It’s always interesting to look at artifact’s from our species past that, while considered entertainment during their times, would be considered horrendously brutal and inhumane in modern society. I will always remember the first time I visited the Colosseum in Rome (not to be confused with Morgantown’s basketball stadium) that I was struck with this overwhelming dichotomy of the ancient beauty of the structure and that sense that I was being transported 2000 years into humanity’s past against how much unnecessary violence and bloodshed occurred at that structure daily. Similarly, public executions were a mainstay of 18th and 17th century cultures, yet virtually the entire civilized world (the U.S. sadly excepted) no longer has capital punishment at all, let alone as a form of social entertainment. Bullfighting is one of the most recent crazes that while considered a noble sport for centuries has finally been recognized as unnecessarily cruel and inhumane by most modern societies. The film I just finished, 1951’s The Bullfighter and the Lady, is both a celebration of the bullfighting culture and a stark portrayal of how violent it can be. While it had its moments (and was shockingly violent for its time), the film was ultimately far too satisfied to tell a simple love story and a simple sports story to truly be great.
The Bullfighter and the Lady is the story of a young American movie producer named Johnny Regan (Robert Stack, the TV version of The Untouchables) who becomes enamored with the traditional Mexican sport of bullfighting. After witnessing a day of bullfighting at packed plaza, Johnny approaches legendary torrero Manolo Estrada (Gilbert Roland) and wants to learn how to bullfight. He also meets the beautiful Mexican señorita, Anita de la Vega (Joy Page). Switching back and forth between the blooming romance of Johnny and Anita as well as Johnny’s training in the art of bullfighting from Manolo, The Bullfighter and the Lady gives a detailed (and one would assume realistic) portrayal of the harsh and unforgiving realm of the matador. While Johnny quickly finds that he has a knack for bullfighting, it doesn’t take long before he is given a brutal introduction to what the costs are if you screw up for just one second and a rabid bull has the chance to gore you.
This film did not shy away from violence and brutality that had to be absolutely shocking in the 1950’s. While many of the film’s most brutal scenes may be considered tame by today’s standards, I was still disturbed by quite a few of the gorings and other injuries that the torreros in this film received. You can tell that Budd Boetticher (the director) knew quite a bit about the sport as the camera and the script have a considerable eye for detail. The film can be incredibly slow and boring, especially in the beginning (the end really ratchets things up though), but that is because the film wants to dispel certain preconceptions that American viewers and other non-initiated might have about bullfighting. It wants to create an elaborately detailed and constructed world so that by the end of the film, the audience will know quite a bit more than it did when it began. In that regard, the film is a success though that doesn’t really make it any more entertaining or engaging.
Outside of the surprisingly charismatic Gilbert Roland as Manolo Estrada, the acting in this film was disappointingly wooden and unemotional. The film’s final moments were actually scripted quite well but Robert Stack was able to evoke as much genuine emotion as Keanu Reeves in Speed, which is to say not any. Similarly, there was virtually no romantic chemistry between Johnny and Anita that Stack simply made Johnny come off as a creepy stalker and Anita came off as an attention deficit lover who always changed her mind but never her on-screen face. Also, with the exception of Roland’s Estrada (who was charming and heroic and likeable in a way no one else in the cast could match), all of the Mexican characters seemed unfortunately stereotypical. At one point, Estrada’s wife tells Johnny that she knows what Anita is thinking because she and Anita are both Mexican and all Mexicans think alike. It was sort of offensive, and I’m not Hispanic at all.
The romantic plot of the film was unnecessary and distracted from time that could have been spent on making the bullfighting more emotionally charged and character driven (though the last quarter of the film corrects that problem considerably). I’ve never understood why Hollywood has always felt the need to stick artificial romances onto stories that were fine on their own. Also, the version of this film that I watched was the one on Netflix to “watch instantly” because it had no DVD copy available. This is a “restored” director’s cut of the film which adds another 30 minutes to the production. I only bring this up because you can instantly tell which scenes were in the original and which were added later because the scene’s added later A) contribute nothing to the film and B ) the actual quality of the shot is much worse and more distorted. All in all, this film has some good moments. While bullfighting is brutal and horrific, it is strangely compelling to watch. Sadly, the rest of the film can’t give you a reason to be invested in the fights in the first place.
Final Score: B-