Juan is the son of a poor widow in Seville. Against his mother's wishes he pursues a career as toreador. He rapidly gains national prominence, and takes his childhood sweetheart Carmen as his bride. He meets the Marquis' daughter Dona Sol, and finds himself in the awkward position of being in love with two women, which threatens the stability of his family and his position in society. He finds interesting parallels in the life of the infamous bandit Plumitas when they eventually meet by chance. Written by
Ed Sutton <email@example.com>
One of the most persistent trends in cinema is the phenomenon of the actor as desirable icon rather than talented performer. This was especially common in the silent era, when appearances were everything, and by far the biggest such icon of that era was Mr Rudolph Valentino. No-one in their right mind would have called Valentino a great actor, but the public flocked to his films, adoring him for his smooth and charmingly exotic good looks, or reviling him for them as far as the heterosexual men in the audience were concerned.
But unlike a rather different screen icon Douglas Fairbanks, whose pictures were as lighthearted as his persona, Valentino's vehicles were often stern and lengthy dramas. Therefore in a picture like Blood and Sand we have something of a mismatch between star and subject matter. Sure, Valentino looks the part of the popular young matador, but he just doesn't have the acting ability to carry a drama. Funnily enough, the haircut he has here, which does not suit him, makes him look like Keanu "Man-o'-Wood" Reeves, which is appropriate since his acting is on a par with Reeves's. Like Reeves, all of Valentino's expressions look strangely vacant, as if his facial muscles were being mechanically operated by some unseen puppet master. It is, in fact, rather unattractive to anyone who has seen much finer acting from performers who are equally as physically beautiful as Valentino.
So taking Rudi out of the equation, what kind of a drama do we have left? The fact that Blood and Sand is adapted from a novel is not an especially good sign considering the time it was made. In this day and age when film versions of novels tend to get lambasted for the cavalier approach to their adaptation, it may come as a surprise that in the silent era most adaptations were not cavalier enough. This version leaves in too much of Ibanez's tedious moralising. There is also the inclusion of the characters of the bandit Plumitas and the philosopher Ruiz, a kind of Greek chorus device that may have worked quite well in the book, but on screen it is just a contrived distraction, slowing down the picture's pace.
Fortunately, the director here is Fred Niblo, a competent and sensitive craftsman of the silent screen. Niblo was a real master of managing pace, and this is the area in which he seems to have exerted most influence over Blood and Sand. He gives the earliest scenes of Gallardo's youth a kind of free-spirited exuberance, with very open sets and lots of background motion. He also treats the star to an attention grabbing entrance, his face appearing from behind a gate as a bull rushes past. In the later scenes of the matador's spiritual fall from grace, proceedings are given a stylised and eerily sensual slowness. Languid, flowing imagery is something of a Niblo trademark and he really gets to indulge it here, with long unbroken takes, curls of smoke and an almost snake-like performance from Nita Naldi. There are some wonderful shots in this section, such as the one where Naldi sits at her harp. The harp on the left and the curtain on the right provide a complementary slanting frame for the lovers' embrace. Like the films of Cecil B. DeMille, there is a paradox in Blood and Sand in that the sexual immorality which it ostensibly condemns is presented the most appealingly to the viewers.
The main aim of Niblo's direction however appears to have been to show off the star, which is fair enough - it's what sold tickets. But sadly Valentino's appeal has not aged well. The result is a rather weedy drama, with a few pretty images, and a handsome man failing to act. None of his supporting players stand out (exception: Walter Lang is rather amusing when he is trying to remember how many men he is killed. And Leo White gets an honourable mention simply because he used to be an amazing comedy actor, and here and there we can still see flashes of his greatness). Valentino no doubt thought of himself as a serious dramatic player, and it appears he used what leverage he had over his own career to get roles like this, but looking back his most satisfying pictures are ones like The Sheikh and The Eagle, where his romantic charms can be enjoyed in an appropriately fairy-tale setting.
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