By Sean Axmaker
December 16, 2005 - 2:32 AM PST
Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many in the silent days landed in the director's chair, but with a high society twist only Hollywood could have written. The 20-year-old kid from a wealthy family who decided he wanted to learn how to bullfight in Mexico was brought back to Los Angeles (via the machinations of his horrified mother) and hired to teach Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for a remake of Blood and Sand. The rest is history, as they say: a career of over 50 movies, a cycle of westerns starring Randolph Scott that stand among the masterpieces of the genre, a Quixote-esque adventure in Mexico to create the ultimate screen tribute to the art and culture of bullfighting (Arruza) that all but killed his career and almost cost his own life, a long retirement raising and training horses in the art of rejoneador (horseback bullfighting).
Yet 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 is for the story for 1970's Two Mules For Sister Sara).
Chalk it up to the short memory of the critical hive-mind. Apart from the occasional TV showings of his Randolph Scott westerns (which invariably pan-and-scan his two gorgeous CinemaScope productions), those films are rarely seen. A few have been released on videotape, including his breakthrough The Bullfighter and the Lady, but for years on only one of his films has been available on DVD: Behind Locked Doors (aka The Human Gorilla), a bargain basement B-movie programmer made for Eagle-Lion studios that is worlds away from his best work.
I hope the new restoration and home video debut of Boetticher's seminal 1956 Seven Men From Now will start to change that. The terse, austere, ruthless western, a first feature screenplay by a young writer named Burt Kennedy, proved to be a perfect fit for the journeyman Boetticher, who turned the "limitations" of his craggy and stiff leading man Randolph Scott into a defining part of his character: inexpressive, inflexible, hard, with a voice that masks his feelings and a body that sets a horse and handles a gun with grace, tenses like an athlete when he senses danger, and becomes gawky and awkward in intimate moments. The script 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 with star Scott and screenwriter Kennedy.
The following comments are drawn from the numerous interviews I conducted with Boetticher between 1988 and 1992 at his home outside of Ramona, California.
You never directed John Wayne in a film, but he played a major part in your life. He produced your breakthrough film The Bullfighter and the Lady and he was at least partially responsible for Seven Men From Now.
He was very responsible. Without him we wouldn't have done it. Duke was a great friend and a deadly enemy. Duke and I had a love-hate relationship. I think the Sinatras of the world and the Waynes of the world and the [bullfighter Carlos] Arruzas of the world, they're not one-dimensional characters. They're not Jesus Christ and they're not the devil incarnate, they're a combination. You hear about people who hate him, and those who love him. And if they were ever to tell the truth about Duke, it would be about 90 percent to 10 percent. He was a schmuck, but he was wonderful on the screen. There never was anybody like him.
How did you connect on Seven Men From Now?
I was doing pictures at what used to be Selznick studios - I forget what they called it when I was there - and Duke was doing a picture with [John] Ford and he called me in. He said [in John Wayne's drawl], "Bood, I've got a script over here I want you to read." So I came over and picked it up at lunch and I read 35 pages and I walked back on the set and he was sitting with a bunch of people and I said, "Duke, I want to do the picture."
He said, "Well, Jesus Christ, you can't read the whole damned script in an hour." I said, "I read 35 pages. This is brilliant! I'd like to meet the author."
He said, "Budd Boetticher, Burt Kennedy," and Burt stood up. We shook hands and I said, "Mr. Kennedy, you are a brilliant, brilliant writer. I don't have to read anymore. I'm so glad I met you." He said, "Oh, we met a long time ago. I played the rabble rouser in A Man From Texas [working title to Man From the Alamo]."
He'd been an actor. And that's what started us. All you had to do was read one of his scripts. Anybody who didn't like Burt Kennedy's writing was crazy. The best scene I've ever directed in my life I directed word for word from the script and that's when Lee Marvin and Walter Reed and Gail Russell and Randy [Scott] are in the covered wagon and he says, "You know, a funny thing, I knew a big tall good-lookin' fellow once," and he starts making love to Gail Russell. That was great writing.
I always give Burt Kennedy credit for a lot of the wonderful things we did, but there is one thing I'm most proud of. I always maintained, at least in my own mind, that gunslingers had to practice, like you toreador the cape without the bull. You'd better know how to work your implement because you haven't got time to think about it when the bull's in there. So I always felt that if a guy got off his horse and urinated in a desert, stepping on the reins of his horse, while he was urinating he probably practiced four or five times drawing his guns on a fast draw. You don't just wait until someone wants to shoot you and then luck it out.
So we set it up from the beginning of Seven Men From Now. All the way through the picture Lee Marvin was practicing. When he walks in the whorehouse, the bar, and the guy's sitting there and he looks around and he draws the gun a couple of times and he kicks the chair out and he says, "Where is everybody?" Now, when he knows he's gonna outdraw Randy and he looks at his hands, the guns aren't there, and he couldn't believe it! You cared. That's the first time in his life he ever failed.
I have won more money and never accepted it where somebody says to me, "Boy I couldn't believe Randolph Scott outdrew Marvin as fast as he was." I said, "He never drew." They say, "What do you mean he never drew?" I said, "He never drew his gun." He stood there and I said, "Shoot anytime you're ready, Randy," and he pulled the trigger and the smoke came out. Now, you cut to Marvin and Marvin goes for his gun and - Pow! You never saw him.
It's the old joke of the guy who says, "I'm the fastest gun in the west," and the fellow says, "Prove it to me." The guy says, "You want to see it again?" He never drew because he's not going to outdraw because Marvin was really fast. Marvin would have been a hell of a gunslinger.
Randolph Scott had an very clear sense of his strengths. He's at his best expressionless and stoic and that comes through quite strongly in these pictures.
That was Randy. That's who he was and that's what he did as well as an anybody else. You see what happened with Randolph Scott, he never had to push. He came to Hollywood, having been divorced by a Dupont heiress and, as I understand it, he came with a million or two million dollars - back in the 20s - in his pocket as a young man. And Archibald Leach, who became Cary Grant, had moved into his beautiful home that he built in Malibu. So Randy, from that time on, never needed Hollywood, he didn't have to work at it.
One Sunday morning I was going to ride a horse that I ultimately bought up in Lone Pine and I started to cross the porch and Randy was sitting there reading the Wall Street Journal - and this is a direct quote - he says, "Budd, I just had the most terrible thing happen to me." I said, "Good God, Randy" - I thought it was his children - "What happened?" He said, "Six of my oil wells blew out." I said, "How many of them came in?" He said, "Eleven, but damn it, you shouldn't lose an oil well today with all the paraphernalia they've got to keep them moving." This is one of the richest men in the history of Hollywood. He was a delightful, delightful man, and a good friend.
The Tall T was the second picture you ever made with Randolph Scott. Now he and Harry Brown had their own production company, Scott-Brown, and they had been making pictures for a number of years. After Seven Men From Now, did Randolph Scott approach you or Harry Joe Brown?
Harry Joe Brown did because of Randy. Randy said, "I don't want anyone else to direct this." So they came and said, "Will you make another picture with Randolph Scott?" And I said, "I'd love it!" And then we made another picture and, after the third picture, Randy came to me and said, "I have a very serious situation to discuss with you. I have one more picture to do at Warner Brothers and I don't know what to do!" And that's when I went to Warner Brothers and said, "I don't care how little I'm going to make, I want to direct the picture." And that was Westbound.
And that was the only one of those films that you didn't have control over the script?
Oh, I had complete control over the filming, but not over the script. The script was already ready to go, and it reverted right back to the old Randolph Scott westerns. Which were not that good. Now with the real Scott pictures, Burt and Randy and Harry Joe and I had complete control and we all thought alike. It was a pleasure because I had the best cameramen, who were my friends, and I had a producer I really liked because he didn't bother me, Harry Joe Brown, and I don't think there ever, unless it was Cary Grant who at one time was his housemate, there was ever a finer gentleman in the picture business than Randolph Scott.
And where John Wayne had a completely different attitude with young actors who were in his pictures, Randy would say, "I sure like that young fellow," like James Coburn (in Ride Lonesome), "Let's give him more lyrics." And it's been obvious that this is the truth of what we did because every picture I made with him, with the exception of Westbound, we made a star because Randy and Burt and I wanted to make a star. Look at the list starting with Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Craig Stevens, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, Claude Akins. Every picture.
I mean, I could write a whole book just about Randolph Scott. But everybody felt that way about him. Burt wrote five of the seven screenplays, and he was a great, great writer and is a wonderful director and one of my dearest friends. We wrote and directed as two great friends who work together instead of a writer and director who didn't get along, trying to take control of the picture. It was just a difference; we had artistic control and fortunately we were artists. A very simple answer [as to] why they were better pictures.
How did you go about script preparation?
With Burt it was easy. I would read his scripts and die laughing and be excited and call him and say, "Jesus Christ, this is really wonderful." That's our preparation. I got a great script and I shot it and I added to it. That's what a director is supposed to do. If you take a good script and you can't make it better, you're not a very good director. The writer has done everything he possibly can do to make it a good script. Now, he delivers it to you, it should be to the best of his ability. You've got weeks after that even before you've got to shoot, supposedly, where you can take a good piece of work and say, "Gee, I can improve it a little bit here, a little bit here, a little bit there," but that's what directors should do. We didn't all get together like they do today and have meetings and say, "What do you think we ought to do next?" We knew what we were going to do. We made those Scott pictures in 18 days. Three weeks, six days a week.
There are too many people today involved in making a motion picture. Everybody has a different contribution, and you can't do it that way. A fellow might have a great idea for a sequence but the sequence may not fit the movie. And his lovely couple of days shooting that look great on film in the rushes, they don't fit in the picture. Today I've been on sets of top directors and they say cut and they all have a meeting. And they say, "What do you think we ought to do?" And they say, "I don't know, what do you think we ought to do?" And they discuss it and then they decide. Jesus, how can you make pictures like that?
How would you say you improved the Burt Kennedy scripts?
We put a lot of humor in there. All the funny stuff, that's not in the script. In the first place, if you write your jokes in the script, by the time you've memorized and read it, it's an old joke. So we would sit there and Burt would say, "Why don't we do this? That's good." "That's great but why don't we do this?"
Also there's another thing. What I always do, and I think a director should always do it, you get the script then you cast it. Then you and the writer, or you alone if you're the writer-director, sit down and, if you're lucky enough to have Marlon Brando at the height of his career, your actor mumbles a lot more, and if it's Tony Quinn he rants and raves and picks his nose - that's Tony Quinn. You rewrite. But Burt was always involved. Burt wrote and I rewrote and he rewrote me and we never put it on paper.
All three of the journey films, Seven Men From Now, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, are shot in Lone Pine, California, and they have a very distinctive cinematic landscape.
I probably shot in Lone Pine more than anybody in color. They used to make pictures there in black and white, Roy Rogers films and stuff like that. You had everything there. You had rivers on one side of the road to San Francisco, you had mountains on the other, you had rocks, you had desert, everything. Can you imagine the desert in Ride Lonesome was fifteen minutes from those rocks, just on the other side of the road? They call them the Alabams. You can't lose that way. When you make a picture in 18 days, which everybody should be taught to do, you don't have time to fool around and get in an airplane and go to another city.
All the totally barren deserts and rough, craggy mountains make those films a lot rougher that most of the films of that period. Much of it is hostile, but the terrain progresses in the last two films. Did you consciously choose the changing terrain through the parts of the picture?
It's about as primitive as you can get because all of those mountains were pushed up from lava before there was anything on this earth. It's the oldest lava rock formation in the world, and boy, it's spooky. I crawled in and out of those holes there, you know, here comes a rattlesnake, here comes a hawk, here's a Gila monster, and getting those locations, it's really great. We went to the trouble of working under this pressure. It was tough, it was a war in some of those scenes. We were on the desert in Ride Lonesome, it must have been 140 degrees, like shooting in Death Valley. It was that tough. The actors and the director and writer and everybody else really suffered, but we were doing something that turned out very well, so it was fun. And that's why maybe Burt wrote a river scene in about halfway through the picture. Get a couple of days to sit by the water because everything else was terrible. [laughs]
Your characters are often gaunt, leathery figures.
They are. If you drink too much and drink too much, to be happy, you can't stay alive in the west. That's why they were thin and tough, or dead. You had to keep in shape like an athlete preparing for an athletic event and these guys knew it. And that's why I had them practice with the guns, because they must have practiced all the time. These guys were tough guys and these fellows were dying when they were 35 and 40 years old without being killed, it was so harsh. That's why we found terrain that accommodated that truth. It was a tough life in those days.
You've described the relationships between Randolph Scott and villains as a love story between two men.
Well, it is. A man is the All-American sheriff. He does good and he's a clean, loving guy and he's a helluva fast draw, and he can punch and he can ride a horse and he can do all the things that the villain can do, but the villain thinks back and he says, "Damn it, we live sixty miles apart and if I'd have lived next door to him, we'd have been partners and here we are trying to kill each other. But I really admire that guy." Never before in a motion picture western did you ever see the hero kill the villain and sit down on a rock because he wanted to throw up because he really hated to do it. And I think that's a love affair.
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"It was a tough life in those days."
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A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.
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