Bullfighting has never appealed to me, so I approached Fred Niblo’s Blood and Sand with caution. Now that I’ve seen it, I am relieved that there was no actual footage of this hideous blood sport. Niblo’s film version of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s novel and Tom Cushing’s play offers more reference to the practice than any actual details.
Rudolph Valentino dominates the story, adapted by screenwriter June Mathis, who the previous year had penned the screen adaptation of another Blasco Ibáñez novel, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – the film that turned Valentino into a major star.
In Blood and Sand, Valentino plays Juan Gallardo, a young man destined to become one of Spain’s greatest Matadors. After he finds fame in the bull ring, Gallardo marries his sweetheart, Carmen (Lila Lee). He seems to be on the road to happiness.
At home, Gallardo supports his mother (Rosa Rosanova), sister Encarnacion (Rosita Marstini), brother-in-law Antonio (Leo White), and their assorted children. At first, the family ridicules Gallardo for wanting to be a bullfighter, but when he becomes successful they bask in his glow.
Blood and Sand is told via layers of symbolism. For instance, the outlaw and bandit Plumitas (Walter Long) works as an analogy to Gallardo: one is a killer of men, the other is a killer of animals. Also, although Gallardo is all-powerful when up against a 1,000-pound raging bull, he is helpless under the spell of a wicked woman, the infamous Dona Sol (Nita Naldi). What is implied is that an evil woman’s love can be as deadly as a savage beast.
And just in case you don’t get the analogies, Blood and Sand features a character named Don Joselito (Charles Belcher), who happens to be a philosopher of sorts. Don Joselito serves as a kind of “Greek chorus,” commenting on the action by writing pithy intertitles in his journal, such as:
“Woman was made to bring men happiness, but they only bring destruction.”
Many of us may disagree with him – until we see Dona Sol in action. Nita Naldi is remarkably good at playing bad. As in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments the following year, and again with Valentino in the 1925 melodrama Cobra, Naldi is the silent-era’s exotic vamp par excellence, a direct descendant of Theda Bara in A Fool There Was.
In fact, I found her Dona Sol appalling even though she gets to wear fabulous gowns with long, sweeping trains while walking around her gaudy villa, always carrying peacock feathers wherever she goes. But her elegance notwithstanding, Dona Sol is pure evil. Gallardo, for one, likens her to a venomous snake; in one scene she even bites him on the hand.
Yet, despite Nita Naldi’s effectiveness, Rudolph Valentino is the real star of Blood and Sand, creating a remarkable portrayal of a complex, multi-layered character. In one early scene, for instance, his friend Chiripa (Antonio Flores) is gored by the bull and dies in Gallardo’s arms; Gallardo cradles the dying man and kisses him tenderly on the cheek. Later, when he relates this story to his mother, we can see the look of pain and suffering on his face.
Which brings me to Valentino’s appeal. He is able to show attributes not usually associated with male stars, such as sorrow, shame, and even weakness. I was quite impressed by Gallardo’s look when he desperately tries – but ultimately fails – to repel Dona Sol’s advances. Rudolph Valentino suffered for love more than Greta Garbo!
It is the treacherous Dona Sol who is the source of his agony. She feels his muscles, puts his hand on her breast, and dares him to beat her. However, after she seduces Gallardo away from his virginal-looking wife, she casts him aside. When his wife and his mother catch him housing the evil temptress for the night, Gallardo’s life begins to unravel. But he has one last bull to fight.
Gallardo should have listened to his friend, Nacional (George Field), who tells him:
“Impure love is like a flame. When it is burned out, there is nothing left but the blackened embers of disgust and regret.”
I could not have said it better.
In the end, all these various metaphors come together: each in their own way, Plumitas and Dona Sol are killers of men. Gallardo is the killer of bulls. And as the omniscient philosopher Don Joselito says:
“Out there is the real beast – a beast with 10,000 heads.”
Meaning the audience, I suppose.
Thanks to Fred Niblo’s reliable direction, the Blood and Sand cast was allowed to come alive in their parts. Now, I have read comments remarking that the bullfighting scenes were not realistic enough; that in fact they were just mismatched shots intercut with stock footage. However true, this I did not mind. I didn’t need to see this cruel “sport” portrayed graphically as I would rather be watching Rudy.
And as mentioned above, Valentino does not disappoint; well, except in the way he was made up by Monte Westmore: Gallardo’s hair was styled in a ridiculous wave and his eyebrows are knitted together to make him look almost sinister. Although this isn’t the way I like to see Valentino, I was enthralled by his performance.
As an added Blood and Sand attraction, Alvin Wyckoff’s cinematography is crisp and clear, and in the Kino International edition of the film we are treated to an excellent, beautifully tinted print. And finally, the Kino DVD offers an appropriate musical score by the Mont Alto Orchestra.
© Danny Fortune
Blood and Sand (1922). Director: Fred Niblo. Cast: Rudolph Valentino, Lila Lee, Nita Naldi, Rosa Rosanova, Walter Long, Charles Belcher, Leo White, Rosita Marstini. Screenplay: June Mathis; from Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s novel, and Tom Cushing’s play.