“Happiness and prosperity built on cruelty and bloodshed cannot survive.”
Rudolf Valentino stars as the toreador Juan Gallardo in the 1922 silent film Blood and Sand. As the son of an impoverished widow, Juan is considered a wastrel for his attraction to bullfights, and no one in his family takes his interest seriously. But when Juan is catapulted to fame for his bullfighting skills, his family–particularly his brother-in-law–become hangers-on in Juan’s growing entourage. Soon Juan, a simple Andalusian peasant, has the equivalent of a management team accompanying him to all the fights.
Juan marries the sweet and good Carmen (Lila Lee) who stays at home and prays for his safe return from the bullring. Juan’s fame spreads and he eventually becomes the greatest toreador in Spain. Decadent, devious evil vamp Dona Sol (Nita Naldi) sets out to seduce Juan and add him to her list of conquests.
While the film directed by Fred Niblo seems essentially simple–good vs. evil, a man derailed by his own fame and fortune, etc., the film is actually rather complex and powerful. Juan is seen as a victim of a rapacious society that demands entertainment through a horrendous, senseless blood sport–bullfighting. In one fascinating scene, Juan meets the infamous bandit Plumitas (Walter Long) face-to-face. Plumitas has charted Juan’s mercurial rise to fame with great interest and sees parallels in their different careers. Plumitas remarks that they are both poor men who have to face death for a living–but whereas Juan’s death will be greeted with pomp, ceremony and mourning, the state will delight at the bandit’s ignoble death. Plumitas obviously grasps and visualizes the inevitable brutal end of his bloody career, but Juan is troubled by the comparison.
A philosopher, Don Joselito, who collects torture devices to “remind himself of man’s inhumanity to man” acts as a narrator and moralist throughout the film. He too apparently studies Juan’s career and also recognizes its inevitable conclusion.
Valentino does an excellent job as the Andalusian peasant who gets in over his head and is finally corrupted by a wicked woman. It’s a sign of how absorbing a silent film is when dialogue isn’t missed, and with its haunting score, Blood and Sand is a must-see. The Alpha DVD quality is acceptable. The words on the screen faded in and out (but could still be seen) in a couple of spots, and the picture was a bit scratchy. Warning: The film contains actual footage of bullfights, but these scenes are fairly short.