On 24 May 1972, The AVCO Center triplex theatre opened on Wiltshire Boulevard, Los Angeles. On two of the screens were the Paramount product the venue had secured a deal to distribute – the Woody Allen vehicle Play It Again Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) and The Possession of Joel Delaney (Waris Hussein, 1972), both enjoying nationwide premiere presentations. On the third was a film AVCO held through the Embassy film distribution arm it had recently acquired. Budd Boetticher’s documentary Arruza (1972) had been picked up by the company and, after a successful Mexican release the previous year, the AVCO Center opening was its tentative steps towards a US release.
Both Paramount releases would go on to enjoy relatively successful runs at the AVCO (Play it Again Sam alone would gross $44,000 in its opening week). In contrast, Arruza was yanked after nine days with a total gross of $5,800.1 A similarly poor response greeted the film in New York in August. And other than a few playdates in areas with large Hispanic populations and festival inclusions, Boetticher’s film was rarely seen again.
Whilst ignominious, the Embassy’s abandoning of Arruza was perhaps a destined culmination of a passion project that began in 1954 when Boetticher first announced his intention to make a documentary on the life of his friend, bullfighter Carlos Arruza. After the success of The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) the director devoted himself to what was now an obsession, financing the film himself and relocating to Mexico. In the seven years spent making Arruza (although only released in the United States in 1972 it had been completed in 1968) Boetticher would lose his marriage, be bankrupted, imprisoned and would spend time in a sanatorium after suffering a nervous breakdown. Then, with filming close to completion, Carlos Arruza himself would be killed in a car accident.
When finally released, Arruza was met with critical interest but public apathy. Boetticher’s narrative features devoted to bullfighting had been popular in the 1950s, but this re-emergence was into a society and culture that had changed dramatically in the years he had spent in Mexico. The valorisation of a blood sport was unlikely to be celebrated in the progressive 1970s. Arruza was a film made too late and although not lacking in merit (or interest), one wonders whether the finished product is worth the work the director may have completed had he remained in Hollywood.
Running for only 74 minutes Arruza feels an incomplete patchwork and not the film that Boetticher planned. Yet, discard the extraordinary bad luck that plagued the production and with it excise the film that takes place outside of the ring and, for a gloriously short period we are left with the distilled essence of the Boetticher vision: the final standoff in which the winner must combine their courage and skill with style, grace and panache.
Arruza is not a conventional documentary, rather its focus is on the matador’s return to the bullring in 1966 at age forty-six after thirteen years of retirement. Unable to settle into life on a ranch raising fighting bulls, Arruza’s comeback is as a rejoneo – atop a horse, dismounting only for the bull’s final passes and to administer the coup de grâce. Training himself in the style, he sees it as an opportunity to both quench his desire to return to the ring and also as a means of promoting his business of producing fighting bulls. After some preliminary bouts Arruza’s return to the country’s premier venue Plaza Mexico in front of a capacity crowd is a triumph, concluding the film.
But the experience of viewing Arruza will be determined by one’s position on the practice of bullfighting. It is possible to enjoy the director’s earlier narrative features on the subject – Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) and The Magnificent Matador (1955) – blessed with the knowledge that “no animals were harmed in the production of this motion picture” (or at least we would like to think) as the killing of the unfortunate beast is relayed through a cutaway close-up to the expressions on the face of the matador (be it Robert Stack or Anthony Quinn) and the soundtrack’s roar of the crowd. Traditional Hollywood examples of the subgenre had spared the viewer of the sport’s inconvenient truth, romanticising the machismo and bravery of the matador, a fetishisation that was shared by the literature of Hemingway and the tabloid dalliances of Sinatra and Gardner. That bulls were slaughtered in a prolonged ritual of sadistic violence was discreetly bypassed in the exotic depictions of the practice in film, literature and music (Herb Alpert, anyone?). Boetticher’s ambition was to eschew such Hollywood fakery and present the bullfight in its reality. For many committed filmmakers this could have presented the opportunity for agitprop – to present the truth of bullfighting to an ignorant North American public, revealing the practice’s horrific necessity. Yet for Boetticher this is not the case; for him, the sight of a delirious bull suffering the wounds of the banderillas plunged into the nape of his neck, salivating with pain and exhaustion, attempting a few final half-hearted lunges at the matador before being put out of its misery is a vision of artistry and beauty.
Now for full disclosure: I admit to detesting bullfighting and was repulsed by Arruza’s many moments of hapless bulls and the indignity of their exploitation. And no, I cannot countenance the bullshit of the bulls being treated with respect and applauded for their bravery. However, although I had to resist averting my eyes, Arruza’s bullfighting sequences do capture some remarkable moments of animal and man together in the ring. Boetticher presents almost all of the bullfighting sequences in a two-shot medium, isolating the bullfighter and the bull together. These sequences are the dynamic that Boetticher reduces to the narrative to toro para el hombre. The director’s most feted films are his Ranown cycle for producer Harry Joe Brown and leading man Randolph Scott (with the best of the series from screenplays by Burt Kennedy). These films (all westerns) were predicated upon a narrative that existed to formulate a final standoff between hero and villain (with the hero emerging triumphant). Yet, although the moral demarcations between the two are clearly presented (we know who to root for) these are no Manichean melodramas. Instead, the villains are presented with backstories and portrayed with charisma thus inviting a degree of – if not sympathy – then at least guarded care from the audience.
In Arruza the backstory of the protagonist is reduced to a few narrated platitudes with the expectation that the viewer is aware of his history and significance in the sport.2 Thus, stripped of his history – although it is ingrained within the adulation of the live spectators – Carlos Arruza is depicted as at one with the beast and although for the Plaza Mexico sequence in which the director placed ten cameras, there is not a single close-up of either Aruzza or the bull. Emotions are kept hidden and disguised by action, delivering an experience akin to those that purchased tickets for the event, privileging the film viewer with no more insight than the eye-witness. For Boetticher it is the gaze of the medium shot that captures the essence of the bullfight – toro y torero, brute force, instinct and anger pitted against patience, strategy and grace. For to simply defeat the bull is to defeat the purpose: the fight must be conducted via the rules of centuries-old tradition and, to be remembered as among the greats of the sport, the bullfighter must win with a display of style. It is here that the viewer can appreciate why Arruza was held in such esteem. Whether mounted atop his prancing horse or on foot enticing the bull and dropping to one knee as it passes through his cape, waved like an ornamental fan. Although the film offers little explanation of the rules and traditions, the roars of appreciation for the forty-six year old Arruza are evidence of his adherence to the practice and the panache and grace of his physicality and routine is apparent, even to those with no interest in the sport.
The bullfighting sequences are Arruza’s highlights and one is left with the impression that Boetticher would have preferred to have had these comprise the entire film. However, although now free of the studio system, he was still bound by the conventions of the traditional Hollywood narrative form, demanding cause for the effect. Thus the earlier sections of Arruza are spent following the matador in his initial retirement: wealthy, famous and bored. The last of these qualities is one possibly shared by the viewer due to the director’s insistence on never allowing his subject to speak on camera. 3 Instead, it is the omniscient narration of Anthony Quinn that relays Carlos Arruza’s feelings and thoughts. That Quinn (speaking in a slightly paternalistic tone in English peppered with unexplained Spanish colloquialisms) had previously played a bullfighter for Boetticher in The Magnificent Matador (1955) drapes Arruza with the Hollywood fakery the director was attempting to avoid. It also causes a stodginess to the story-telling with the image appearing to be heavy-handedly edited to suit the narration. For example, we observe Arruza gazing over his impressive ranch. The narration accompanies the image:
“But as the months snailed past the everyday routine of Pastejé became a bore. And boredom was a new and puzzling experience to Carlos Arruza.”
With the second spoken sentence the film cuts to a close-up of Arruza with his hand on his chin looking, well, bored. Similar moments occur when the narration states that Arruza’s wife is concerned about her husband’s return to the ring in which we are provided with a cut to Maria Carmen Arruza grimacing with concern. In this regard the film bears unfortunate similarity to ethnographic presentations of an earlier period in which protagonists were rendered voiceless and were instead spoken for by an authoritative, suitably accented narrator. In the 1950s and 1960s such a technique was commonplace in Cinerama spectacles Mediterranean Holiday (Hermann Leitner, Rudolf Nussgruber, 1962) and Russian Adventure (Roman Karmen, Boris Dolin, Vasily Katanyan, Solomon Kogan, Oleg Lebedev, Leonid Kristi, 1966) that were narrated, respectively by Burl Ives and Bing Crosby. However, in its small screen ratio and its narration’s occasional folksy tone Quinn’s voice over reminded me of the work of Rex Allen on a number of Disney animal documentaries of the same period such as Charlie the Lonesome Cougar (Winston Hibler, 1967). Thankfully Quinn does not attempt to explain to the viewer what the bulls are thinking and feeling.
However, as unfortunate as the Quinn-splaining may be, it is impossible to ascertain how considered a directorial choice this approach was. For it was only months after shooting the concluding Plaza Mexico sequence that Carlos Arruza died tragically leaving several intended sequences unfilmed. Having run out of production funds the director agreed to financing from fellow filmmaker John Sturges who recut the film and added the Quinn narration. It is unfortunate that George Crone, who edited bullfighting sequences with precision and rhythm died only shortly after Carlos Arruza, before he had a chance to assemble the earlier scenes into a coherent narrative.
It remains one of the great ‘what if?’ questions of Hollywood history: What if Budd Boetticher had abandoned his Arruza plans and remained in in the industry? Could he have moved from programmers to A-material (following a similar career path to Robert Aldich)? How would he have transitioned to New Hollywood and how would his westerns have evolved with the times? Could he have potentially enjoyed a career resurgence like that of John Huston and still have been directing into the 1980s? We will never know. Arruza exhausted Boetticher into retirement and the easier life of raising horses in the countryside. Unlike his idol there would be no triumphant return to the screen. In the tragedy of the blood and asphalt that took Carlos’ life, the director’s vision for the film and his passion for cinema was taken.
- “L.A. Soars; ‘Stanley’ Sizzling 160g In 18 sites, ‘Charley’ Brawny 109g, ‘Skyjacked’ Tall $87,000, ‘Ark’ 45g,” Variety, 31 May 1972, p.14. ↩
- This may have been the case in 1972, but I would suggest that neophytes visit Wikipedia or the like for context ↩
- The only exception is in the ring where we can hear his “Hey-Ho” summons to the bull, thus reinforcing the unique relationship between fighter and bull ↩