The standard line on Old Hollywood filmmaking is that it was born out of the American public’s desire to escape into new worlds from the horrors of the Great Depression. Made when the country was recovering (thanks in no small part to the industrial boom of the war effort, which brought in its own set of horrors), Blood and Sand is about as stellar an example of that school of filmmaking as you can find. Its version of turn-of-the-century Spain is an escapist fantasy, but an intoxicating, fully realized one. For long stretches, the movie is content to simply sit back and let us drink that world in. It’s not a musical, but the action sometimes breaks off for folk-music performances that are so beautifully done it’s hard to object. And in one shockingly minimalist scene, the plot goes on the back burner and soundtrack goes silent except for the music of the ranch hands as the young hero runs almost naked across the countryside.
Blood and Sand is a dark Greek tragedy, but it plays out against a brightly colored backdrop that’s never less than gorgeous. Despite that, the visuals never undermine the story. But it doesn’t seem quite right to say they enhance it either. Maybe it’s better to say the narrative and images run parallel to each other, each doing their own thing but each doing it well. A lot of that’s down to the moment it was made. As we saw with the previous year’s The Thief of Bagdad, this was a golden age for color film, before Technicolor ironed out the “bugs” that were actually features, making the colors more realistic but less eye-poppingly gorgeous.
And with Rouben Mamoulian, Blood and Sand had a director who knew how to use those “bugs” to his advantage. He had about as good a pedigree as you could ask for, since he directed the very first Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp, in 1935. There’s stories that he walked around the set with spray guns full of paint in hand so he could fine-tune the colors at a moment’s notice, and that he painted the shadows right onto the set instead of fiddling with the lighting. Mamoulian’s approach paid off. Nearly every other scene has some moment of shocking beauty. The doorway into the bullring glowing white and neon pink in the darkness of the backstage. The lights of the ranch glowing like white gold against the deep blue of the night, fading into rose where they meet. Rita Hayworth all but literally popping off the screen when she enters in her purple dress.
The story’s based on a Spanish novel that had already been adapted as a silent movie with Rudolph Valentino. It has an epic scope to match the images, following Tyrone Power as bullfighter Juan Gallardo (and despite the inconsistent Spanish accents, all the actors relish sinking their teeth into that name) from the cradle to the grave, from his humble beginnings to the height of wealth and fame before he’s humbled all over again. He’s the son of a bullfighter who died in the ring — later, he meets one of his childhood heroes living on the streets, but he never seems to realize that there’s no good end to this career.
He’s introduced as a boy played by Rex Downing, who seems remarkably coordinated with Power in his body language. We see him sneaking out of bed at night and into the tavern, where he casually steals drinks and cigars off patrons’ tables as if he owns the place while Downing’s awkwardness makes it clear he doesn’t. He runs into the local ranch to practice bullfighting before he’s caught. The next day, he and his friends run away to Madrid to become matadors.
We next see them a decade later, and Power gets the cinematic equivalent of a curtain-raising entrance as he reveals his face from behind a newspaper. (We learn in a moment that he can’t actually read, but whatever.) In order to get through the nearly 400-page novel in two hours, Mamoulian has to be creative in his filmmaking, and he elides long passages like this with beautiful efficiency. Powers’ rise to the top is conveyed in a few seconds with a montage of posters that each print his name bigger than the last. And the elliptical filmmaking turns the constraints of the Production Code into advantages. We never see Power kill the bull in his first onscreen fight. But we see an onlooker stab his steak and then his canteen, spilling out blood-red wine. We never see Power consummate his adulterous affair with Rita Hayworth, but we see her throw herself flat on her back in the grass, and that says as much as any more explicit scene ever could. And Mamoulian’s tasteful elisions just make the climax even more shocking, as we get a good long look at the bull violently tossing the matador in the air like a ragdoll.
The characters are well-acted, from John Carradine and Anthony Quinn right on down to Laird Cregar’s wonderfully pompous sportswriter (who the script oddly insists on calling a “critic.”) But they’re still two-dimensional. The story is dramatic, but it’s not over-the-top enough to be camp or opera on the one hand or subtle and realistic enough to embody the psychological depth of Martin Scorsese’s epic revivalism. But there’s still something ineffably compelling about it. The filmmaking isn’t just watchable, it demands you keep watching as it goes from one event to the next, always fatalistically approaching the inevitable conclusion.
There’s other things to recommend it, too. I wouldn’t call Blood and Sand a religious film, but there’s something special in the way it handles its characters’ faith. You don’t see movies like this often. On one side, of course, you have the “faith-based” B-movies that angrily demand you share their beliefs. And the more thoughtful alternatives cinephiles like to recommend, the Silences and First Reformeds of the world, are almost all more interested in exploring doubt than faith. Blood and Sand is something else. It takes its characters’ Spanish Catholicism seriously. There’s no doubt or subtlety here. The scenes in the chapel of a voice emanating from the image of the Virgin Mary, the jewels on its veil sparkling like stars, or the eerie keening in the background as Power prays before the match are literal and matter-of-fact and yet truly otherworldly all at once.
You could say the same about the rest of Blood and Sand. At one level, it’s a ludicrous and luridly colored Hollywood fantasy, an imaginary recreation of another time and place that never really existed. But it makes you believe in it just the same.