrant and powerful film, beautiful and at times sensitive. Highly recommended.
And if you watch it, you’ll be giving your eyes a treat.
Little bit of trivia:
To prepare for the film, Tyrone Power attended a bullfight in Spain. He was, however, so nauseated by the experience that his wife, Annabella, who was with him, ended up pretending that she was ill so that they could leave.