Blood and Sand (1922)
Director: Fred Niblo
Cast: Rosa Rosanova, Rudolph Valentino, Nita Naldi
Synopsis: A toreador’s familial and social life is threatened when he has an affair.
‘A bad peseta always turns up,’ declares Antonio (Leo White), the brother-in-law of Juan Gallardo (Rudolph Valentino) early on in Fred Niblo’s adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s novel Blood and Sand. Juan is a bit of a lad, but he has a passion for bull-fighting. It’s a passion of which his mother disapproves and at which that brother-in-law of his – who looks not unlike a long-chinned Groucho Marx – scoffs. But when Gallardo begins earning a decent wedge as a result of his exploits in the bullring, his family soon change their tune and begin to bask in his reflected glory.
Life as an ace bullfighter is one long round of drunken revelry with his mates and glory in the ring for Gallardo, but a dark shadow hangs over Juan’s life, as noted by Don Joselito (Charles Belcher), a local philosopher who sees parallels between the lives of Gallardo and local bandit Plumitas (Walter Long). Quite how Don Joselito comes across such knowledge about the respective men’s lives is something of a mystery to us but mighty convenient for screenwriter June Mathis who uses him as a useful tool for pointing out much of the movie’s symbolism. Anyway, Gallardo’s new fame coincides with the return of childhood friend, Carmen (Lila Lee), who has grown into something of a beauty, and it’s not long before he’s taken her for his wife.
As Gallardo’s careers goes from strength to strength his dissolute lifestyle continues unchecked. He meets and quickly falls for Dona Sol (Nita Naldi), a femme fatale who seems to make a career out of ruining the lives of married men. ‘Woman was created for the happiness of man, but instead she destroyed the tranquillity of the world,’ Don Joselito sagely observes, and it’s not long before she’s hard at work destroying the tranquillity of Gallardo’s marriage.
Blood and Sand provides an insight into the smouldering sexuality that catapulted Valentino to stardom in the early 1920s. He definitely has a presence about him, and is one of those actors the camera adores, while his swarthy good looks are uniquely contemporary. He also gives a decent account of himself in a lead role that calls mostly for an expression of disgruntlement which, given all the privileges Gallardo enjoys, does little to make him the most sympathetic of characters. Lila Lee gives an equally restrained performance in the part of his loving wife, but Nita Naldi is something of a let-down as the femme fatale who proves to be Gallardo’s downfall. Not only is it difficult to see many men falling for the rather chunky Ms Naldi when they’ve got the delectable Lila waiting at home for them, but Naldi’s limited talents lead her to towards the melodramatic in some ways, such as the way she widens her eyes to convey emotion. It’s not a bad performance exactly, but it doesn’t stand up to comparison with those of her co-stars.
Blood and Sand’s story is typically predictable for its era, and its anti-bullfighting stance mostly takes a back seat to Gallardo’s romantic entanglements. It’s only through the character of Plumitas that this position is expressed, when the comparison is made that both he and Gallardo kill for a living, but while the bullfighter is revered, the bandit is hunted. I can’t help thinking that comparison doesn’t really stand up under examination, and its argument is rendered kind of obsolete through the movie’s glorification of Gallardo in the ring. Not that we get to see much bullfighting – mostly just shots of genuine crowds mixed with medium shots of Valentino pointing his spear at off-screen bulls. Overall though, even after ninety years, Blood and Sand still delivers a reasonable level of entertainment.
(Reviewed 20th November 2013)