Monday 18 February 2019

Movie Review: Blood And Sand (1941)

A bullfighting drama, Blood And Sand is a melodramatic but nevertheless absorbing cautionary tale about fame's fickleness.

In Seville, young and confident Juan Gallardo comes from a humble family and dreams of following in his father's footsteps and becoming a great matador. His still-grieving mother Señora Angustias (Nazimova) worries her son will one day die in the ring, like his father. Juan travels to Madrid with a group of friends to seek his fortune. Ten years later, Juan (Tyrone Power) returns to Seville as an up-and-coming but still raw matador, and influential bullfighting critic Curro (Laird Cregar) remains sceptical about his talent.

But Juan marries his childhood sweetheart Carmen Espinosa (Linda Darnell) and within a couple of years becomes the best and most celebrated bullfighter in the country. With the world at his feet, Juan is entranced by the alluring beauty of the wealthy and spoiled Doña Sol des Muire (Rita Hayworth). He starts a steamy affair with the seductress and loses his edge, placing at risk all he has worked for, and soon his supremacy in the ring is challenged by his friend Manolo (Anthony Quinn).

Based on the book by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, Blood And Sand presents the sport as a futile celebrity machine designed to distract young men away from their more cerebral potential. The overriding theme is the sport's bloodthirsty and uncaring attitude, with the matadors lured in by dreams of riches, abandoning their education to pursue glory, exploited at the top and then discarded either to a gored death or poverty when their skills decline. The heartless core of building up and spitting out heroes applies to many sports, but here is sharpened by the mesmerizing pull of dancing with arena death every weekend.

The rise and fall of Juan is paralleled by the women in his life. Carmen's true purity propels him to his greatest achievements while Doña's adulteration paves a gilded pathway to ruin. Doña embodies in one person the allure and spoils of reaching the very top, as well as the capricious nature of celebrity. She will ensnare the next top matador as her lover when the time comes, and won't give a second thought about the has-been.

Tyrone Power throws himself fearlessly into the role of Juan, the actor finding the single-minded passion needed to seek fame jousting with angry bulls. Doña is Rita Hayworth's breakout role, although her undisguised and ravishing huntress mannerisms operate within a narrow range.

For a movie about bullfighting there is surprisingly little in-arena action. Director Rouben Mamoulian, working from a Jo Swerling script, builds up to one central showpiece event towards the middle of the film, but otherwise focuses on characters and allows all the emotions to pour out unconstrained by any attempts at nuance. With animated settings and earthy tones, Juan's journey is vivid, colourful and committed, Blood And Sand spelling out its messages in bold letters against the bloodied and shifting stadium soil.

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