Sunday, 16 January 2022

Blood and Sand (1922), Daan van den Hurk and Tijn van der Sanden, Nederland’s Silent Film Festival

To the Spaniard, the love of the bullfight is inborn. A heritage of barbarism – its heroes embody the bravery of the knights of old…


Enter Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella for the opening screening of this year’s Nederland’s Silent Film Festival, playing a bullfighter and a Latin lover with a sexuality as exotic in his own way as Pola Negri (don’t mention the funeral) and other Europeans deployed by Hollywood to break boundaries and post-Victorian taboo. Valentino’s Juan Gallardo is driven by desire in life and love, and whilst being a masculine ideal is also at the mercy of his passions when torn between his true love Carmen the wanton Doña Sol, a spoilt, rich man-killing vamp who dominates and discards at will.


Blood and Sand leaves you emotionally rung with its derivative charm, wearing its Bizet firmly on its embroidered sleeve, elevated by superb performances and, as we now know, Dorothy Arzner’s innovative editing making us feel the heat of the bullfight even when matador, the bull and “the beast with ten thousand heads” are thousands of miles apart. As festival director, Daan van den Hurk said, no bulls were harmed in the making of this film, but it seems so purely because Arzner’s editing of stock bullfighting footage and Fred Niblo’s shots is seamless. The frenzy and the threat feel real as Juan takes on man and beast in a “sport” the film clearly disapproves of.


Daan was also multi-tasking, providing stirring accompaniment with the assistance of flamenco guitarist Tijn van der Sanden whose fleet fingered flourishes added diegetic immediacy to the film as well as dramatic flavouring. I loved the way the two worked together and it sounded fantastic on my new speakers, not as good as live but hopefully one day we’ll all be in the same room.


Meet the family

June Mathis wrote the screenplay based on Thomas Cushing’s smash hit play, which was itself formed from Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’ novel, Blood and Sand. It tells the tale of a poor boy from Seville, Juan (Valentino), “a son of the people” whose natural bravery enables him to become a toreador. His humble beginnings are set out complete with wise and loving mother Angustias (Rose Rosanova), sister Encarnacion (Rosita Marstini) and comedy brother-in-law Antonio (Leo White). Despite being called Zapaterin, Little Shoemaker, Juan has no interest in learning his father’s trade and dodges working with Antonio, a saddle maker, in order to go play at bullfighting.


Juan and friends head off to Andalucia where the locals enjoyed watching the amateurs from Seville. Juan does well but one of his friends is not so lucky with a watching bandit, Plumitas (Walter Long), accompanied by a title card noting that bandits and bullfighters both “risk life to gain a livelihood.” Juan avenges his friend’s demise and is not discouraged, dreaming of building his mother a fine house when and if he succeeds.


Naturally Juan gets talent spotted and ends up impressing the crowd mightily on his debut including his childhood sweetheart Carmen (Lila Lee) and the two grow close as his career advances and marry.


He searched deep into men’s hearts, ever willing to excuse weakness and, in a master ledger, recorded the lives of those who interested him.

And he can dance...

Throughout proceedings, a local philosopher keeps popping up, almost at random… Don Joselito (Charles Belcher) “a student of humanity” who will act as a guide to the morality of events passing comment and offering advice… ultimately condemning bullfighting. That beast with ten thousand heads… the audience bloodlust driving the barbarism that costs lives.

Gallardo’s success makes him the idol of Seville’s café culture and he gains a manager (Fred Becker) along with a matador, El Nacional (George Field) who “fought for living and not for glory” as well as a popular picador, Potaje (Jack Winn) and old Carabato (Gilbert Clayton) who served Juan “in order to cling to the arena and retain his pigtail” – worn by the fraternity. The film may disapprove of the sport, but it takes a delight in the details.


There’s a lovely scene in one of those cafes when we get the chance to see Valentino dance – he had made his way initially in Hollywood by dancing and teaching dance – and you can see his poise on the dance floor alongside and a dancer named Rosa. The women gets just too close though and Juan’s loyalty to Carmen makes him push her onto the floor… it’s a foreshadow of things to come.

Rudolph and Lila Lee

Men were Doña Sol’s hobby. A bullfighter was a new experience.


Time passes and Juan is famous across Spain, and he catches the eye of the daughter of the country’s bull-breeder, Doña Sol, played by the “exotic” Nita Naldi, who was born Mary Nonna Dooley to Irish parents in New York…  Juan’s reaction to this new attention is primal, and he willingly accepts her gift of a ring given by Cleopatra to Ceasar… he’s flattered but still loyal to his wife, but Doña Sol is not easily dissuaded.


The two begin an affair, with Doña Sol dragging out the dark aggression in the man, a strange sadomasochistic edge to his fifty shades of betrayal. He doesn’t feel comfortable in her world of refined hypocrisy and artificial emotions, but he can’t resist the animal games she makes him play.


A page from Don Joselito’s book reads: Juan Gallardo has reached his goal. Will success spoil him or will his love for little Carmen overcome the plaudits of the populace and the cruelty of the national sport?


Which sets up the finale perfectly!

Rudolph and Nita Naldi

Blood and Sand has Glamour and Alvin Wyckoff’s cinematography captures some lovely atmospheres, Juan’s wooing of Carmen, the mock action in the stadia and the streets supposedly in Seville. Valentino has the star power and is able to convey humour as well as sexuality, he doesn’t take himself too seriously – an attractive feature for most of those watching – but he is passionate beyond reason when push comes to shove. Here his masculinity is used against him by the vamping Naldi… who else could carry this all off and still remain heroic?


The version screened was from a Lobster print of the David Killiam restoration which is shorter than the recent version released by Kino on Blu-ray. This has the tinting restored and comes in at over 25 minutes longer with a smashing score played by the Monte Alto Orchestra and a booklet including an essay from noted Valentino expert Donna Hill. Well worth purchasing if you haven’t got it!


And remember, as Don Joselito says, Happiness and prosperity built on cruelty and bloodshed cannot survive.




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