Blood and Sand is one of several big-budget Hollywood Technicolor extravaganza’s that took elegance and opulence to the next level. The overabundance of opulence tends to make up for the dull story, but there’s something about the aesthetics of the film and the gorgeous cast assembled that creates a worthwhile experience. The story of an Icarus-like bullfighter who gets too close to bulls and too big for his toreador pants, can be a slog at times, but the gorgeous color palette, sumptuous sets, and glittering A-list cast helps Blood and Sand create added benefits.
Juan Gallardo (Tyrone Power) has wanted to be a famous bullfighter, like his father, since birth. He eventually gets his chance and spends his time working on his technique to impress a belittling critic (Laird Cregar). When Juan eventually becomes a world-famous matador his problems only increase with the appearance of Dona Sol (Rita Hayworth), a wealthy socialite who puts Juan at odds with his wife, Carmen (Linda Darnell).
The 1940s certainly enjoyed the sprawling canvas on which to place beautiful actors, and Blood and Sand is the perfect embodiment. The sets and locations are vast and endless, yet the bull rings themselves are isolated and claustrophobic, especially when a man is placed within. Dust hangs on every surface like a second skin and the simple act of moving something unearths a light mist. The arrival of the film on Blu-ray enhances small qualities like this, and the grit and hardship hangs like a pallor. Contrarily, once Juan becomes famous, everything seems to glitter, from his costumes to the rich houses where Dona Sol and his wife live. The full-bodied crimsons and glittering yellows of the costumes are perfection and I was surprised costuming didn’t win an Oscar (it won for cinematography which it readily deserved). The fabrics and poses of characters at certain times look almost painterly; the ones with Power, in particular, appear as if they should be hanging on a wall.
The actual story is mundane only because it’s a typical “fame goes to your head and destroys your life” type of tale. From the opening when a young Juan (played by the annoyingly petulant Rex Downing) vows to destroy a Miura bull – the bull that killed his father – his path is pre-destined: The Gallardo men have been killing Miura bulls for generations. With the plot telegraphed that far in advance, it’s a slow unfurling to Juan’s ultimate fate. There is a brief coming-of-age sequence where Juan and his friends leave the sleepy little town in order to come back successful men. Success must be easy to obtain because we immediately cut to Tyrone Power reaping the benefits, or at least being a matador; all that build up and there’s no real struggle presented. As it was with all Spanish-set films of the time, you have actors in brown face, with Laird Cregar getting the darkest tan of the group (although the film does include real-life Mexican citizen Anthony Quinn as a rival matador). The script also appears to exclusively know Spanish for Dummies as Spanish words are placed haphazardly within speech, and only the most blatant (there’s a few “muchachos” and “Dios Mios,” all spoken phonetically). And if you’re hoping someone at least has a Spanish accent…you’d be very wrong.
With a cast front-loaded with so many stars of the time, they all put their best foot forward. Tyrone Power has matador good looks, but the arrogance of the character becomes too much, especially when the script has him move from beat to beat masked as character development. Power isn’t a letdown, it’s the character and script that let him down, especially when the latter gives Juan overwrought vows to declare: “Someday I’ll make that Curro eat his words;” “The gore of hunger is worse than the horns of a bull.” The women fare a bit better, but they’re literally stuck in the Madonna/whore paradigm. Linda Darnell was last on the blog in the role of the tempestuous prostitute Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine; the role of Carmen Espinosa is about as far from Chihuahua as it gets. Darnell is beautiful, and while there’s just as little depth to her character as to Power’s, she handles it well. Rita Hayworth chews and commands the scenery as the villainous Dona Sol. The woman is kind of androgynous, craving the idea that “If I were a man, I’d try bullfighting.” You understand that her ability is stronger than most women in the town, but she’s stuck conforming to the role laid down by her gender.
Since we have the Madonna as evinced by Darnell, Hayworth has to be the Satanic influence (she doesn’t have red hair for nothing). Dona Sol has no contrition in her persona, and openly makes out with Juan in front of Carmen. When Anthony Quinn’s Manolo arrives on the scene and steals Dona Sol from Juan, you’re supposed to see it as Dona being an evil woman (she was known to cast her toys away when she was done with them), but since Juan is just as responsible and even more arrogant I was left cold to his plight. Oh, and don’t forget Laird Cregar as the critic Curro. His suave, cultivated persona is perfect here, and he’s the one actor who can recite the affected dialogue flawlessly: “If this is death in the afternoon, she is death in the evening.”
The rest of the movie is easily understood. Man’s arrogance overcomes him, he loses what he holds dear, and pays with his life. The acting is what saves Blood and Sand from becoming a kitchen sink melodrama. The sprawl of the movie extends out to the over two-hour runtime of the movie which can become tedious.
20th Century Fox has presented a lovely transfer of their classic film Blu-rays (they recently released Niagara and Bus Stop on Blu and they look fantastic). The transfer is sharp and crisp, and these Technicolor pieces are why Blu-ray players were invented. The only bonus feature is audio commentary with cinematographer Richard Crudo. He was the head of the American Society of Cinematographers and he has some remarkable insights about the lighting and shot compositions created in the movie. I’m not usually interested in such technical material, but it’s fascinating to hear a man who understands these things discuss cinematography techniques with such vigor. If you’re interested in learning more in the cinematography department give it a listen.
Overall, Blood and Sand is a limp melodrama held together by a handful of well-done performances. From an aesthetic standpoint, the colors, cinematography, and overall presentation is astounding and worth watching on a Blu-ray player. If you’re a fan of the stars, or want to watch another well-done Blu-ray presentation from 20th Century Fox, Blood and Sand is a must.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.