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Hollywood’s matador of the Wild West

By Dimitris Bouras

Budd Boetticher (1916-2011) dreamed of becoming a bullfighter but ended up working in Hollywood as a director. Later he gave up what was a lucrative career in order to film a documentary about the life of the famous Mexican matador Carlos Arruza, a project which took several difficult years.

Boetticher, however, is also a somewhat overlooked hero himself, at least in the art of westerns. His films – some indifferent and others truly great – never really got the place they deserved in the pantheon of the genre. Toward the late 1950s, when the popularity of such films began to decline, Boetticher filmed three westerns that placed him up among legends such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann.

Now, the Panorama of European Cinema, which starts today and runs to November 25 at the Greek Film Archive and the Titania Cinema, is set to acquaint Greek audiences with Boetticher’s work through six films, including “Seven Men from Now” (1956), which is considered his masterpiece.

An adventurous life

Boetticher was orphaned at a young age, but had the good fortune to be adopted by a wealthy family from southwestern Indiana. His first big love was sport, and he boxed and played football until an injury put an end to his athletic aspirations and compelled him to seek a different path in life.

After his studies at Ohio State University, he traveled to Mexico City with a friend on what was supposed to be the first stop of a grand tour around Latin America. He saw his first bullfight in Mexico and the experience changed his life. He gave up on the idea of traveling and decided to settle in Mexico to learn the art of bullfighting. He said in an interview later in life that the sport had enthralled him, “maybe because it was so dangerous in the arena or it seemed so medieval.”

Boetticher’s career as a bullfighter also came to an abrupt end when he was gorged by a bull in the stomach, suffering life-threatening injuries that sent him back to the United States. Once there, his mother, a socialite among the Los Angeles elite, helped him get his foot in the Hollywood door by landing him a job as a bullfighting coach to Tyrone Powers in “Blood and Sand” (1941) and as a consultant to the screenwriter.

On the set he met film editor Barbara McLean, who asked him to help her edit a bullfighting sequence. He spent two weeks working beside McLean and learning as much as he could about the art of montage. McLean was to play a defining role in Boetticher’s life, and in his biography later on he acknowledged her as his best film teacher, saying that she taught him what narrative means in the simplest and most practical way.

Boetticher directed a number of B-movies that have since faded into oblivion, though seven of his films, shot between 1956 and 1959, heralded a new chapter in the genre of the western. Most show heroes wandering across sparse and rocky landscapes that express the spirit of individuality which defines his heroes – most embodied by his favorite actor, Randolph Scott.

The American film critic Andrew Sarris, one of the few who perceived westerns and their creators without prejudice, described Boetticher’s work as expressing “a weary serenity and moral certitude that was contrary to the more neurotic approaches of other directors in this neglected genre of the cinema.”

The theme of revenge was a key part of Boetticher’s plots, but the pivotal point of his work, like for other creators of the genre, was his portrayal of the concepts of the hero and heroism. In Ford’s work, heroism is embodied by the white settler who brings civilization to wild lands, while in contrast, the world of Hawks was all about male camaraderie. But Boetticher was the absolute individualist. He cared only for the bullfighter in the arena: the lone man who joins in only in order to survive during his constant parry with death.

The films

Seven Men from Now (1956)

A sheriff pursues the gang that murdered his wife. Stars Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, Gail Russell and Walter Reed.

Ride Lonesome (1959)

A bounty hunter leads a convicted killer to the gallows through a deserted landscape. Stars Randolph Scott, Lee Van Cleef and James Coburn.

Decision at Sundown (1957)

A stranger rides into a town that is preparing to celebrate a wedding, seeking revenge. Stars Randolph Scott and John Carroll.

Comanche Station (1960)

A man saves a woman from the clutches of the Comanche Indians. Stars Randolph Scott and Nancy Gates.

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

A Texan who has fallen victim to a gang of thieves is accused of murder. Stars Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens and Barry Kelley.

The Tall T (1957)

A gang takes hostage a man and a newlywed couple. Stars Randolph Scott, Richard Boone and Maureen O’Sullivan.

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Greek Film Archive, 48 Iera Odos, Metaxouregio, tel 210.360.9695; Titania Cinema, Panepistimiou & Themistocleous, tel 210.381.1147

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