By Sean Axmaker
(Originally published: December 16, 2005)
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. [Update, 11/4/08: And now the addition of five more of his films on disc! -- ed.] 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."
Bookmark/Search this post with: