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Man of the West

There are a lot of fake tough guys in Hollywood. Probably you‘ve met a few, or seen them posturing on talk shows. This fellow Oscar Boetticher Jr., better known as Budd, is the real article: Posturing would be beneath him. He was a hard-charging high school and college athlete. He traveled to Mexico in his 20s and became a torero. In Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s he locked horns with giants such as John Wayne and John Ford. And in the ‘60s he spent seven years struggling to complete Arruza, an epic bullfight documentary about his close friend and teacher, matador Carlos Arruza. Along the way the director was railroaded into a Mexican prison and (briefly) tossed into a lunatic asylum.

Battle-scarred Budd Boetticher has directed only two films since 1968. For most of the past three decades he has lived quietly with his wife, Mary, in a spacious condo located in the rolling hills of Ramona, California, near San Diego, where he breeds and trains Portuguese Lusitano ”battle horses“ and Spanish Andalusians. Frail-looking and visibly in pain after two hip-replacement operations, the 84-year-old writer-director has nothing left to prove. He summons the kind of Old World courtesy that turns ordinary introductions into ceremonial occasions.

Boetticher has a capacious memory and has clearly been dining out on his best anecdotes for years. He is especially eager to discuss ”the two best pictures I ever made,“ the autobiographical Bullfighter and the Lady (1950) and Seven Men From Now (1956), the first in a series of seven classic Westerns he made with actor Randolph Scott. Both films will be screened next month at UCLA during the Film and Television Archive’s 10th Festival of Preservation, with Budd, Mary and screenwriter Burt Kennedy in attendance. ”Honestly,“ Boetticher says, ”if I had a choice between seeing these two pictures restored and screened, and winning an Oscar, I‘d take the screening.“

Adopted in 1916 into one of the wealthiest families in Evansville, Indiana, Boetticher seems to have willfully resisted the easy life that was mapped out for him. Whenever the going got soft, he found a way to make it tougher. He ran track at Ohio State (”three-tenths of a second behind Jesse Owens“) and became an intercollegiate boxing champ. During a trip to Mexico in 1937, he saw his first bullfight. ”Never had any single event made such an impression,“ he wrote in his 1985 memoir about the making of Arruza, When in Disgrace. ”Perhaps it was because the art of the bullring was so dangerous. Or perhaps it was because it was so damned medieval.“ Instructed in the 300-year-old sport by some of Mexico’s leading matadors, he made lifelong friends and became a pretty fair torero himself -- good enough to be tapped as a technical adviser on Rouben Mamoulian‘s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand.

Boetticher told himself he was waiting for bullfight season to begin again before hightailing it back to Mexico, but a temporary job at the Hal Roach Studios stretched into several years of apprentice and assistant positions. He won a chance to direct by threatening to knock Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn on his ass. Apparently this convinced the legendary tyrant that the kid had enough grit to dominate a movie set. Grinding out formula noirs such as One Mysterious Night (1944) and Black Midnight (1949), Boetticher retained his reputation as a scrapper, although he says proudly, ”The only people I ever fought with in Hollywood were executives who could fire me.“

Bullfighter and the Lady, an account of Boetticher’s experiences in Mexico, was made at Republic under the aegis of the studio‘s top star, John Wayne. With Boetticher’s bullring compadres stunt-doubling the actors, and corrida sequences filmed in the ring in Mexico City, Bullfighter was a bold mixture for its period, half romantic action picture, half documentary. But the director got off on the wrong foot with his producer. His prime offense was refusing to hire the Duke‘s cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, whose showy images, Boetticher feared, would undercut the nuts-and-bolts authenticity he was seeking. Wayne’s nickname for him became ”Narse,“ short for ”Narcissus.“

Upon completion, the film was brutally cut from 129 minutes to 87. The mutilation was supervised by Wayne‘s mentor, John Ford, a figure so imposing that even Boetticher could not say no to him. Ford pronounced the picture ”great,“ but with his next breath declared, ”There are 42 minutes of real shit that have to go.“ Ford was especially blunt about the intense protege-mentor relationship between Robert Stack, as the gringo student, and the aging matador played by Gilbert Roland. ”You’ve got these two guys acting like they love each other. People will think they‘re a couple of queers.“ Boetticher was stunned: ”I said, ’Mr. Ford, two men can love each other without being homosexual.‘ And he said, ’Not in my picture they can‘t!’ I wanted to say, ‘But, sir, this is not your picture.’ But I just couldn‘t. Not to him.“

Years later, Ford told Boetticher the truth: Wayne had been so enraged at the director’s ”arrogant“ behavior that he had convinced the studio that the film was unreleasable. He relented only after Ford agreed to personally cut it back to ”B“ length. Ford‘s intervention got the film released, and enough of Boetticher’s work survived to snag him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story -- although he remains certain that the longer version would actually have won. (Boetticher‘s cut was first screened publicly in 1987, after being restored by David Shepherd, then of the Directors Guild, and UCLA’s Robert Gitt.)

By 1956, Wayne had cooled off a little. He asked Boetticher to direct Seven Men From Now for Batjac, his new production company. ”Let‘s use Randolph Scott,“ said Wayne, who wanted to cut costs. ”He’s through.“ His cruelty was understandable. Scott, then in his 50s, had gotten rich investing in oil wells, but as an actor this star of the ‘30s was perceived as a has-been, grinding out white-hat Westerns. Boetticher knew that he could still be great. ”To put it crudely,“ he says, ”we stuck Randolph Scott up John Wayne’s ass.“

Scott‘s age and innate dignity set the mournful autumnal mood for these revisionist Westerns. Because Scott was no longer comfortable with strenuous action, violence was used sparingly, for shocking punctuation. A first-rate Boetticher Western like Ride Lonesome (1959) or Comanche Station (1960) gives us a handful of strong characters in a simple situation packed with tension, often framed against the harshly beautiful volcanic landscapes of Lone Pine. Their simplicity always seems intentional, a matter of principle rather than a symptom of constraint. Critic David Thomson correctly calls the Boetticher-Scott Westerns ”the least handicapped B films ever made.“ They feel like ”A“ movies because they are perfectly adapted to the givens of genre, budget, schedule and stars.

In a period when most Westerns were heroic fantasy films, Boetticher’s innovation was applying common sense to situations stiffened into formula. ”You always saw people in Westerns get shot on a high place and do a stunt fall forward,“ he says. ”But in real life you‘d fall backward from the impact. So in Seven Men From Now, Lee Marvin fires and the other guy is thrown backward, and he gets stuck in a crack between two rocks. He’s dead, but he never falls. He just hangs there.“

These days Boetticher is looking forward not to retirement but to a new productive phase of his career. When in Disgrace will soon be reprinted, with a second volume of memoirs, Where Are the Elephants?, waiting in the wings. And he has two scripts in active development, a historical epic about his beloved Andalusians, A Horse for Mr. Barnum, and the film version of When in Disgrace. As Boetticher struggles to walk, politely refusing assistance, it occurs to me that he is still operating true to form, accepting even illness as if it were a challenge to be toughed out. ”You‘re not supposed to be happier at this age than you were as a kid,“ he says. ”But these past 29 years with my beautiful Mary have been the best by far. It’s wonderful to know that we will be at UCLA, watching the two best pictures I ever made, which have been put back the way I always wanted them, and that we‘ll have an opportunity to say, ’Thank you.‘ I mean, how much more can people do for you?“

For information on the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Festival of Preservation, turn to Calendar.


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