Cruel blood sport or culturally-significant art form? That’s been the centuries-long debate surrounding the practice of bullfighting. Personally, almost everything I know about bullfighting comes from Ernest Hemingway stories and Looney Tunes. So Blood and Sand — a grand, cynical bullfighting drama/Technicolor spectacle from 1941 making its Blu-ray debut — was an eye-opening experience in more ways than one.
Blood and Sand is the story of Juan Gallardo (Tyrone Power), who we first meet as a bullfighting-obsessed child (played by Rex Downing) in Seville. Juan’s father was a legend in the sport — and the kid will eagerly break a bottle over the head of any pompous critic (like the one played by Laird Cregar) who disagrees — and the brash boy is obsessed with following in his footsteps. (He routinely sneaks onto a ranch at night to work on his skills.) Eventually, he runs away from home with a group of friends and travels to Madrid in the hope of becoming Spain’s greatest bullfighter.
The film jumps ahead 10 years with Juan having achieved enough success to buy a big house for his hard-working mother, who always scrubbed floors to take care of her family following Juan’s father’s death in the bullfighting ring, and his nagging sister. He also has enough money to marry childhood sweetheart Carmen (Linda Darnell). Unfortunately, Juan’s insecurities grow along with his success, and he eventually falls prey to the charms of fickle, high-class seductress Doña Sol (Rita Hayworth). Can Juan regain sight of what’s important and recapture his love of bullfighting before his entire life is destroyed?
As I mentioned before, I don’t know too much about bullfighting, so my favorite parts of Blood and Sand involved the depiction of that particular culture in Spain. (Not too shabby for a Hollywood production featuring mostly white actors sprinkling in random Spanish words into their dialogue to convince us they’re Spaniards.) For example, I wasn’t surprised to hear that bullfighters were among the most celebrated figures in the country. But I was amused to learn that they were analyzed and criticized in newspapers the same way prominent modern athletes are broken down by sports columnists today. (Juan has to have someone else read the reviews to him because he’s illiterate, a major source of his insecurity.)
The film also manages to give credence to both sides of the bullfighting debate. Blood and Sand shows us the grandeur and glory of the arena, while also coldly depicting the way poor people eagerly gathered for a piece of the dead animal afterwards. The dichotomy is probably best represented by the character of Manolo (future Oscar winner Anthony Quinn), who repeatedly threatens to quit this “repulsive business” even as his own star continues to rise.
Manolo’s empty threats are subtler and more emblematic of bullfighting’s role in that culture than the film’s on-the-nose final shot, which brings the film’s title to overly literal life. There’s also an unintentionally funny, melodramatic moment that makes Blood and Sand come off as a PSA for illiteracy.
Tyrone Power — best known for his swashbuckling, romantic leading roles — is an ideal choice to play Juan. Power has the perfect amount of panache when Juan says things like “the cow hasn’t been born yet that can give birth to the bull that can hurt me.” Darnell is sweet and stunning to the point that it’s unbelievable Juan would cheat on Carmen; except, of course, for the fact that Doña Sol happens to look like Rita Hayworth. (Plus, it’s easy to understand the allure an unattainable, upper class woman like Doña Sol has for a poor ignorant guy like Juan.) The performances are mostly solid, even if we have to endure somewhat painful child acting in the film’s opening act.
Director Rouben Mamoulian — who made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Fredric March and previously worked with Power and Darnell in The Mark of Zorro — gives the bullfighting scenes a terrific charge, even though they come few and far between. There’s something inherently exciting and dangerous about seeing a real performer (even when it’s a stuntman rather than Power) tangling with a live animal. (No CGI!) The excitement I felt wasn’t exactly bloodlust —the film isn’t at all graphic when it comes to depicting the end of each encounter — but I certainly have a better understanding of why bullfighting has endured for such a long time.
Blood and Sand is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 35 mpbs. The Technicolor spectacle of Blood and Sand is a terrific match for Fox, which has put out some of the very best looking Blu-rays I’ve reviewed for this site. The overly saturated delights of Technicolor are on display brilliantly here as director Rouben Mamoulian is said to have been inspired by the works of painters like Francisco Goya and El Greco. Indeed, there is color (especially’s Spain’s signature red and yellow) everywhere, from the ostentatious matador costumes to the rich set design.
Panoramic shots look particularly sharp, making some of the medium shots look a bit soft by comparison. (Some of that softness, we’re told on the commentary track, was intentional, including a scene meant to make Hayworth stand out in a crowd.) In addition to the colors, there’s a tremendous amount of detail in the texture of the costumes and a solid separation of blacks, which is important because Mamoulian aggressively uses shadows in many indoor scenes.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track is somewhat of an unavoidable bummer. Blood and Sound was filmed with a mono soundtrack, meaning that any 2013 sound system doesn’t get the chance to fully immerse us in the gladiatorial spectacle of the bullfighting sequences. Additionally, dialogue comes through very well, but is inevitably tinny and hollow at times. On the other hand, hissing and other problems associated with older tracks are not an issue here. On top of that, the Spanish guitar-heavy score is properly bombastic. Overall, a reasonably strong offering considering the mono track’s inherent limitations.
Commentary by cinematographer Richard Crudo: Blood and Sand won the Oscar for Best Cinematography (Color), and Crudo was the president of the American Society of Cinematographers between 2003 and 2006. Not surprisingly, this track mostly covers the technical aspects of filmmaking, with Crudo discussing the challenges of the Technicolor process and pointing out the tricks directors and cinematographers use to achieve certain shots. This is a must-listen for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, but skippable if you wanted to learn more about the story behind this particular movie.
Blood and Sand was also the subtitle of the first season of Starz’s Spartacus series. This film is obviously nowhere near as graphic as the show, but it still manages to convey its point about the fickleness of bloodthirsty crowds.
Fortunately, a film like this — with its bold colors and intricate art direction — also exists to look great on Blu-ray, and Fox absolutely delivers on that front. The 125-minute running time could have probably been trimmed by about 10 or 15 minutes (though I wouldn’t touch a second of the sensual paso doble dance between Hayworth and Quinn). Give this one a look if you’re in the mood for a solid, old Hollywood film brought to dazzling life.