Book review of ¡TORERO! LOS TOROS EN EL CINE (Torero! Bullfighting in the Movies) by Muriel Feiner. Alianza Editorial, S. A., Madrid, 2004
If we would ask any bullfighting aficionado if he or she has watched films with a taurine theme, one doubts that anyone would answer negatively, especially now when television programs show some of those old movies, in which bullfighters pretend to be actors and actors play the roles of bullfighters. Also, when we can easily obtain VC or DVD recordings of those films.
Nevertheless, it is probable that many of those aficionados could not place the films they may have watched in their historical perspectives. Furthermore, it is also doubtful that they would know the details of the productions, or the biographical data of the actors and filmmakers as well as who the toreros were who did the actual fighting, when the protagonists of the films were actors. Nor would they probably know what stage of technical development the cinematography was at, at the time those movies were filmed. Well, now all those facts and many more can be known by reading ¡TORERO! LOS TOROS EN EL CINE, the excellent and compact work just published in May, 2004 in Madrid by American author Muriel Feiner, who resides in that city.
The book has 270 pages, richly illustrated with pictures. Many of these photographs come from the private files of the author, who is also an accomplished photographer, and others are from the collection of the Filmoteca Española.
The main body of the work is preceded by an introduction stating the scope and sequence of the book, and by a page of acknowledgements, in which Muriel thanks a few persons who helped her with the research. It is worthwhile to point out to the readers of LA BUSCA that the author recognized the help given to her by Dave Tuggle and Jack Bona, present and past editors of this Taurine Bibliophiles of America's magazine. A filmography, a bibliography and an index complete this interesting and informative book.
The 153 pages of the main body of ¡TORERO! LOS TOROS EN EL CINE is divided into seven sections, the tittles of which denote the subject and time of the content of the chapters. The translations of those titles are as follows: 'Toros in the Silent Movies - The New Invention'; 'The Decade of the 30's - The Arrival of Movies with Sound'; 'The Decade of the 40's - Between Wars'; 'The Decade of the 50's - Hollywood Discovers the Bullfighting World'; 'The Decade of the 60's - Tremendismo and Promotion'; 'The Decade of the 70's - Evading the Typical'; 'Toward the 21st Century - Documentaries and Videos'.
Each chapter begins with a brief overview of the history of bullfighting and the description of the development of the cinematography during the time when the movies of that era were filmed. This unables the readers to place the cinematography and the toreo of the decade in context. In addition to the general commentaries and opinions about the taurine cinematography of the period, the author includes specific criticism of the most successful films in each section. Also, Feiner adds in shaded boxes separated from the general text, biographical sketches and interviews with some of the most relevant protagonists of the bullfighting cinematography of the period, as well as entertaining and funny anecdotes related to those movies.
In her book the author discussed how bullfighting, because of its dynamism, color and drama, motivated the French and American pioneers of the silent movies to film taurine scenes in their primitive productions. She mentions that later, in the 30's, the production of taurine movies took place in Spain and Mexico, where low quality melodramatic movies of this gender were filmed with low budgets. Their distributions did not transcend the Spanish speaking world. On the other hand, in the 50's, Hollywood made well produced successful bullfighting movies, which were seen by millions of people all over the world. But, starting in the 60's the American movie industry abandoned the taurine theme that, little by little, was becoming more 'politically incorrect'. Meanwhile, the movies with toreo content continued being filmed, primarily in Spain. However even in that country, the interest in that type of cinematography faded, to such a point that in the new century only director Pedro Almodóvar has dared to touch the topic, albeit in a tangential manner, in his movie TALK TO HER.
Muriel in chapter IV asserts that the 50's were the "golden era of bullfighting cinematography", since in those years more and better movies about toreo were made. She also mentions that several big production movies including big stars were made in Hollywood at that time. Moreover, Muriel writes that when mentioning toros in Hollywood "a name should be written with golden letters: Bud Boetticher." He directed two of the best taurine films, THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (1951) with Robert Stack in the starring role, and THE MAFNIFICENT MATADOR (1955) with Anthony Quinn acting as matador. Furthermore, movies like THE BRAVE ONE and THE SUN ALSO RISES were made in that decade. Muriel's interview with the great director and aficionado Boetticher, which took place three months before his death, and his interesting opinions and experiences in the bullfighting and film making worlds were included in her book.
Nevertheless, the Hollywood's interest in bullfighting did not begins in the 50's, since the moguls of the movie industry started to produce films with taurine themes during the silent movie era, such as BLOOD AND SAND (1922) with Rudolph Valentino, the most successful bullfighting movie of that time. The author listed, without counting documentaries, 20 American bullfighting films and about 70 with partial treatment of the subject in the filmography at the end of her work. Certainly, considering the popularity of the American movies, Hollywood cinematography has to be credited for having greatly contributed to make the art of bullfighting known all over the World.
In her introduction, the American writer claims that, although relatively few commercial movies have been made with bullfighting as the central theme of their plots, she believes that more than 500 films exist, including documentaries and regular movies, that deal direct or indirectly with taurine matters. Also, Muriel is of the opinion that the majority of the bullfighting movies lacks quality, and she says that their plots are repetitive and trivial. This is obvious to anyone who has watched a movie with toreo content, since its plot is generally simplistic and melodramatic, and the action takes place in a folkloric environment. The basic plot, with some variations, goes like this: An innocent and humble poor boy triumphs as a matador, abandons his virginal Spanish girlfriend to have an affair with a worldly woman, often a foreigner, who disappears after ruining his career and his life. The end is predictable, the young torero repents and triumphs again. Later, he marries his old love, and they live happily thereafter. Or, as divine punishment a bull kills the bullfighter.
On the other hand, a few productions have dealt with more universal themes, like TORERO with Luis Procuna, that centers its plot on the psychology of fear, or THE MOMENT OF TRUTH with "Miguelin", which deals with the struggle and daring of a human being to overcome poverty. There are also other movies that, even having a typical taurine plot, contain such an extraordinary taurine content that they appeal to the aficionados, as well as to the general audiences. That was the case of TARDE DE TOROS with Domingo Ortega, Antonio Bienvenida and Enrique Vera, and of CURRITO DE LA CRUZ with Pepín Martín Vázquez.
Furthermore, Muriel expresses her concern about the failure of the filmmakers to produce masterworks when mixing the ingredients of toreo and cinematography:
Ninety-one pages of filmograhy follow the seven chapters. This section contains references to all the movies that, basically or indirectly, deal with taurine themes. Each entry includes the names of the director, producers, toreros and actors, date, genre, nationality and a brief description of the plot of the film. By glancing at the listing of the movies, the repetition of similar plots becomes apparent, which shows the lack originality of the producers of these movies, a fact that Muriel mentions in the introduction to her work. For instance, the theme of the opera CARMEN appears on 21 occasions in movies filmed between the years 1909 and 1993, and based on the novels BLOOD AND SAND, EL NIÑO DE LAS MONJAS, and CURRITO DE LA CRUZ nine, four, and three movies respectively were produced with similar plots.
Upon completing the reading of ¡TORERO! LOS TOROS EN EL CINE, one has to admire Muriel Feiner's skill in choosing good topics for her books, which have not been overworked. Also, one has to value her ability to impart information about those topics in an entertaining manner.
Once more, the author, with her excellent command of the Spanish language and her agile and direct prose, added to her extensive knowledge of the cinematography of bullfighting, has written a well-documented book that equally enriches bullfighting and cinema bibliographies.Return to MY WRITINGS