Ride Lonesome
The Bullfighting Budd Boetticher
feature by Sean Axmaker, 14 December 2001

When Budd Boetticher, the last of the old Hollywood two-fisted directors, died on November 27, 2001, his passing was barely noted. The old-fashioned studio pro with an independent streak, a colorful history, and a filmography largely forgotten by modern critics had been inactive for decades, his last Hollywood credit on the script for the 1970 Two Mules For Sister Sara. Only Todd McCarthy, the chief film critic at Variety and their resident keeper of the film history flame, offered a worthy obituary.

Chalk it up to the short memory of critical hive-mind. His rich cycle of Randolph Scott westerns of the 1950s number among the greatest westerns ever made, but apart from the occasional TV showing (which does great disservice to his two gorgeous CinemaScope productions) those films are rarely seen, and his seminal 1956 film, Seven Men From Now was effectively missing-in-action for decades.

That all seemed to change just a year ago, when Seven Men was rescued from the vaults. For years Batjac, John Wayne’s old shingle which produced the film, hung onto out a single print, so faded it was a wash of pink and red, and sent that nearly unwatchable thing out to festivals and retrospectives. The UCLA Film and Television Archive stepped in a year ago, struck a band new print from Batjac’s vault negative, and reintroduced the picture in the Telluride and New York Film Festivals to great acclaim and deserved accolades. Suddenly retrospectives of his Randolph Scott films (better known as the “Ranown” cycle) were cropping up everywhere as new prints of his Columbia films were struck. After his brief vogue in the auteur driven late 1960s and early 1970s, and his years of being feted in film festivals across Europe and South America in the 1980s, this was his last hurrah -- and just in time. Cancer was killing him. The man whose retirement kept him vigorous through his sixties and seventies, working and training his horses four hours a day, was confined to his home out side Ramona, California. After an appearance in San Francisco in the Spring of 2001, he became too ill to travel. I know, because back home in Seattle we were desperately trying to get him to the Seattle International Film Festival’s screening of Seven Men.

I knew Budd Boetticher since 1987, when I first tried to lure him North for a college retrospective at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “I don't want to go to a tribute where no one is interested in my films,” he replied in his matter-of-fact, gruff/friendly manner. “Why don't you come down and visit me here instead?” I stayed in touch with him ever since, but in those last few months he became more private and he never talked of his cancer or his heath in our conversations. When a small Seattle retrospective of his work was sponsored by the non-profit theater the Grand Illusion, I called for a few words I could pass on to the audience. He was too ill to come to the phone. Still it never sunk in. Finally, on November 25, I called to get his new address, chattering obliviously at Mary, his wife, before she hushed me with the seriousness of a pained confession: “Budd is dying. The hospice people are here and I don’t expect him to survive the night.” Two days later he passed away.

“They can lick you (which they can’t) or they can fire you, and once you know that you’re not afraid of anybody.” 
    - Budd Boetticher on producers, 1988 interview

Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many of the two-fisted directors of the silent days landed in the director’s chair, but with a high society twist only Hollywood could have written. The twenty-year-old kid from a wealthy family decided he wanted to learn how to bullfight and wound up teaching Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for a Hollywood film. That’s the short version.

“I grew up rich, spoiled, and arrogant,” he joked in a 1992 interview. “It was bad enough being rich, but to be a rich athlete, I must have really been obnoxious.” This sports-mad son of a successful Illinois hardware magnate had planed for himself a career in athletics and threw himself into boxing, track, and football. At Ohio State, a knee injury (his second on the gridiron) sidelined him and he took a year off to recover. His plan was a long tour of Mexico, but his trip stopped short when he saw his first bullfight in Mexico City and stayed to learn the sport, under the tutelage of two of the finest and most respected matadors in Mexico. It was their sponsorship that gave this big, muscular American college kid entry into a sport where Americans were almost unknown.

When his parents, who had since moved to Los Angeles and moved among the best social circles, found out he braving the bulls in South of the border rings, his mother plotted ways to pull him safely back North. Her solution: land him a job as bullfighting advisor on a movie. With a little help from family friend Hal Roach, he was hired onto Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand, teaching Tyrone Power his craft and advising screenwriter Jo Swerling on details of bulls and bullfighting. More important to his calling and his career was the crash course he got in moviemaking. In his autobiography When in Disgrace, Boetticher gave credit to editor Barbara McLain for explaining and illustrating the mechanics of storytelling in the most practical manner. The bullfighting kid who never really thought much about the movies was suddenly hooked on making them.

Boetticher worked his way up the ladder, learning his craft on the job: production assistant, second assistant director, first assistant director, then cutting his teeth on a string of B movies for Columbia. His first credited feature, One Mysterious Night (1944), was a sixty-minute "Boston Blackie" mystery destined to be forgotten almost immediately after it was released. He signed it Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name.

Those were the days when Hollywood apprenticed its own, promoting from the ranks, and Boetticher learned some of his most important lessons then: how to stay on a twelve-day schedule, how to deal handle the front office, how to hold your authority over a crew much older and more experienced than you. Most of these films are unavailable, but the few I managed to see almost twenty years ago were entertaining, lean, a little rugged, and better than one would expect. My memories of Escape in the Fog, for instance, are of the exterior fog that envelopes the night in a blanket. It creates a nice mood of mystery while masking the limitations of his B-movie sets. Following his Columbia apprenticeship he spent a few years in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy (where he turned out documentaries and service films for both civilians and soldiers), he returned to Hollywood to find himself back in the B-movie rut.

Boetticher straddled two generations of directors. Like the John Fords and Howard Hawks and Raoul Walshes of the generation before, he fell into the film business after careers in more (for lack of a better word) muscular professions. For a director starting out in the 1940s, however, he’s an anomaly. Directors now came from the theater or graduated from other studio crafts, and a new kind of director was also starting to flex muscles in Hollywood: the writer/director, like Preston Sturges and John Huston and Orson Welles. Boetticher saw only one way to pull himself from the mire of low budget quickies, and that was to write his own script. The Bullfighter and the Lady, inspired by his own adventures as a young torero in Mexico (though certainly embellished for the screen) and produced by his pal John Wayne, is the story of a brash, cocky American (Robert Stack in a platinum blond coif that literally spotlights him in the crowds of dark-haired Mexican crowds) who blunders his way through tradition like a bull in a China shop. Filled with a reverence for the tradition of torero and a love of the Mexican culture, the film was almost unreleased, until John Ford stepped in.

“John Ford cut the picture to help me get it out,” he told National Public Radio in 1987. “He said ‘You’ve got about forty minutes of chi-chi crap.’ Well the chi-chi crap that he cut out was the sentimentality of Mexico, the children of Mexico, the real romance between Stack and Roland. Men who are real men can show affection for other men, and that was cut out of the picture.” All of that tradition, the history of bullfighting, the grandeur of Boetticher’s vision was trimmed down, from a sweeping 125 minute drama to a tight, exciting eighty-seven-minute love story melodrama. What’s missing in this cut version is the richness. Even the gorgeous skip-frame slow motion finale, which turned the climactic bullfight into something almost mythic, frozen in time, was replaced with more of the crowds-eye shots of traditional bullfight footage. In 1987 the UCLA Film Archive restored Boetticher’s film to the full length, using a duplicate negative discovered in the Library of Congress and Robert Stack’s private 16mm print of the uncut preview version. In this longer version, the transformation of Stack’s headstrong, cocky American to a modest and respectful torero is almost spiritual, and the extended bullfights, the songs and the festivals, the sense of serenity among the bullfight community between the Sunday arena matches, creates a whole different world from the trimmed original release version. And the imagery of these scenes is delicious, a sentimental vision of peasant life, to be sure, but also a respectful one, where the details are not trumpeted as exotica in tourist brochure close-ups but woven through the backgrounds of scene after scene.

The Boetticher we know as Budd was born with this film, the first he claimed as one of “his” pictures. The Bullfighter and the Lady earned him a 1951 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story and catapulted him up to the A-list. Universal Studios immediately offered him a contract and he leapt, little realizing what drudgery was ahead. The mid-list salt-mines of Universal were almost as constraining as his B movie assignments: bland scripts and little creative opportunity, but with bigger budgets and better actors. He made some interesting films in his two years there, notably Red Ball Express, a WWII adventure celebrating the unsung effort of the Army Transportation Corps supplying General Patton’s advance, and the westerns Horizons West, Seminole, and The Man From the Alamo, but nothing as rich or personal as Bullfighter, and certainly nothing to suggest what he was capable of under the right creative conditions.

“I said ‘Who do you want to play the lead, Duke?’ and he said ‘Well, let’s use Randolph Scott. He’s through.’” 
    - Budd Boetticher on SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, 1988 interview

The so-called Ranown cycle was born when John Wayne approached with an offer. “Bood (as Wayne took to pronouncing Budd), I’ve got a script over here I want you to read,” he said, recounted Boetticher in his wicked Wayne drawl. The terse, austere, ruthless western was a first feature screenplay by a young writer named Burt Kennedy, and it proved to be a perfect fit with Boetticher. In fact, everything about this film fit, a convergence of qualities that created something far more brilliant than the sum of its parts. The aging Randolph Scott was cast as the wandering gunman in the desert on a mission of vengeance. Craggy and stiff, Scott had long been out of vogue but was quite happy turning out westerns under his own brand and was doing quite well, thank you very much (he died with a personal wealth of over $100 million due to these westerns… and a few cagey investments). This film made Scott’s “limitations” as an actor a defining part of his character: inexpressive, inflexible, hard, with a voice that masks his feelings and a body that is perfectly graceful riding a horse or handling a gun, tenses like an athlete’s when he senses danger or readies for a showdown, and becomes gawky and awkward in intimate moments. The plot is simple: Ben Brigade (Scott) is a former sheriff driven by vengeance and guilt as he tracks the men who killed his wife in a hold-up. He becomes the unwitting guide to an ill-equipped couple of homesteaders and the little group is filled out when a pair of outlaws join in. “Constructed partly as allegorical Odysseys and partly as floating poker games where every character took turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown,” wrote Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema , the first American critical re-appraisal of Boetticher’s career.

The script remains a model of austerity, watertight but never obvious or ornate in its complications, with dialogue written as if every word counts, whether it’s the garrulous nonsense of the husband (John Reed), the tension defusing interruptions of his peacekeeping wife (Gail Russell), the needling, stinging remarks of mercenary gunslinger Master (an insolently impudent peacock of a Lee Marvin performance), or the terse almost mono-syllabic observations and answers of Randolph Scott, who more often than not would answer a question with another, like a challenge. It brought out the best in Boetticher, who pared himself down to the rugged essentials and wrenched up the tension between the central characters, isolated in the empty desert, with remarkable economy. A creative partnership was born and this essential structure would become a model for future collaborations. Scott quickly snatched up Boetticher for his own production company Scott-Brown (which would officially become Ranown a couple of films later) and Boetticher directed Scott in six more films:  The Tall T  (1957),  Decision at Sundown  (1957),  Buchanan Rides Along,  Ride Lonesome , and  Comanche Station  (the otherwise forgettable  Westbound  [1959] was a one-off for Warner Bros., a contractual obligation Boetticher directed out of friendship, not passion). But the films written by Burt Kennedy create a cycle that stands next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford.

From  Seven Men  through  The Tall T  to  Ride Lonesome  and  Comanche Station , Kennedy hews to a basic formula.  The Tall T , adapted from an Elmore Leonard story, breaks the formula slightly but the impetus is the same: pare the screen down to a small but combustible group and get them out of town and into the desert, where (to use Sarris’ description) the bluffs can begin. Richard Boone stars as Frank Usher, Scott’s other, the charismatic and ruthlessly charming leader of a small gang of homicidal punks whose plot to rob the silver stage is upset when he hijacks a pair of aging newlyweds instead. Suddenly the heist turns into a kidnapping and Scott’s struggling rancher Pat Brennan is hauled along for the bad luck of being picked up by the wrong stage at the wrong time. As Usher expertly, pitilessly runs the show, he unexpectedly lets Brennan live. Brennan is a man where his gang members are merely boys (and stunted, shallow ones at that); a realist not afraid to admit he’s scared yet never showing it in his face; the one person in Usher’s admittedly limited social circle he feels comfortable in confiding his dreams in. He’s also Usher’s downfall.

Volumes have been filled with descriptions of the Boetticher/Kennedy superstructure, but the life of his films are in the vividly realized characters, the rich frontier simplicity of the dialogue, the brilliant use of the Lone Pine landscape to create a self contained world as unique to Boetticher as Monument Valley was to Ford. Many, many other directors shot in Lone Pine, a California wilderness area close to Hollywood, but only Boetticher turned it into a kind of western lost world, a purgatory for Scott’s guilt-driven heroes. They were shot on location, far from the studios, on tight seventeen-day shooting schedules. The tiny little production unit would travel through Lone Pine and you can feel Boetticher become more responsive to the landscape with each film. A grace permeates these films, not merely of visual style in Boetticher’s long takes and gentle moving cameras but a respect for the friendships that can never be and the world that hammers such characters as Usher on the anvil of the terrain.

Usher is but one of the charming antagonists that Boetticher and Kennedy love so much, but he’s the greatest of them and Boone is brilliant in the role: quiet in his command, both alert and relaxed, ready to jerk to attention. His easy body language couldn’t be more different from the stiff, self-conscious carriage of Scott, or from the insolent, lazy lean of the punk gunman Henry Silva. The language is equally defining. Scott, true to form, gets all the arch clichés in tough, terse bites and he delivers them in his usual flat tenor, but the two illiterate gunmen played by Silva and Skip Homeier speak in a kind of frontier poetry of simple words and offbeat grammar. I can’t testify to its historical accuracy, but it vividly describes captures their immaturity, their lack of education, and their own petty yet impassioned dreams with an unexpected sensitivity. Violent as they are, these boys are full of life and feeling.

Talk is the domain of Kennedy’s antagonists, from Marvin and Boone to Pernell Roberts in  Ride Lonesome  and Claude Akins in  Comanche Station . Where Scott’s hard-bitten heroes keeps his plans to himself until he’s forced to reveal them, these garrulous, swank gents can’t help but revel in their plans, whether it’s a taunt (in Akins case) or a matter of forthright respect (Roberts). And one of the things they talk about to almost embarrassing extremes is sex. The erotic rhapsodies of Pernell Robert’s Sam Boone, pitched to Karen Steele in  Ride Lonesome , is the ultimate expression, and one has to wonder how much Boetticher’s romance with Steele influenced this almost pornographic blank verse (couched, as always, in colloquial dialogue and delivered with a longing sigh by Roberts). Never has a woman been reduced to such a pure sexual object in a Boetticher film -- Steele’s arch performance doesn’t help humanize her, but that hardly explains the body-hugging costume and torpedo-breast blouse -- yet there is a strange, powerful expression of loneliness, of lust, of desire, in his dialogue.

These are the qualities that bring life to the archetypes, the themes, the poker games of the Boetticher/Kennedy films. But something else interesting happens by  Ride Lonesome  and  Comanche Station , a pair of films with almost identical plots but essential, elegant differences. Like variations on a theme, these films pare the thematic music down to the essence. They become more austere. They become more abstract. They exist entirely outside of civilization, with only stagecoach stations to remind the characters of its existence. The only humans that cross their path are Indians (themselves more a part of the natural world than the social world of frontier towns) or dying settlers. Completely isolated from society, it’s as if Scott’s leathery heroes live in a perpetual state of wandering, a prisoner of the desert (to borrow a ricochet reference from a John Ford picture of similar qualities).

Scott plays self-imposed outcast with a past and a mission, and his journey becomes wound up with a woman he saves/escorts and a collection of mercenary outlaws who invite themselves along as riding companions and competitors: both are after the same thing and neither is ready to back down. Yet these men, who would see each other dead, will save each other’s lives before the final showdown.  Scott makes his entrance into each film walking through a sheer crevice, hemmed in by walls of rock on either side, and this barren image is the defining state of his world: barren deserts, rugged plains where the rocks jut out of the Earth instead of trees, featureless valleys, all ringed by distant mountains that are as much fences as borders, trapping them in a domain far from civilization. Even when the films leaves the sun-parched desert for the green coolness of the forest (Boetticher carefully paces the rhythm of landscape his parties travel through), it’s merely an oasis in the self-inflicted purgatory. “A man needs a reason to ride this country. You got a reason?” he asks the men he meets. More than a valid query, it’s a telling one. These characters are driven by the past and can’t stop talking of the future, but the films are viscerally in the moment, in the now, as if neither past nor future exist. When all is said and done, these are American frontier odysseys with tragic dimensions. At the end of each film Scott escorts his party back to the fringes of civilization, but turns back into to wilderness himself. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards suffers the same fate in one of the great American films of all time, John Ford’s  The Searchers , but as Randolph Scott turns away time and time again, driven by the ghosts of his past in  Seven Men , in  Ride Lonesome , in  Comanche Station , to a self imposed exile, the quietly understated gesture is transformed into an existential expression of impossible loss.

It’s no surprise that these films were ignored by the critical establishment. This was, after all, the age of the super-western, the “adult” western, the psychologically shaded studies and symbolic commentaries. Where the ponderous, heavy-handed “sophistication” of  High Noon  and the mock mythology of Shane , with their stock villains and stalwart heroes and the self-aggrandizing direction of Hollywood pros trying to “lift” the silly little western genre into art, look all the more plastic and pretentious with the years, Boetticher’s tight, taut, often savage little pictures are both graceful and visceral, direct, and rich in character. The Boetticher/Kennedy westerns aren’t concerned with history or social commentary. These are simply westerns pared down to their essentials, lean stories about men on the frontier living a life in a dangerous, inhospitable world and they look better than ever today.

“Somebody said to me once, ‘How could you as an established director of category go to a foreign country, lose your wife, your money, possibly your reputation, and nearly your life, to film the story of a friend?’ And I said, ‘Young man, wouldn’t it have been a wonderful thing if the director of The Agony and the Ecstasy had had Michelangelo instead of Charlton Heston?’” 
    - Budd Boetticher on ARUZZA, 1988 interview

Boetticher made one more film, the offbeat little gangster picture, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), with Ray Danton as the real-life dancer turned urban thug, before he, too, turned his back on civilization and wandered into his own desert. His dream project was to create the great bullfighting film, and after two works of Hollywood fiction-- The Bullfighter and the Lady  was followed by the bigger budget drama  The Magnificent Matador  (1955) with Anthony Quinn and Maureen O’Hara--he turned his energies to documentary, specifically a portrait of Mexico’s greatest torero Carlos Arruza as he embarked on a return to the ring as a rejoneador, a horseback bullfighter. The project took him to Mexico for seven years and the ordeal almost killed him. The adventure is too great and complicated to encapsulate here (fully two-thirds of Boetticher’s 391-page autobiography  When In Disgrace  chronicles this spellbinding odyssey), but when he finally returned to Hollywood he was broke and divorced, his leading man Carlos Arruza was dead (of a traffic accident) and most of his crew had passed away, and Boetticher himself was lucky to survive a lung infection, a jail sentence, and a midnight commitment to an insane asylum. Quentin Tarantino once expressed interest in putting this story on the screen, and it deserves it 

Boetticher never gave up his hopes to get back into Hollywood. He spent decades reworking his original scripts  When There’s Sumpthin’ to Do , a western about a crew of cowboys who cross the border to find adventure in the Mexican revolution originally written for John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, and A Horse For Mr. Barnum , about a trio of American cowboys sent to Spain to bring back a string of Andalusian horses for the Barnum circus. On my second visit to Boetticher’s place, on a mission to interview the legend, he lent me the latter, a laconic, easy-going story with a kind of delight in old fashioned story-telling. I still remember his eyes dance as he read a passage from the script aloud, and describing his original script for  Two Mules For Sister Sara , a sunset western written for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr that was blithely rewritten into a violent adventure for Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine. Boetticher never directed another film after  A Time For Dying  in 1969, unless you count his video documentary  My Kingdom For…  (1985), but he never stopped being a storyteller, and that is an art in short supply today.



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