The 20th Century Fox of the early '40s wasn't taking any chances when they mounted the lavish Blood and Sand, now out on Blu Ray, for its red-hot matinee idol Tyrone Power. The property was already a hit for Rudolph Valentino in the silent era, and why not? This torrid love triangle/bullfighting saga had all the familar elements that audiences craved, while the Spanish trappings added a layer of exoticism. Looking handsome in Technicolor, Power smolders as Juan, the arrogant matador who doesn't realize his own true self-worth until it's too late. The character is paired off with two lovely señoritas vying for his attentions: his childhood sweetheart-turned ever-patient wife (Linda Darnell) and a sexy, wealthy temptress (Rita Hayworth). Glittering stars and impeccable studio craftsmanship have been put in full effect here - for a film that winds up being overlong, ponderous and dated.
Blood and Sand casts a skeptical attitude towards the sport of bullfighting and all the facile hero worship it brings, a message that tends to get buried in the film's two hour-plus sprawl. It's set up immediately with the character of Juan as a boy (effectively played by Rex Downing) idolizing his dead matador father. The boy is determined to follow in Dad's footsteps and become a champion bullfighter, a decision greeted with hostility by Juan's weary mother (silent screen star Alla Nazimova). Ten years later, Juan is on his way towards becoming a champion in the ring, spurred on by his sycophantic little entourage of childhood buddies and an obsequious press (as embodied by a fickle news columnist played by Laird Cregar). He returns home a local hero, marrying his childhood love Darnell, but success isn't all it seems without a solid education. Before long, he's at the top of his game - but the adulation of being a star matador brings out his complacency and arrogance. Juan is eventually seduced by a wanton socialite (Hayworth), and finds his brief time at the top sabotaged by Manolo (Anthony Quinn), his former friend-turned competitor in the ring. Fame, ain't it a bitch.
For all its eye-popping visual splendor (the color cinematography won the 1941 Academy Award, deservedly), Blood and Sand mostly stands out for its turgid heavy-handedness. From a technical standpoint, Rouben Mamoulian directs with a confident if distant touch. The project feels burdened by having too much to say, however; it's the kind of hokey mishmash that results from throwing lots of things at the screen hoping something would stick. The bullfighting scenes are filmed with a curious lack of involvement, shot from a safe distance with the more gory events communicated via audience reaction shots. Dramatically, there's a lot of interesting work from Power, Darnell and Hayworth (looking somewhat average, pre-Columbia Studio makeover). Other characters, like Juan's cautionary fellow matador Nacional (played by John Carradine), have a frustratingly limited function. Juan is joined by a few pallid acquaintances, which include the seen-it-all older matador (J. Carroll Naish) who becomes the man's assistant and the black-haired captain (George Reeves) left in the dust when Hayworth takes a shine to Power. Mostly they serve as window dressing for the constantly changing passing parade in Juan's fevered existence. It's fascinating to watch, yet totally arbitrary. Let's toss in a few religious scenes and kitschy musical numbers as well, why the hell not?
Speaking of those kitschy specialty musical numbers, these interludes contribute to a few of the lighter, better moments in this saga. As if to make up for the mostly Caucasian cast, Fox wrangled some accomplished and authentically Latin performers and musicians for these numbers (which, granted, seem better suited towards a set of short subjects). It doesn't beat the delirious, hallucinatory visions seen in Walt Disney's salute to Latin cultures in Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, but the music adds a considerable amount of flavor. Even a dubbed Rita Hayworth gets into the act.
Dramatically, Blood and Sand has its fair share of problems, yet for fans of good old fashioned Hollywood studio-craft there's a lot here to admire. Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan's Technicolor photography is fantastic, creating a world that is vivid and alluring without going overboard into tackiness. The art direction is also stunning, particularly in the scene where young Juan escapes through the streets of his village to fight a bull. The combination of beautiful set designs, evocative lighting and matte paintings give it a wonderfully fake feel. It's a feast for fans and students of old-style film craftsmanship, although it also makes one wish the effort was used on a not-so-familar story.
The Blu Ray:
Blood and Sand has previously been issued on DVD in 2007, as part of Fox's Tyrone Power Collection box set. The standalone Blu Ray edition upgrades the picture quality and changes the package design (although why they'd advertise a picture with beautiful color photography using a monochrome photo boggles the mind; the 2007 artwork was much more appealing and period-correct).
The image used here appears to be the same digitally restored transfer used on the DVD. The 1.33:1 picture is pristine throughout, free of reel change marks, and jitters, scratching, dust and other signs of aging. The color used throughout is rich, warm and nuanced, the saturation being a little less vivid than what would normally be expected of '40s-era Technicolor. Those who appreciate stellar examples of vintage cinematography will find a lot to enjoy on this disc.
Unlike the visual component, the mono audio mix presented here is fairly typical of films from that period. The HD Master Audio soundtrack lacks range and sports some age-related wear, but the dialogue is clearly delivered and the musical scoring is decently integrated. Dolby Digital Spanish and French-language dubs are also provided, along with optional subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
Ported over from the DVD edition is an informative audio commentary from Richard Crudo, D. P. and past president of the American Society of Cinematographers. It's a lively and interesting track; Crudo supplies lots of factoids about the technical hurdles cinematographers faced back then with Technicolor equipment. The photo gallery and restoration demo from the DVD is not included here, however. No theatrical trailer, either.
A lavishly produced hunk of Technicolor bullfighting kitsch from 20th Century Fox, 1941's Blood and Sand serves as a bloated yet entertaining vehicle for gorgeous stars Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth. Sure, the story is corny, but the excellent craftsmanship and cinematography used throughout this torrid drama keep it watchable. Besides a handsome HD transfer, Fox's Blu Ray edition doesn't have too much to offer above their previous DVD version. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.