In the mid-60s, movie director Budd Boetticher was completing his cinematic masterpiece, Arruza, which would, as it turned out, become the final chapter in the life of one of the world’s greatest tor-eros. The “Mexican Cyclone,” Carlos Arruza, had retired as a matador, then returned to the rings, but in the role of a rejoneador. Boetticher had invested many years and a small fortune in the film, which was almost completed, when disaster struck. Carlos Arruza was killed, May 20, 1966, in an auto accident.
In spite of having invested all of his money, wrecking his marriage to Debra Paget, nearly destroying his health and his career, and ending up in jail and finally, in a Mexican insane asylum, Boetticher still managed to complete Arruza. It attracted international accolades and became a cult film for American aficionados.
This author interviewed Boetticher at the Equestrian Center of San Diego Country Estates, where, prior to his death, he and his wife, Mary, bred and trained rejoneo (Portuguese-style bullfighting) horses.
Tell me about the first bullfight film on which you worked.
“In 1940, I was technical director for Blood and Sand. Producer Rouben Mammoulian was out of his element, making a bullfight picture. He didn’t know anything about it. And, he didn’t make a very good picture. Some call it a classic, but it wasn’t. Tech- nically, it was so wrong.”
Who selected Tyrone Power as the lead?
“The world! He was the number one box office. He was the most beautiful man you ever saw in your life. All Mammoulian wanted to do was make the most beautiful color picture that had ever been made. And, he did. He won the Academy Award for color cinematography. But, I thought, ‘I’ll bet I can make a better picture. I love and understand bullfighting. Now, if I can just learn to direct, I’ll make The Bullfighter and The Lady.’ I suddenly realized that I wanted to be a director, and I became one, four years later, in 1944.”
How about “The Magnificent Matador”? Was it a successful film?
“Yes. It did fairly well at the box office, and it had good reviews. But, of greater importance, that which I wanted the most, it established Anthony Quinn as a genuine star.”
Tell us about ‘Arruza’.
“I wanted to make the definitive picture of bullfighting, at least as far as rejoneo is concerned. With the combination of Carlos Arruza and his beautiful horses, I had the best of Black Beauty and Blood and Sand.”
But, you never made any money out of it.
“Not a penny! Let me tell you what Arruza’ cost me. I was averaging $300,000 a year in Hollywood. Arruza took seven years to film. That’s $2,100,000 that I didn’t make, plus I invested $250,000 of my own money.”
What a shame that Arruza was killed before the film was finished. He never got to see it.
“Ah, but he did! At least, he saw the most important part, that final performance in La Plaza Mexico.
(For that particular section, the nail-biting climax of the film, six camerasincluding one that was installed at ground level, in the middle of the arenarecorded Arruza’s final triumph. The footage is absolutely spectacular.)
“I arranged a private showing, at Churrubusco Studios. Afterward, when the lights came back on, Arruza stood up and said, ‘Budd, that’s better than I am!’”
Bullfighting has certainly changed, in the past two or three decades.
“Unfortunately, what’s happened in this country isn’t good. When I became interested in bullfighting in 1938, it was glamorous. It enhanced your life and your career. Hemingway became an authority, because it was something that he really loved, and because he was Hemingway. It made many new aficion-ados. Today, the animal rights people have said so many absurd things, you know that they’ve done absolutely no studying, at all.”
What’s the biggest problem involved in Americans enjoying bullfighting?
“People who don’t know bullfighting cannot understand how a bullfighter can love a bull. Well, I love horses, but the fighting bull is the most noble animal in the world. The truth is, everything that’s bad about bullfighting is really bad. And, everything that’s good about it is great! As Matador John Fulton put it, ‘an aficionado is someone who knows all about bullfighting, but likes it, anyway.’”
According to reliable sources, Frank Sinatra was taken with Manolete’s story and investigated producing a film about the matador’s life, casting himself in the lead role. Those sources insist that, somewhere, there are photos of “Old Blue Eyes,” in suit of lights and Manolete makeup, complete with the late torero’s deep facial scar.
“He was an aficionado. Ava was a devout enthusiast, as you know. And, that was Frank’s kind of life. It was romantic. He looked great, in those days. If I had directed Frank Sinatra as Manolete, it would have been one hell of a picture.”
(Note: When contacted, a year before his death, Sinatra declined to comment.)
How much influence did Manolete’s death have on American interest in bullfighting?
“It’s hard to tell. Barnaby Conrad’s book was wonderful. But, the Playhouse 90 production, using Jack Palance as Manolete, was a disaster. If they had used Frank Sinatra, they would have had something authentic.”
There’s a movement in Spain to ban bullfighting.
“Oh, for the last forty years, at least, there has been a movement in Spain to ban bullfighting. But, they’re never going to do it. You know, bullfighting is very easy to criticize. You see a bad bullfight and you can’t believe that such things go on. But, if you see a great one, like I did the first time, you’ll go back, as long as you live. I never discuss bullfighting with people, unless they really want to learn something. The anti-bullfight people are as violent as the anti-abortion-choice people.”
Why has there been no truly successful American Matador?
“Well, they’re handicapped, to start with. It’s extremely difficult for an American to be accepted in Tauromaquian society. John Fulton was put through hell. He gave it more than all of the other American toreros, put together. And, he was technically a good bull-fighter. He did everything right. He was extremely, fanatically, brave. I loved John. He was a dear, dear friend of mine. If John couldn’t make it big, no American can.”
How many other yankee toreros have you seen?
“Very few. I saw Sidney Franklin, at the end of his career. He was very brave, very clumsy, and a despicable (bleep!). I saw John Fulton fight, way past his prime. Jeff Ramsey’s sweetheart lived in the same condominium that I did, just before I left to make Arruza. I gave Jeff his first traje corto (informal outfit, worn in bullfight charity festivals). A few years later, I saw him working a young novillo, and he was wonderful. I was delighted. And, he became a very good aficionado práctico (amateur torero). I never saw him fight formally, in suit of lights, but I saw him in the ring, with me, and he knew what he was doing.”
What about your own activities in the ring?
“Had I stuck with it, I think I could have become a successful Matador de Toros. My parents were wealthy, so I wouldn’t have had to scrounge around to get fights. But, these kids, today, who start from scratch, broke, trying to eat and make it as toreros, well it’s almost impossible.”