Blood and Sand, starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Rita Hayworth, is the third of four film adaptations of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s novel Sangre y Arena. It takes place in Seville, Spain–where I was born and lived when I was a small child.
Franco-era Spain did not change much until his death, so 1940s and 1960s Seville were probably pretty similar. It is astonishing to me how director Rouben Mamoulian got so many details right. It was even more astonishing when I found out Mamoulian never visited Spain until years after the movie was released (it was filmed in Mexico City). He recounts in his autobiography that many Spaniards complemented him on how accurately he depicted their culture.
Juan, the main character, even gives a recipe for gazpacho that far more accurately depicts the version poor people ate than the tomato-laden chilled soup we’re familiar with today. There is very little “Hollywood-izing” of the culture in this movie.
Yes, I realized going into this that this is a very controversial subject.
The movie is very critical of bullfighting, in fact, Blasco Ibáñez wrote the original novel to expose its barbarity and cruelty. Mamoulian does an excellent job of conveying how it lured impoverished young men–in many cases illiterate and without prospects of ever rising above their station otherwise–who were eventually destroyed, either because they couldn’t handle the sudden fame and riches or because they were outright killed in the name of entertainment for the masses.
The film follows Juan Gallardo (Power), the son of a once famous matador who died in ring. His mother (Alla Nazimova) scrubs floors. Juan vows to become a great torero so his mother will no longer have to work. She reminds him that his father promised her the same when they married, and she is still scrubbing floors.
Juan hears journalist Curro (Laird Cregar) insult the memory of his father and cracks him over the head with a bottle. He runs away to the ranch of his little sweetheart’s father and practices bullfighting with one of his bulls. He swears to Carmen (played as an adult by Darnell) that he will become a famous matador and return one day to marry her.
He and his friends journey to Madrid. Returning to Seville ten years later, Juan is a successful “novillero” (novice bullfighter) with some money already in his pocket. He sets up his sister’s boyfriend in business and hires retired matador Garabato (J. Carrol Naish) as a servant to save him from poverty.
He seeks out Carmen and they marry. Soon, his star is on a meteoric rise, helped by Curro, who dubs him “the first man in Spain.”
So when does the sexy part start, one may ask?
When Rita Hayworth shows up, of course.
Hayworth portrays Doña Sol, a jet-setting socialite who sees him fight in the ring and becomes intrigued by him. Although she already has a lover (played by George Reeves–yes, the one who later became TV’s Superman) she quickly gives him the heave-ho to go after Juan. He returns a ring that she gave him.
In a scene that is both sultry and amusing, Sol sings to Juan–only to notice in the middle of it that he’s fallen asleep. Later, when he wakes up, he finds his way to her bedroom. Of course, the Hays Code was in full effect at this time (Darnell was forced to play a bedroom scene with Power keeping one foot planted firmly on the floor) so it’s only suggested that they have sex.
This is confirmed utterly when Juan drops a very expensive necklace in front of his wife. He is also wearing the ring of Sol’s previous lover.
Yep, no doubt what happened.
As the affair progresses, Juan’s good luck begin to slip. He is no longer as admired in the ring. He makes a lot of money but can’t keep track of where it goes.
Through it all, Carmen remains loyal to her husband. Hoping to end the affair, she visits Sol at her home. Unknown to her, Juan is also there. He and Sol were playing a game where he pretends to be the bull and she is the matador. Sol calls Juan with an “aha, toro!” to show how she has complete control over him.
Humiliated, Carmen returns to her father’s ranch. Soon, Juan has lost most of his friends, fans, and hangers-on. One day in the ring, his friend Nacional (John Carradine) is killed, and Juan is blamed for his death.
As Juan’s fortunes continue to slip, his friend Manolo’s (Anthony Quinn) begin to rise. One night in a tavern Juan and Sol encounter Manolo. It is obvious that Sol is now bored with Juan. She flirts with Manolo. She agrees to dance with him. They perform a provocative dance that enthralls everyone in the tavern. It angers Juan so much he breaks a glass and throws Sol’s ring back at her.
The following Sunday Juan is praying before the bullfight and encounters Carmen. He is astounded to find out that she has been there every Sunday since she moved away. She tells him she never really left him.Juan swears this is his last fight. They reaffirm their love.
When he goes out into the ring, he is booed by the fickle masses that once cheered him. He proceeds to fight brilliantly. Once again, the crowd is on his side. When he turns away from the bull, it charges and gores him.
Just before he dies, he promises Carmen they will buy a small ranch and live a good, quiet life. In the ring, the crowd has already forgotten about Juan. They are cheering their new star, Manolo. As Sol tosses flowers to him and he takes his bows, the camera pans to Juan’s blood mixed with the sand.
Since matadors were the primary sex symbols in Spain, it’s no wonder Power was cast in the lead, as he was one of the top male sex symbols in the world at the time. This was his fourth and final screen pairing with Darnell. The role of Sol went through a long casting process. Dozens of actresses were considered. Carole Landis was cast, but she dropped out because she refused to die her hair red for the part.
Hayworth had made many films but was not a star before Blood and Sand. She certainly became one after its release. Anthony Quinn also credited the film (and his steamy dance scene with Hayworth) with breaking him out of minor roles and typecasting.
The film is pretty brutal in the way it casts its two lead women as obvious Madonna/Whore symbols, but Darnell and Hayworth do what they can to bring more nuance to the roles. Carmen is so forgiving it’s kind of hard not to wish she would bop Juan at least once for his betrayal. What saves it somewhat is the already long-established chemistry between Darnell and Power. Even though their bedroom scene complies with the silly Hays rules, they manage to convey that Juan and Carmen have a gratifying sexual relationship, which gives his obsession with Sol more complexity.
There is definitely a sexual component to the bullfighting scenes. In the early childhood scenes, when Juan is practicing with his future father-in-law’s bull, there is an element of courtship, as we see (a very young) Carmen’s admiration–and fear.
The first real bullfight isn’t shown until Sol shows up. That’s deliberate, I think. There’s elegance, swagger, and bravado as Juan fights the bull. Sol’s reactions show rather blatantly that this is turning her on.
After the kill (which is not shown on-screen, of course) the reaction of the crowd also emphasizes that the matador’s dance with death is turning people on. One woman in the crowd is shown in close up screaming and running her hand over her face, smearing it with her lipstick.
The film also conveys Sol’s role as a siren luring Juan away from his right path in the scene where she sings to him. The song is Verde Luna (Green Moon). The lyrics are about jealous love. Hayworth was dubbed by Graciela Párranga. Even so, just Hayworth’s facial expressions show her determination to seduce Juan. When he falls asleep, it’s funny, but the camera also lingers over his body. It’s a rare case in film where the female gaze is acknowledged.
Hayworth’s experience as a dancer was used well in the film. The tavern customers yell, “sangre Gitana!” (Gypsy blood!) at Sol while she dances with Manolo. Since Gypsies are often considered the best dancers in Spain, it’s a complement to her, but probably also an insult, since Sol is an aristocrat and there was a great deal of prejudice against Gypsies.
The Samson and Delilah vibe of the story is obvious. Unfortunately, they felt the need to add some “on the nose” dialogue by Curro, in case the audience didn’t get it. Sol is a literal femme fatale, driving Juan’s downfall and then barely noticing or caring when he is killed in the ring. There is some sympathy for her–it’s implied her spoiled upbringing made her easily bored and restless. (Her name “Sol” is short for Soledad, which in Spanish means “solitary.”)
Mamoulian was the first director to film in Technicolor (Becky Sharp, 1935). This was only his second film in Technicolor and he used it masterfully. The film received an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. He famously used paint spray guns to change the color of props and walls in Nacional’s death scene so it would resemble an El Greco painting. He drew inspiration from several Spanish artists to compose shots in the movie.
This film makes me very nostalgic for the city I was born in, and has all the color and beauty I remember. But what it does best, I think, is convey sexual passions–both loving and obsessive–in spite of the Hays Code restrictions of the day.