Behind the lovey-dovey plainness of its title, Bullfighter and the Lady simmers with the conviction of trying to prove something right, almost as if it's the handiwork of a man with an axe to grind. The 1951 melodrama was the first important film for sportsman director Oscar "Budd" Boetticher. Boetticher, who co-wrote the story, added a lot of autobiographical elements to this sweaty saga of a white man in Mexico learning how to become a master bullfighter. Having gotten his start serving as technical advisor on Fox's 1941 blockbuster Blood and Sand, Boetticher was determined here to faithfully depict all the things about bullfighting which that overstuffed bauble glossed over. Where the earlier film portrayed the ring as window dressing for a Latin-kitsch romantic saga, Bullfighter and the Lady strips away the artifice and depicts the sport as a supreme sacrifice for men with the courage to endure it.
Uncompromisingly gritty and raw, probably the falsest thing about Bullfighter and the Lady is the blonde dye job on star Robert Stack. Olive Films' home video release presents Budd Boetticher's original version of the film, a two hour-plus opus which was restored by the film preservationists at UCLA.
Bullfighter and the Lady benefits a great deal from being filmed throughout Mexico and incorporating actual bullfighters (one of them, Antonio Gomez, even plays a supporting character here). The action mostly revolves around Robert Stack's character Johnny Regan, a champion skeet shooter eager to learn the ways of bullfighting under the tutelage of the veteran matador Manolo Estrada, compellingly played by Gilbert Roland. Observing a bullfight from the nosebleed seats with his married friends Barney (John Hubbard) and Lisbeth (Virginia Grey), Johnny expresses the need to meet the conquering matador in the ring in the hopes that he could learn the sport. At a swanky restaurant later on that night, he spies Manolo at a table with family and friends. After introducing himself, Manolo invites him to sit at their table, where he meets Manolo's wife, Chelo (Katy Jurado), a few other matadors, and an alluring young señorita named Anita de la Vega (Joy Page). Johnny eventually convinces Manolo to teach him the ways of bullfighting in exchange for some skeet shooting lessons. Under Manolo's tutelage, Johnny works his way up from doing mock matches with other bullfighting students (wielding bull horns) to facing off against young bulls and cows in a practice ring. Seduced by the sport, he also falls for Anita while Manolo and his fellow matadors prepare for the big climactic match at Mexico City's largest auditorium. Johnny has the cockiness and fighting spirit to be adequately prepared, but is he truly ready for the big time?
Note: images do not reflect the contents of Bullfighter and the Lady's Blu Ray edition.
All told, the romantic aspects of Bullfighter and the Lady's storyline don't amount to much (mostly due to the curious lack of chemistry between Robert Stack and Joy Page), and the two hour-long director's cut contains a few scenes that drag. The acting throughout is very nuanced, however, and Boetticher's intimacy with the subject makes this perhaps the most realistic onscreen depiction of bullfighting ever done up to that point. The film takes on the sport in a straightforward and surprisingly unsentimental way, showing every grueling step of the journey toward a victory which is at best a short-lived thrill. Blood and Sand takes on a similar jaundiced viewpoint towards bullfighting, strangely enough, but in Bullfighter's case the disenchantment seems all the more sharp because it's backed up with authenticity. The script largely draws from Boettcher's own experiences training as a bullfighter, aided by expert use of indoor and outdoor Mexican locales (lovingly captured by cinematographer Jack Draper). Another clear advantage this has over Blood and Sand is the casting of genuine Latino actors in the Mexican roles - Roland, Page and Jurado bring a certain intensity and knowingness to their parts which would be lacking in a caucasian performer playing Latin. For the most part, Roland and Stack do their own bullfighting as well, in scenes that are filmed with more grit and gusto than the pallid Blood and Sand. The only element that left me wanting came with the lack of depth in the non-Mexican characters. Robert Stack does a great job conveying Johnny's Alpha Male ambition, but he doesn't have much in the way of background - and the purpose of Johnny's friends Barney and Lisbeth is left frustratingly vague.
Made by John Wayne's Batjac production company for Republic Pictures, Bullfighter and the Lady proved to be a bitter entryway into directing for Boetticher. Against Boetticher's wishes, Republic trimmed the two-hour film down to 87 minutes in order to fit it on a double bill. Until it was restored by archivists at UCLA, the shortened version was the only one available. This lengthier edition of the film supplements the basic story with lots of footage of training and bullfighting. While it does convey the brutality and exhaustiveness of the sport (especially in the climactic fight), this is one case where I'd have to side with the studio. Without knowing the ultimate fate of Bullfighter upon first viewing, it seemed compelling yet somewhat plodding and overlong by about twenty minutes. Still, it made something as barbaric and meaningless as bullfighting look fascinating.
The Blu Ray:
The restored 1.37:1 picture on Bullfighter and the Lady generally looks good, with the richly textured, mostly outdoor photography marred only by a few white specks. About 40 minutes in, there are some washed out scenes which appear to be sourced from inferior 16MM footage (likely removed for the edited, 87 minute-long original release), but mostly the image falls in line with Olive Films' other good-quality reissues of the Republic Pictures holdings.
As with other Olive reissues of vintage flicks, the film's serviceable original mono soundtrack is the sole audio option. Dialogue sounds somewhat ragged but all right. The weakness of an aged print is only apparent during the loudly pitched bullfighting scenes. No subtitles are included.
A project befitting director Budd Boetticher and John Wayne's production company, 1951's Bullfighter and the Lady spares no testosterone in detailing the journey of an American athlete (Robert Stack) trying to make it in Mexico City's tough bullfighting scene. The romantic subplot may be hogwash, but the matador training scenes are made with a lot of authenticity and attention to detail. Even those who get queasy at the thought of bullfights will likely dig it. Recommended.
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.