Blood and Sand (1922)
Happy Silent Movie Day, everyone. Well, this post was originally going to be put up on September 29, “Silent Movie Day,” as part of the blogathon hosted by Silentology. As it happens, the 29th was also “silent moving day” for me – I relocated 250 miles north. For that reason, this post wound up getting delayed until now. Anyway, around here every day is silent movie day!
Rudolph Valentino remains a phenomenon, almost 100 years after his death. He wasn’t the first male film celebrity, but he is one of the first to have spawned a “cult” of fascination that seems to transcend time and space. Some people just fall completely in love with him, his face, his acting, the very idea of Valentino makes some go weak in the knees. This isn’t his “big breakout” movie (that honor belongs to “The Sheik”), but it’s a solid example of the kind of romantic role he was famous for, and very good at. Being set in Spain, it also reinforces the concept of Valentino as a “Latin Lover.” Let’s dive in and see what it holds!
The movie begins with subtitles that seem to harshly condemn bullfighting as a form of “barbarism,” although the film itself is designed to give viewers the voyeuristic thrill of watching this primitive activity. We learn that Valentino plays Juan Gallardo, a young man born in Seville who dreams of becoming a matador, despite his mother’s efforts to apprentice him to a shoemaker. He and his friends take an opportunity to participate in an “amateur” event and one of them is gored, causing Valentino to take revenge upon the bull. Word gets out about his success, and soon he has some gamblers backing him to make a professional debut, decked out in the garb of the toreador.
When he succeeds, he is soon surrounded by scoundrels and hangers-on, including his brother-in-law (played by Leo White), who encourage him to drink and make eyes at ladies who dance in cafes, although he truly loves Carmen (Lila Lee), an innocent girl who has just returned from a strict Catholic boarding school to his neighborhood. He romances her with a serenade in a scene with distinct overtones of the Romeo & Juliet balcony scene, and she expresses her misgivings, but eventually is won over by his sincerity and charm and the wedding takes place. Meanwhile, his career is in full swing and people go to places he is known to frequent just to catch a glimpse of him.
This is intercut with images of an old scholar who lives among skulls and torture devices and speculates about whether Carmen’s love will redeem Juan Gallardo or if he will be corrupted by fame and “the cruelty of the national sport.” Hope for his redemption comes in a scene showing their wedding, a gala event with dancing, toasts, and children running about. The scholar turns up and gives Carmen advice about “guarding” her husband and Juan advice about the fickleness or fame and women. The couple seems deliriously happy, and there are predictions of “little bull-fighters” to come. Nevertheless, the scholar assures his criminal guest that both he and Gallardo shall come to the same end, since happiness built on cruelty cannot survive.
We now see a large bullfight, attended by many prominent people. In one of the boxes is Doña Sol (Nita Naldi), the niece of a wealthy cattle breeder. She takes an especial interest in the handsome young matador, and he returns the favor by dedicating the bull, in part, “to all the beautiful ladies of Spain,” while looking at her. She tosses him a perfumed handkerchief and conceals a ring in it that intrigues him, and he puts it on after the fight is over. When they meet, she tells him it belonged to “an Egyptian Queen who gave it to a Roman for his bravery” (an obvious allusion to Cleopatra). She teases him a bit and encourages him to visit her in Seville.
From here, the movie intercuts the “healthy, normal” home life of Carmen and Juan with his increasing passion for an exotic mistress. We see him playing with his nephews, and in what seems to be a sexual innuendo the intertitle tells us that his “love of children is a constant reproach” to Carmen – suggesting that their love remains unrequited. Doña Sol’s home is appointed like a Sultan’s palace with arches, draperies, and non-representative patterns instead of art. She keeps a man in a turban on a divan – he behaves like a servant but glares like a spurned ex-lover, apparently the man she is throwing over for Juan. When she brings him to “society” parties, she makes a point of humiliating him in front of her wealthy friends, saying he is “like an animal” and parading him in front of their lascivious gazes.
Perceiving his dilemma, Juan’s friends come up with the idea of getting him out of town for a while, but Doña Sol learns of the plan and contrives to meet him in the country. By pretending to have broken down on her way to her uncle’s estate, she gets Gallardo to invite her into his country home, even forcing him to allow her to stay in his wife’s room, with all of the violations of trust that implies. Word gets back to Carmen, by way of her good-for-nothing brother, of this chance encounter. Meanwhile, Plumitas the bandit (Walter Long) also happens by, ostensibly to meet the famous mataador, though possibly in hopes of some plunder as well. Doña Sol comes down for breakfast and shows immediate interest in the ugly, uncouth bandit, to Gallardo’s noticeable discomfort. He compares his life of crime to Juan Gallardo’s career as a bullfighter, then leaves, and Doña Sol teases Gallardo by threatening to get into her perfectly functional car and follow him.
At this point Carmen arrives with her family, having ridden up from Seville to remind Gallardo of his obligations. Doña Sol looks with horror as Carmen enters the kitchen, apparently aware that a power struggle is coming. She decides to instigate it by dropping her purse, forcing Gallardo to pick it up under the hurt and angry stares of, respectively, Carmen and his mother. Doña Sol departs, and his mother spits out a statement that she should beat him, as she had when he was small, before leaving the unhappy couple alone. Carmen says nothing to Gallardo’s attempts to explain himself, and will not even say goodbye when he departs for the ring.
Back in town, Juan drinks heavily and considers a letter from Carmen asking him to quit bullfighting for good. His business manager points out that he has saved nothing and he would return to poverty. Juan stumbles out the door to prepare for the next day’s fight. Carmen and the scholar show up outside the arena and Leo White offers to find Juan while Carmen prays in a nearby chapel. Juan dedicates his next bull to the bandit Plumitas, and fights recklessly. The police spot Plumitas and gun him down, despite endangering the crowd at the arena. At the moment he expires, the bull charges and gores Juan Gallardo. The reactions of the women are contrasted as Doña Sol adjusts her makeup without interest, but Carmen kneels over Juan’s broken body when he is brought into the chapel. He takes off the ring Doña Sol gave him and professes his love for Carmen before dying, and the scholar makes another sanctimonious statement about the barbarism of the crowd.
The bullfighting is handled almost entirely by intercutting close-ups on Valentino with stock footage too distant (and too grainy) to make identification possible. I suspect that Valentino made this whole movie without ever being in a ring with a bull. This is not a criticism – play-acting at bullfighting with a real bull is a dangerous, foolhardy affair, best reserved to professional stunt artists and rodeo clowns. Certain standards of bullfighting movies, such as filming his approach to the stands from above, as if we are sitting in a seat just one or two rows back, would become standard in later cinema.
The first seduction gives Valentino an opportunity to act with his face. He shows his fracturing determination to stay true to his wife with a pained face that seems split, with one eyebrow at a completely odd angle to the other. He seems soft, effeminate, at the times when he tries to resist, offering a quick handshake in place of a kiss, but easily being stopped as he tries to depart. We see this character waver, occasionally seeming to be taken over by a more aggressive persona at times, and when he finally gives in to deliver the kiss, his face is a mask of virility and determination. Emphasizing Valentino’s sex appeal, another scene is staged in which he stands, supposedly nude or partly nude (we see a wife-beater-style top) behind a screen while he prepares to demonstrate a new matador outfit to members of the press. The camera lingers on his manicure, similar to the ways women’s feet have been shown in various “sexy” movies to date. It seems to me that this gender-reversal is an expression of the ambiguity of Valentino’s public persona – itself a big part of his appeal.
Nita Naldi’s performance owes a great deal to Theda Bara, in “A Fool There Was,” which established most of the moves, poses, and looks of the silent-era vamp. Naldi deploys them all, including an apparent craving for pain and domination, as when she says she looks forward to finding out what it feels like to be beaten by Gallardo’s “strong hands.” In fact, she is always the one in control, always the dominant force, and she only uses her apparent throes of passion to gain more power over her lover. Meanwhile, Lila Lee is portrayed as literally untouchable (and apparently untouched), the Madonna to Naldi’s whore. Her makeup and lighting remind me of nothing more than Lillian Gish’s “Eternal Mother” in “Intolerance” – except that she is the eternal virgin bride, never knowing the experience of childbirth or sex.
Overall, this is a solid example of silent cinema in the early twenties, as well as a strong example of the rise of the “Valentino Cult” that still has adherents today. Valentino was always more of a concept than a person, and here that concept is fashioned relative to feminine paradigms, suggestive of gender relations more broadly in the public eye of the time. According to this movie, men were at the mercy of bestial passions, manipulative women, and the fickleness of public approval, and even the love of a “good woman” was no guarantor of redemption. Not necessarily the model of masculinity we are trained to expect, but also not a model of equality and liberation, this idea of men and women was only one of many that silent movie audiences would consume. Douglas Fairbanks fans, or Chaplin fans, or indeed the many fans of silent movie divas might see this as exceptional, even deviant, but it is a part of the story of gender and media in Hollywood.
Director: Fred Niblo
Camera: Alvin Wyckoff
Starring: Rudolph Valentino, Nita Naldi, Lila Lee, Walter Long, Leo White, Charles Belcher
Run Time: 1 hr, 48 min