Sunday, September 13, 2020

Blood and Sand (USA, 1922)

This film was based on the 1909 Spanish novel Sangre y arena (Blood and Sand) by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and the play version of the book by Thomas Cushing. It was produced by Paramount Pictures. Rudolph Valentino was already a heartthrob and very popular among the audiences after the hits of The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in 1921. The latter film was also an adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s book. 

Rudolph Valentino played the role of Juan Gallardo, a bullfighter born in a poor family in a village located in Seville, Spain. He was a relaxed and charismatic lad who enjoyed a life of adventure. His mother was a widow who worried about the safety of Juan due to the fact he played at bullfighting. Juan Gallardo was considered a good-for-nothing son due to his failure to work at his father’s trade and his family strongly disapproved of his lifestyle.

After two years, Juan Gallardo became the idol of the entire Spain, being known even in Madrid. He had many fans who gathered themselves only to see him. It was also clear that he was already a quite wealthy man at this point. 

Then his luck changed and, as it was said in one of the intertitles: “The news of the “Little Shoemaker’s” prowess spread through Seville, attracting the wealthy patrons of the national sport”. His bravery in the arena became a sensation among the local population, which catapulted him into fame. Even Juan’s brother in law, who could not stand him and did not believe his capabilities, started to act in a friendly way towards Juan after he became famous. 

However, success can sometimes spoil people and bring them temptations that are hard to resist. Juan became the idol of the Seville cafés and ended up living a bohemian life around many women and drinking heavily. That was the beginning of Juan Gallardo losing his focus in life.

At his point, Gallardo had already married the beautiful and virtuous Carmen,  “the playmate of his childhood”. Then the sensuous and wealthy Doña Sol (played by actress Nita Naldi) enters Gallardo’s life. She was the niece of the Marquis of Moraima, “breeder of the finest bulls in Spain” and widow of an ambassador and quite popular among kings and diplomats of Europe for her beauty. At first Gallardo tried to resist to Doña Sol’s interest in him, but they ended up having an affair, which would jeopardize Gallardo both socially and professionally while Carmen knew about the affair through the newspapers. And she suffered as the virtuous woman she was. In silence, always devoted, without complaints. At the same timed Gallardo’s friends have noticed that he changed and seemed out of focus and worried.

Once more we see in a silent film a woman being portrayed as a “vamp”, the woman who represented temptation and could ruin lives of honest men with her seducing powers. This includes the famous mention to sadomasochism, which was rather daring for the era and Doña Sol being called “serpent from hell” in one of intertitles when Gallardo was divided between the love-hate feelings and he could no longer have control over his own emotions.

Knowing that Gallardo was trying to drift away from her, Doña Sol followed him to his home village. She was not being used to be rejected and she brought many problems to Gallardo by imposing her presence and tension reached the point when Doña Sol told about her affair with Gallardo to his wife and mother, which had apparently destroyed his marriage. It was the beginning of the end of Gallardo’s peace even within his own household.

Gallardo got more and more depressed and it reflected on his performance in the arena. He was no longer as careful with his well being as before and he became “the gossip of Spain”. A good bullfighter needed to be concentrated all the time due to the danger of his profession and this was definitely a bad sign. One day Gallardo received a letter from Carmen asking him to give up the arena, but it was his profession, he had no savings and if he quit bullfighting at that point he would certainly return to poverty. Carmen sensed that Gallardo was in danger and it would turn out to be a prophecy. This only showed that the connection between Gallardo and Carmen was so pure, so deep that they could communicate with each other even without words. Something so different from his connection with Doña Sol, which have never been beyond physical attraction deprived of further feelings.

Another bullfighting, Doña Sol was in the audience, Gallardo was distressed and quiet, there was tension in the air. Other bullfighters and even audience members noticed that Gallardo was more reckless than ever. And right in the middle of the audience the village’s bandit was shot, he mentioned Gallardo and passed away immediately. At the same time, Gallardo had a feeling of terror, did not know what to do and lost confidence. He was hit by a bull, fell down and was removed from the arena. Doña Sol did not even notice what was going on amid her own selfishness and superficiality. She was directly told that Gallardo was dying but did not care and did not even care to leave the audience and see Gallardo or comfort his relatives. On the other hand, Carmen was by his side all the time until the end with the devotion that only a virtuous woman could have for her husband. 

A priest was called. In Gallardo’s last moments, he ask for Carmen’s forgiveness and they reconciled.  Gallardo passed away in a very sad circumstance but at least in peace with his sweet wife Carmen, the only woman he has truly ever loved.

The plot has the expected melodrama with occasional overacting (especially by Valentino and Nita Naldi in their most torrid scenes) and some stereotyped representations of other peoples. However, it remains interesting in the sense that it was critical of bullfighting and the rise and downfall of the main character (Gallardo, played by Valentino) gives him a degree of humanity that does not really age easily.  We still can see so often that a poor man’s way up to climb the social ladder is choosing a profession where he will face death and this can have some sad consequences sometimes.