Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many of Hollywood’s two-fisted directors of 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 decided he wanted to learn how to bullfight and wound up teaching Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for a Hollywood film. His rich cycle of Randolph Scott Westerns of the 1950s number among the greatest Westerns ever made, and in the 1960s he embarked on a real-life odyssey that became more dangerous than any fictional adventure of his movie characters. His quest to create the great bullfighting film – centred on Mexico’s great torero Carlos Arruza – took him to Mexico for seven years. He returned broke and divorced, his leading man Arruza was dead, most of his crew had passed away and Boetticher himself was lucky to survive a lung infection, a gaol sentence and a midnight commitment to an insane asylum. He subsequently directed a few, mostly overlooked productions before dedicating himself to raising and training horses, but he held out hope of a final film or two from one of the unproduced screenplays he continued to polish through the years.
When Boetticher died on 29 November 2001, his passing was barely noted. The old-fashioned studio pro with an independent streak, a colourful history and a filmography largely forgotten by modern critics had been inactive for decades. His last Hollywood credit was on 1970’s Two Mules For Sister Sara (his original script had been rewritten beyond recognition). Only Todd McCarthy, the chief film critic at Variety and its resident keeper of the film history flame, offered a worthy obituary:
An expansive, ebullient personality whose adventures as a young matador in Mexico and as a horseman throughout his life were as significant to him as his Hollywood experiences, Boetticher made modestly budgeted genre pictures marked by idiosyncratic intelligence, an austere visual style, compact storytelling and elemental force that made him both a commercially successful filmmaker during his prime and a perennial favorite of film buffs.
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Oscar “Budd” Boetticher Jr. was born in Chicago, Illinois.
I don’t really know when I was born. I know it was July 29, but I don’t know for sure if it’s 1916 or 1918. [...] I was so young when I started directing that I took the earlier one to make me seem older.
His mother died in childbirth, his father was killed by a trolley car only a few moments later, and he was adopted by Oscar and Georgia Boetticher, of Evansville, Indiana. Oscar Boetticher was the head of Boetticher and Kellog, a successful hardware concern, and Georgia was an active member of the community. “I grew up rich and spoiled and arrogant”, Boetticher joked in a 1992 interview in the San Diego Weekly Reader. “It was bad enough being rich, but to be a rich athlete, I must have really been obnoxious.”
Boetticher threw himself into track and football at Choate School for Boys for a year (“I didn’t like it so I came back home”) and Central High in Evansville, Illinois, where he added boxing to his résumé, and was captain of the football team and track squad at Culver Military Academy, a prep school. That’s where he met Hal Roach Jr, who remained his best friend for years. A knee injury sidelined him after a year and a half, and he took the rest of the year off to recuperate before going on to Ohio State. “All I wanted then was to be an athlete and a coach”, he recalled, but a second knee injury from football changed all that. “The doctors said if I was ever hit in football, I would never walk again.” Facing a year-long recovery after an operation in St Louis, his remedy was to get away from sports – and school – altogether.
In November 1939, Boetticher drove his new La Salle to Austin, Texas, picked up Culver pal Tom Joy and drove to Mexico City. It was the first stop of a planned tour of South America. After he watched his first bullfight, however, he ended the trip then and there. The event, a brilliant show of artistry by Don Lorenzo Garza that has been called one of the finest displays of toreo ever, was followed by a scandalous speech and a riot. “I couldn’t force my thoughts away from what I had witnessed that afternoon”, Boetticher remembered in his autobiography, When In Disgrace. “Never had any single event made such an impression. Perhaps it was because the art of the bullring was so dangerous. Or perhaps it was because it was so medieval.”
Boetticher had made up his mind to learn the art of toreo and he had the great fortune to study under the Don Lorenzo Garza himself, and later under the great Fermin Espinoza – nicknamed “Armillita” – and his young novillero, Carlos Arruza. It was their sponsorship that gave this big, muscular American college kid entry into a sport where Americans were almost unknown.
During his training under Armillita, Boetticher received his first goring while fighting a novillo, a three-year-old bull. After knocking him to the ground headfirst, the bull ran him through the rectum, slicing through to his stomach. The wound was compounded by the fact that bulls spin the torero on their horns once they pierce them, created a larger internal wound than appears from the initial goring. Boetticher recovered easily, though years later the wound would result in a large but benign tumour near his stomach that was finally removed in September 1989. (The surgery was more deadly than the goring; the “simple” operation developed complications and Boetticher was bedridden for six weeks as he fought infection and fever.)
When his parents, who had since moved to Los Angeles and into the social circles of the city’s élite, found out he was braving the bulls South of the border, his mother plotted ways to pull him safely back North. Her solution: land him a job as bullfighting advisor on a movie. With a little help from family friend Hal Roach, he was hired as the “bullfighting advisor” on Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand, teaching Tyrone Power his craft and advising screenwriter Jo Swerling on details of bulls and bullfighting. He arranged for his friend Armillita to double for Power in the bullfighting scenes, and he even collaborated with the studio’s assistant dance director, Geneva Sawyer, choreographing the torero’s paso doble, a dance in which the man plays the part of the torero while the woman becomes the bull, using her hands as horns, for Rita Hayworth and Anthony Quinn. He received screen credit for his effort: “El Torero dance conceived by Oscar Boetticher, Jr.”
More important to his calling and his career was his time spent with editor Barbara McLain. She called him into the editing room to help her cut together a bullfighting sequence and wound up keeping him in the editing room for two weeks, giving him a crash course in film editing. In his autobiography, Boetticher gave credit to McLain for explaining and illustrating the mechanics of storytelling in the most practical manner.
Boetticher had every intention of returning to Mexico City to finish his training and take the alternativa to become a formal matador de toros, but the bullfighting kid who never really thought much about the movies was suddenly hooked on making them. He worked full-time at Hal Roach Studios for the next year at $49 a week, working his way up through the ranks, “from messenger boy to reader to herder, where you gather up all the extras and herd them around, sort of a third assistant director, to second assistant”. Among his productions were The Pride of the Yankees (Sam Wood, 1942), where he spent a few days as a crowd-control herder during sequences shot at Wrigley Field, as well as training films for the military.
In the summer of 1942, George Stevens requested him as a second assistant director on his production, The More the Merrier, for Columbia. Stevens had never met Boetticher but had heard of him; his reputation as a bullfighter and a college athlete had circulated through Hollywood’s social circle.
According to Boetticher, Stevens didn’t get along with Columbia head Harry Cohn. Whenever Cohn would make an appearance on the set, Stevens would take a break to play handball against a backboard he had built near the set, which infuriated the cost-conscious chief. Boetticher remembered his first run-in with Cohn to Adam Parfrey of the San Diego Weekly Reader in a 1992 interview:
Cohn came on the set one day and said, “Tell that sonofobitch I want to see him.” So I said, “Sorry, sir, he’s busy.” He said “Goddammit, you sonofabitch. When I tell you to go get him, go get him.” And I said, “Don’t ever call me that again.” And he said, “What’ll you do?” And I said, “Mr. Cohn, I’ll knock you right on your ass, because compared to those black bulls coming out of that black hole, you look like the Virgin Mary.”
As Boetticher writes in his autobiography, Cohn ordered him to his office, an imposing room with a mammoth desk. He was sure he was to be fired. Instead, Cohn took stock of the cocky young man and let him go with an apology and a parting remark: “Kid, I guess I’m the sonofabitch who’s going to have to make something out of you.”
Boetticher moved on to other Columbia productions, including Charles Vidor’s 1943 release, The Desperadoes, Columbia’s first Technicolor feature:
I was the second assistant, a husky kid, and he [Vidor] looked around and said “Can anyone throw this chair and miss the guy?” I think I hit him. It was Glenn Ford so I got fired.
Cover Girl (1944), Columbia’s second Technicolor feature, marked Boetticher’s first screen credit at the studio. He was promoted to first assistant director and reunited with director Charles Vidor, who apparently forgave or forgot the incident with the chair. The $1.5 million production, according to Boetticher, “ended up having the distinction of the only picture that went 100% over budget at that time. Everybody got fired, until they saw the picture.” It became one the top-grossing films of the year and one of Columbia’s top money-makers of the decade, and Boetticher was once again promoted: he was made a director.
Columbia rose from the ranks of low-budget “quickies” to become one of the major studios and never lost sight of its origins, continuing to produce programmers and B features under the guidance of Sam and Irving Briskin. Cohn arranged for Boetticher to apprentice on the Briskin unit, which was already grooming three potential directors: Mel Ferrer, William Castle and Henry Levin. “An assistant director in those days never got a chance to direct, but I was such a lousy assistant, they figured they’d save money if they got me away from the budgets”, Boetticher joked. The apprenticeship worked like this: they would serve as dialogue director on one of the ten-to-twelve-day pictures in production, and then direct the last two days of the shoot themselves.
On 19 January 1944, Boetticher began production on The Girl in the Case to learn the ropes. The 65-minute mystery, directed by William A. Berke, stars Edmond Lowe and Janis Carter as a husband and wife detective team, patterned after the “Thin Man” series at MGM. Boetticher received screen credit as assistant director. “Comes very close to being a sleeper”, said Hollywood Reporter of the film, when it was released in May, “a fast-moving combination of action, murderous intrigue and hilarious comedy”.
After the production wrapped, Boetticher was called for his Army physical, which he passed, and assigned to his next production: U-Boat Prisoner (1944), a WWII submarine thriller starring Bruce Bennett. “Imagine giving a new director a piece of a submarine picture. Where in the devil do you put your camera?”
Boetticher described his experience as a battle of wills that could have only come from the ego-riddled world of Hollywood. The production was helmed by Lew Landers, who wasn’t happy with the idea of some young kid hanging around the set and taking over the last days of his picture. Briskin was already bristling at having Boetticher foisted upon him and he “had a deadly enemy in a man named Max Arno, who was the head of casting and one of the top executives”. According to Boetticher, Cohn left town on a business trip and Arno, on the night before production began, reassigned Boetticher to the first two days of shooting. In a panic, he tracked down Cohn by phone at the Waldorf Towers at 2am, New York time, for advice.
He said: “You can do one of two things. You can ad-lib”, which is the greatest thing a director could ever learn to do, with confidence, “or you can stay up all night and study and you’ll be so damned tired tomorrow morning you won’t be worth a damn anyway. Go to bed and ad-lib.”
He did, and when Cohn returned from New York eight days later Landers complained of Boetticher’s attitude. Cohn responded by firing Landers and letting Boetticher direct the last two days. That’s the story Boetticher gave in his autobiography. In a 1979 interview, however, he claimed that Cohn liked his footage so much that he directed the entire production with Landers standing by, “which was so unfair because he was a dear man. I directed the picture and he just sat there.”
Boetticher learned some of his most important lessons in this apprenticeship: how to stay on a 12-day schedule, how to handle the front office and how to hold your authority with a crew much older and more experienced than yourself. Perhaps he also learned the art of self-promotion. His interviews are full of hyperbole and two-fisted machismo – try and find a story where he doesn’t slip in his Hollywood reputation as a fearless professional who earns the respect of many and the wrath of a few – but they express nothing if not his complete and utter confidence in his abilities as a director, as a storyteller and as a guy who doesn’t take any bullshit from anybody, from the lowliest assistant to the studio boss. It’s hard to prove or disprove his stories about U-Boat Prisoner, but you can find the same confidence in shooting in confined spaces and the effective use of the fog in the final act – more than merely masking the budgetary limitations, it becomes a marvellous visual element as the two crews grope blindly on the sea in a deadly game of hide and seek – in his later Columbia films, most obviously in Escape in the Fog (1945).
His first credited feature, One Mysterious Night (1944), was a 60-minute Boston Blackie mystery with Chester Morris and Janis Carter, destined to be forgotten almost immediately after it was released. In 1969 he recounted to a USC film class:
My first picture had a wonderful review and I realized I had a great career because I couldn’t go anywhere but up. The review said “This film wasn’t released. It escaped.”
He signed the production by his given name: Oscar Boetticher, Jr.
It was followed by: The Missing Juror (1944), a mystery about a reporter trailing a mysterious killer who is murdering the jurors who sent a criminal to the electric chair; Youth on Trial (1945), the story of a juvenile court judge who discovers that her own daughter is one of the delinquents picked up in a roadhouse raid; A Guy, a Gal and a Pal (1946), a romantic comic-drama about a girl choosing between her two beaus, one a marine and the other a civilian; and Escape in the Fog, the tale of a shell-shocked nurse whose visions of murder ally her with a handsome American agent chased by Axis spies.
“They were terrible pictures”, he remarked in 1979.
We had eight or ten days to make a picture. We had all these people who later became stars, or didn’t, like George Macready and Nina Foch, and you never had anybody any good. I don’t mean that they weren’t good but they weren’t then, and neither were we.
Yet it was probably the best on-the-job training a young director could have, working quickly and efficiently on short schedules and tight budgets, learning the basics of pacing, composition and the direction of actors in a forum where experiments can be attempted and mistakes can be made. These early outings may not have immediately marked Boetticher as a bold new talent, but in retrospect they show a creative artist waiting for the opportunity to stretch himself. Film historian William K. Everson wrote:
One of the hallmarks of Boetticher’s ‘B’s at Columbia, especially Escape in the Fog and The Missing Juror, is that they were good enough to make one wish they had been given the budgets so that they could be even better.
Then Uncle Sam called. Boetticher was commissioned as an Ensign in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy, where he turned out documentaries and service films for both civilians and soldiers: “stories about uniform, stories about syphilis, you know, all of the things the guys needed to know and didn’t”.
One of those productions was the noted short documentary, The Fleet That Came To Stay (1946), a chronicle of the naval invasion of Okinawa put together from more than 200,000 feet of film footage shot by 103 Navy, Marine and Coast Guard Combat Photographers. Marked by harrowing shots of the thousands of Kamikaze pilots that stormed the fleet, it was one of the few Naval productions to receive theatrical distribution.
Boetticher also shot the naval sequences of Well Done, President Truman’s farewell to the troops at the conclusion of WWII, and a routine assignment that has become a legendary historical blooper: Bess Truman’s would-be christening the war’s first “Mercy Airship”, where she fruitlessly whacked a stubborn champagne bottle that refused to break across the nose of the plane.
Boetticher returned to Hollywood with a wife – Emily Erskine Cook, an Evanston, IL, girl living in New York, whom he married on 22 August 1946 in Tijuana, Mexico, after a whirlwind romance – and found himself back in the B-movie rut. After killing a year waiting for a production to materialize at Hal Roach Studios, he made a pair of programmers for Eagle-Lion: Assigned to Danger, a gangster picture starring Gene Raymond made in January 1948, and Behind Locked Doors, a mystery featuring Lucille Bremer and Richard Carlson, shot in June of the same year.
In 1949 he directed three pictures for Lindsley Parsons and Monogram: The Wolf Hunters, starring Kirby Grant as a Canadian Mountie tracking a murderer, and Black Midnight and Killer Shark (1950), both with Roddy McDowell (who also co-produced). When his pal Hal Roach signed a deal with Magnavox to produce the first made-for-television movie, Boetticher shot the 69-page script to The Three Musketeers (1950) in three-and-a-half days (he went half a day over schedule) for a salary of $500. The film was repackaged and released theatrically in 1953 under the title, Blades of the Musketeers.
Boetticher saw only one way to pull himself from the mire of low-budget quickies: write his own script. And he had just the story, loosely based on his experiences as bullfighter. He told the story, which he called “Torero” at the time, to Andrew McLaglen, his assistant director on Killer Shark, during a break in the filming in November 1949. McLaglen relayed the story to James Edward Grant, one of John Wayne’s best friends and a prolific screenwriter, who brought it to Wayne. The Duke decided to produce the film himself, through Republic Pictures, with Grant scripting from Boetticher’s treatment, and Robert Stack in the starring role of Regan. Boetticher trained Stack for a month in the US before heading to Mexico, where Stack became the student of Mexico’s finest toreros for the next twelve weeks. He discovered that Stack was a world champion skeet shooter and put it into the picture, and then rewrote what he described as “Jimmy’s drunken version of what he thought bulls and bullfighters were like”.
Stack had his hair bleached to a platinum blonde, which not only added a certain flamboyance to the character, but made him leap out of the dark-haired Mexican crowds. Gilbert Roland was cast as Regan’s mentor, Manolo Estrada, the successful matador inspired by Boetticher’s mentors, Lorenzo Garza and Armillita, and Mexican star Katy Jurardo made her American debut as his fiery wife.
As Stack remembers it, production was initially stalled until someone remembered to bribe the Mexican film workers union. Shooting began in beautiful black and white, “because of the blood”, according to Boetticher: “I would never have gotten close-ups of the bullfights and the bulls in color at that particular time. We would have been edited out of the theater.”
Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), as it was retitled, is the story of a brash, cocky American who blunders his way through tradition like a bull in a China shop. Filled with a reverence for the tradition of torero and a love of the Mexican culture, the film was almost not released. First Sidney Franklin, the bullfighter from Brooklyn, sued the studio and Boetticher for plagiarism while the film was nearing completion, but dropped the suit soon afterwards. Then Ray Nazarro, a pal from Boetticher’s Columbia tenure, demanded screen credit and half of Boetticher’s salary. Boetticher had dictated his synopsis to a friend of Nazarro’s in the MGM story department and Nazarro submitted it the writer’s guild, but he registered it under both of their names. His story credit remains on the film. Finally, Grant was incensed when he saw that his script had been entirely disregarded and, according to Boetticher, “snowed the Duke into becoming completely disenchanted with me”. The picture sat on the shelf and nobody dared to screen it; Wayne and his cronies referred to it as “The Mexican Hassle”. Then John Ford stepped in.
“John Ford cut the picture to help me get it out”, he told National Public Radio in 1987.
He said “You’ve got about 40 minutes of chi-chi crap.” Well the chi-chi crap that he cut out was the sentimentality of Mexico, the children of Mexico, the real romance between Stack and Roland. Men who are real men can show affection for other men, and that was cut out of the picture.
All of that tradition, the history of bullfighting and the grandeur of Boetticher’s vision were trimmed down, from a sweeping 124 minute drama to a tight, exciting 87-minute love-story melodrama. What’s missing in this cut version is the richness. Even the gorgeous skip-frame slow-motion finale, which turned the climactic bullfight into something almost mythic, frozen in time, was replaced with more of the crowds-eye shots of traditional bullfight footage.
In 1987, the UCLA Film Archive restored Boetticher’s film to the full length, using a duplicate negative discovered in the Library of Congress and Robert Stack’s private 16mm print of the uncut preview version. In this longer version, the transformation of Stack’s headstrong, cocky American to a modest and respectful torero is almost spiritual, and the extended bullfights, the songs and the festivals and the sense of serenity among the bullfight community between the Sunday arena matches create a whole different world from that of the trimmed original release version. And the imagery of these scenes is delicious, a sentimental vision of peasant life, to be sure, but also a respectful one, where the details are not trumpeted as exotica in tourist brochure close-ups but woven through the backgrounds of scene after scene.
The Boetticher we know as Budd was born with this film, the first he claimed as one of “his” pictures, and he marked the occasion by changing his screen credit. It read: “Directed by Budd Boetticher.” Bullfighter and the Lady earned him a 1951 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story. “I don’t think any other director in film history has switched so suddenly, so dramatically or so successfully from ‘B’ to ‘A’ product in one leap”, opined William Everson.
Universal Studios immediately offered him a contract and he jumped at it, little realizing what drudgery was ahead. He signed a forty-week-a-year, seven-year optional contract at $750 a week, and ended up in the mid-list salt-mines of Universal, which were almost as constraining as his B-movie assignments: bland scripts and little creative opportunity, but with bigger budgets and better actors.
Boetticher was assigned to his first production, The Cimarron Kid (1951), within days of signing his contract. He was shooting in less than three weeks. Produced by Ted Richmond and starring Audie Murphy as an ex-convict who tries to go straight but falls back in with his old gang, it was Boetticher’s first colour film, but, perhaps more historically important, it was his first Western: “I became a western director because they thought I looked like one and they thought I rode better than anyone else. And I didn’t know anything about the west.”
He was assigned almost immediately to another Richmond production, Bronco Buster (1952), a rodeo film featuring John Lund as a champion rider, Tom Moody, who takes Bart Eaton (newcomer Scott Brady) under his wing. At the climax of the picture, a Brahma bull fatally gores a rodeo clown. Boetticher stepped into the arena with his cape to manœuver him in front of the camera, where the bull was to catch the costumed dummy on his horns. According to Boetticher, the stands were packed with studio executives and employees on the day of shooting. They wanted to know if the rumours of a bullfighting director were true.
“Producers like Ted Richmond, they were jokes”, Boetticher confided in interviews, but his next production, Red Ball Express (1952), was with Aaron Rosenberg, an All American football player at USC.
He was, I guess, my favorite producer of all time because he was so damn honest. […] He and I had a lot of arguments because we both wanted to make better pictures than Universal wanted us to make.
The drama of the Army Transportation Corps and its daring efforts to continue trucking supplies to General Patton as his tanks outran the Allied supply lines was the most technically complex production Boetticher had attempted, with four weeks of location shooting at Fort Eustis in Virginia and a climax that entailed a convoy moving through a burning village (two-and-a-half buildings on the Universal backlot burned to the ground in the production). But Boetticher was unsatisfied of the compromises. In a letter to Universal, the Department of Defense insisted that the presentation of race relations be modified and “that the positive angle be emphasized”. Boetticher explained in 1979:
The army wouldn’t let us tell the truth about the black troops because the government figured they were expendable. Our government didn’t want to admit they were kamikaze pilots. They figured if one out of ten trucks got through, they’d save Patton and his tanks.
Boetticher made nine films altogether in his two years at Universal, including the tropical adventures City Beneath the Sea (1953), starring Robert Ryan and Anthony Quinn as deep-sea divers searching for a sunken city near Jamaica, and East of Sumatra (1953), with Jeff Chandler as an engineer at a South Seas mining operation (“just a fun film to make all my friends some money”), plus four more Westerns. You can see Boetticher still searching for his voice is such films as Horizons West (1952), starring Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson as half brothers turned enemies, and the colourful Seminole (1953), Lt Lance Caldwell (Rock Hudson) leading the US Cavalry into the Everglades to fight Indians. Boetticher starts to find it in The Man From the Alamo (1953), his second production with Rosenberg. It is the story of a man shunned for leaving the Alamo, branded a coward even though his act was one of duty and honour, and his mission of vengeance is courageous and honourable. Glenn Ford is the silent hero, who keeps the truth locked behind a clenched face and an anguished heart as he seeks the men who slaughtered his family. Arguably Boetticher’s best film from the Universal period, it’s a tight little Western with well-staged action scenes and an outcast hero. Just why Ford’s character keeps the truth hidden is unclear, but the emotional isolation and defiant individuality is the root of Boetticher’s later Randolph Scott cycle, and Ford’s tortured hero driven by revenge and haunted by ghosts of the past looks forward to Scott’s taciturn performances
The 3-D Western Wings of the Hawk (1953) would be Boetticher’s last film for Universal. After two years and nine films, Boetticher was pretty fed up with the whole studio. In many ways, Universal was like Columbia. The budgets were larger, the shooting schedules longer and the stars bigger, but it was still a factory. Boetticher was often rushed into productions with little time to prepare by producers looking to the bottom line: time and money. Wings of the Hawk wrapped in May 1953 and in June he took leave from Universal to shoot the independent production, The Americano, in Brazil, with Glenn Ford in the lead. The production immediately ran into problems, and cast and crew waited for weeks in Sao Paulo for the promised financing to materialise. With time running out, Boetticher set out with Ford to shoot what he could of the jungle. “I filmed zebu bulls and crocodiles and snakes and wild boars and piranha”, but ultimately Boetticher left the production and William Castle (who apprenticed with Boetticher at Columbia) took over, recasting the supporting characters and shooting it entirely in the US, though he incorporated some of Boetticher’s Brazil footage.
Boetticher was meanwhile busy preparing his next production, an original bullfighting drama that he called “The Number One” (“because the matador was the first to stick his finger in the air and say ‘I am number one.’”), but was released as The Magnificent Matador (1955). The story of a renowned matador who flees the ring and loses his reputation until an admirer helps him recover his courage and return to the ring in triumph, it was written for Anthony Quinn, whom Boetticher had met on Blood and Sand and had directed in three films at Universal. Maureen O’Hara was cast as the American adventuress who romances the matador and Boetticher’s bullfighting pal Carlos Arruza, now retired from the ring and raising bulls on his ranch Pastaje, was technical advisor. It was also Boetticher’s first collaboration with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who became one of his closest friends. Boetticher admitted in a 1964 interview:
It wasn’t a success. There was too much money at stake, and I let myself be influenced. I shot it too fast. I promised myself that it would be the last time I didn’t do it exactly the way I wanted.
The Killer Is Loose (1956), the story of a criminal whose wife is killed by a police detective during his arrest and plots to murder the cop’s wife in revenge, reunited Boetticher with Ballard, this time on a low-budget, black-and-white crime thriller that Boetticher made “because I wanted to get to know Joe Cotten better”. The most striking scene of the film looks forward to the brutal, often grotesque deaths scenes in the Randolph Scott Westerns. Escaped killer Leon Poole (Wendell Corey) holds his former sergeant, Otto Flanders (John Larch), at gun point, speaking slow and deliberately as Flanders, milk bottle in hand, attempts to reason with Poole. Poole quietly comes to the conclusion that he can’t allow Flanders to live and shoots him. The milk bottle shatters with the gunshot, vividly displaying the violence symbolically that can’t be shown realistically. The sudden explosion shatters the tension of the deliberately measured scene and the burst of white milk against Flanders’ black suit gives the aural jolt a striking visual dimension.
Boetticher’s career wasn’t visibly improving as an independent. He had one aborted project, one rushed medium-budget film and one low-budget thriller to his credit since leaving Universal, and nothing on the horizon. Then John Wayne called him on the final day of The Killer is Loose to show him an original screenplay penned by a young writer he under contract to Batjac. The author was Burt Kennedy and the screenplay was “Seven Men From Now”.
Budd Boetticher and John Wayne hadn’t seen much of each other since Bullfighter and the Lady, due in part to the feud started by James Edward Grant, but time and the success of the film seemingly healed all wounds. Wayne had recently signed a young screenwriter named Burt Kennedy on the strength of a series of unproduced half-hour western comedy scripts, and was shooting interiors for John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), when he heard that Boetticher was a couple of stages away making The Killer is Loose, so he called Boetticher over.
“Bood [as John Wayne took to pronouncing Budd; Boetticher took great joy in recounting in a wicked Wayne drawl], I’ve got a script over here I want you to read.” I picked it up at lunch and I read thirty-five pages and I walked back on the set 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 thirty-five pages. This is brilliant! I’d like to meet the author.” He said, “Bood Boetticher, Burt Kennedy.”
The plot is simple: Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) is a former sheriff driven by vengeance and guilt as he tracks the men who killed his wife in a hold-up. He becomes the unwitting guide to an ill-equipped couple of homesteaders and the little group is filled out when a pair of outlaws join in. Wayne had considered starring in it himself, but, having just coming off of one Western, declined the role. “I said ‘Who do you want to play the lead, Duke?,’ and he said, ‘Well, let’s use Randolph Scott, he’s through’”, recalled Boetticher. Craggy and stiff, Scott had long been out of vogue but was quite happy turning out Westerns under his own brand and was doing quite well, thank you very much (he died with a personal wealth of more than $100 million due to these Westerns and a few cagey investments in real estate). Lee Marvin was the villain on Kennedy’s suggestion and Gail Russell was cast as Annie Greer, the love interest. Russell hadn’t made a picture since 1951; her career was stalled after a number of well-publicized arrests for drunk driving, a romantic scandal involving John Wayne (she was named in his divorce trial) and a lengthy hospital stay for hepatitis.
This terse, austere, ruthless Western, Kennedy’s first feature screenplay, proved to be a perfect fit with Boetticher. It’s a model of austerity, watertight but never obvious or ornate in its complications, Boetticher pared himself down to the rugged essentials and wrenched up the tension between the central characters, isolated in the empty desert, with remarkable economy. The dialogue is written as if every word counts, whether it’s the garrulous nonsense of John Greer (Walter Reed); the tension-defusing interruptions of his peacekeeping wife, Annie; the needling, stinging remarks of mercenary gunslinger Bill Masters (an insolent, impudent, peacock of a Lee Marvin performance); or the terse almost monosyllabic observations and answers of Ben Stride, who more often than not answers a question with another, like a challenge. Scott’s “limitations” as an actor are a defining part of his character: inexpressive, inflexible, hard, with a voice that masks his feelings and a body that is perfectly graceful riding a horse or handling a gun. He tenses like an athlete when he senses danger or readies for a showdown, and becomes gawky and awkward in intimate moments.
A creative partnership was born. “Burt Kennedy and I by this time were a team”, Boetticher remembered decades later.
We just agreed on what was good and what was bad. [...] He would write a script and maybe I would have three suggestions, because he knew that no matter what kind of script he wrote, no matter how good it was, I would make it better and he wouldn’t worry.
Kennedy concurred: “Budd always made a good film from my scenarios. He managed to make them much better than they were on paper.”
Scott quickly signed Boetticher for his own production company, Scott-Brown, which would officially become Ranown a couple of films later, and Boetticher directed him in six more films: The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960). The otherwise forgettable Westbound (1959) was a one-off for Warner Bros., a contractual obligation Boetticher directed out of friendship, not passion. But the films written by Burt Kennedy create a cycle that stands next to the greatest Western classics of Anthony Mann and John Ford.
Volumes have been filled with descriptions of the Boetticher-Kennedy superstructure, the “floating poker games where every character [take] turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown” (as described by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, the first American critical re-appraisal of Boetticher’s career), but the life of his films are in the vividly realized characters, the rich frontier simplicity of the dialogue, the brilliant use of the Lone Pine landscape to create a self contained world as unique to Boetticher as Monument Valley was to Ford.
Lone Pine was a California town located 215 miles northeast of Hollywood surrounded by a variety of landscapes: flat meadows, arid desert, the gentle Owens River, the Inyo-Mono Mountains, the Sierras and, most spectacular, the Alabama Hills, formed by jutting, forbidding lava formations. “It’s about as primitive as you can get”, Boetticher once observed, and it was a popular location for Hollywood Westerns. Boetticher turned it into a kind of frontier lost world, a purgatory for Scott’s guilt-driven heroes. The tiny little production unit would travel through Lone Pine and you can feel Boetticher become more responsive to the landscape with each film. A grace permeates these films, not merely of visual style in Boetticher’s long takes and gentle, moving cameras but a respect for the friendships that can never be and the world that hammers characters on the anvil of the terrain.
Boetticher had one commitment to perform before embarking on his contract. He had agreed to appear in a benefit bullfight in Tijuana organized by Carlos Arruza and his manager Ruben Padilla. Boetticher’s participation brought a large Hollywood crowd to the benefit, including, according to Boetticher, a very inebriated John Wayne, who stepped out of his limousine as Boetticher walked to the ring with Arruza and Silverio Perez.
Wayne’s pilot is holding him up. He’s got one of those big quart bottles of tequila here (in one hand) and he’s got a big Coca-Cola here (in the other) and he’s drunk! I say, “Hey Duke, what are you doing here”’ He says, “Well Jesus Christ, Bood, if you’re gonna get yourself killed I sure as hell want to see it!”
Needless to say, Boetticher didn’t get himself killed. In fact, he cut the first ear of the day, to the cheers of his Hollywood friends who had packed the stands, a fitting way to mark his last public appearance in the ring.
The Tall T was initially a Batjac production, a follow-up to Seven Men, based on the Elmore Leonard story, “The Captives”, and scripted by Kennedy. Scott-Brown bought the property and the script and negotiated the loan-out of Kennedy, who was still under contract to Batjac, and brought them all to their studio, Columbia. Boetticher was back at the studio where he started directing, but this time he was on his own terms. A creative partnership was born and this essential structure would become a model for future collaborations.
From Seven Men through Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, Kennedy’s scripts hew to a basic formula. The Tall T breaks the formula slightly but the impetus is the same: pare the screen down to a small but combustible group and get them out of town and into the desert, where the bluffs and feints can begin. Randolph Scott stars as struggling rancher, Pat Brennan, a likable fellow in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Richard Boone is his villain counterpart Frank Usher, the charismatic and ruthlessly charming leader of a small gang of homicidal punks who hijack the stage that has picked up the laconic cowboy. It’s supposed to be a shipment of silver but instead they find ageing newlywed Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan), the “homely” heir to a mining fortune, and her conniving, cowardly husband, Walter (John Hubbard), who sells her out to save his own skin. The heist turns into a kidnapping, but Usher unexpectedly lets the unnecessary Brennan live. He likes Brennan, a man where his gang members are merely boys (and stunted, shallow ones at that), a realist not afraid to admit he’s scared yet never showing it in his face, and the one person in Usher’s admittedly limited social circle he can confide in.
The rest of the picture is a tight character drama of shifting relationships as Brennan uses his wiles and wits to isolate and kill the individual gang members, who have already murdered Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt, in a small but memorable role as a stage driver), and a stagecoach station manager and his young son.
The violence in The Tall T is shockingly brutal without being explicit. The father and son are already dead when we discover the news, their bodies unceremoniously dumped in the well. One gang member (Skip Homeier) has his face blown off with a shotgun under his chin (the shot is left offscreen and his body draped in shadow and burlap), and the climactic shoot-out leaves Usher grotesquely staggering around, shot in the face, the gore concealed by a burlap sack.
Usher is the greatest of the charming antagonists that Boetticher and Kennedy love so much, and Boone is brilliant in the role: quiet in his command, both alert and relaxed, ready to jerk to attention. He expertly, pitilessly runs the show, and his easy body language couldn’t be more different from the stiff, self-conscious carriage of Scott, or from the insolent, lazy lean of the punk gunman, Chink (Henry Silva). The language is equally defining. Scott, true to form, gets all the arch clichés in tough, terse bites and he delivers them in his usual flat tenor, but the two illiterate gunmen played by Silva and Skip Homeier speak in a kind of frontier poetry of simple words and offbeat grammar that communicates immaturity, lack of education and petty yet impassioned dreams with an unexpected sensitivity. Violent as they are, these boys are full of life and feeling.
Boetticher shot the 18-day production films sparingly, so that there was only one way to put the film together. “It was cut on the set”, he described in a 1989 interview. The editor “couldn’t eliminate anything [...] because there wasn’t anything to eliminate. He just pieced the thing together. [...] And that was the movie.” Boetticher’s editing training during Blood and Sand had come to good use, and his years directing at the Universal factory had honed some very practical skills. “You have to learn to cut if you’re a director. [...] And you have to learn to shoot so they can’t screw it up by using something else.”
Before embarking on his next Randolph Scott film, Boetticher helped define another Western icon, this one for television. Writer-producer Roy Huggins had created a show about two poker-playing, con-artist brothers who travelled the West for the 1957-8 season, with James Garner and Jack Kelley cast in the leads. “Special Project 6909” became Maverick and in March 1957 Boetticher was brought in to direct the pilot, an episode titled “Conflict”. The story of how Bret Maverick (James Garner) leads a group of miners against a conniving silver magnate, it was renamed “War of the Silver Kings” by the time it was shown to executives. The series got the green light and Boetticher returned to direct what would become the second and third broadcast episodes after shooting his third Randolph Scott film.
Decision at Sundown, based on a story by Vernon L. Fluharty and scripted by Charles Lang (Kennedy was still under contract to Batjac), stars Scott as a bitter lawman out to kill the man who ran off with his wife.
I didn’t like Decision at Sundown [...] It wasn’t a Randolph Scott character. It was the story of a town, the story of a lot of people. [...] it was the old fashioned Randolph Scott picture, it wasn’t the kind of pictures that Burt and I made together.
Despite Boetticher’s misgivings, it remains an odd and intriguing little picture and Scott makes one of his most memorable entrances: he holds up a coach from the inside, then steps off to let it go its own way.
Westbound, however, is a genuine disappointment, a picture that Scott owed Warner Bros. from his 1949 contract, that Boetticher undertook to help preserve the new identity he had helped to forge. “It wasn’t worth my while but it salvaged what could have been the end of Randolph Scott [...]” The film contains one powerful, shocking sequence – the violent death of a one-armed stagecoach way-station operator (Michael Dante) in an unexpected shotgun blast just as he’s learned to pump a rifle with one arm – but is otherwise the least of Boetticher’s Westerns with Scott.
Boetticher and Scott returned to Scott-Brown and Columbia for Buchanan Rides Alone, the black comedy of a lone but momentarily wealthy cowboy (Scott) who wanders into the corrupt Agryville and runs afoul of the amoral, backstabbing Agry family that runs the town. Charles Lang scripted from the Jonas Ward novel, The Name’s Buchanan, but Boetticher was dissatisfied with the adaptation and called Kennedy for an uncredited rewrite, keeping him on the set for the whole shoot as they ad-libbed the production. According to Kennedy:
Budd said to me, “It would be nice if Charles Lang got the credit on this picture, because he’s just starting and really needs it,” and I said, “Fine,” because credits never meant so much to me […]
Between films, Boetticher took extended leaves to go down to Mexico to shoot Arruza’s bullfights for his dream projects; he shot eighteen separate bullfights over eighteen weekends during the Scott films, photographed by Lucien Ballard, Carlos Caravajal and Boetticher himself. The bullfights would provide the background and foundation for his documentary, Arruza, which Boetticher would begin in earnest in 1961.
Boetticher struck a new deal for his last two pictures with Scott and Brown. He became the producer of his films, Brown became executive producer and the production banner was changed from Scott-Brown to Ranown. Kennedy’s contract at Batjac had expired and Ranown made a deal with him to write original scripts for Boetticher’s next two productions.
Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station are a pair of films with almost identical plots but essential, elegant differences. Like variations on a theme, these films pare the thematic music down to the essential. They become more austere. They become more abstract. They exist entirely outside of civilization, with only stagecoach stations to remind the characters of its existence. The only humans that cross their path are Indians (themselves more a part of the natural world than the social world of frontier towns) or dying settlers. Completely isolated from society, it’s as if Scott’s leathery heroes live in a perpetual state of wandering, a prisoner of the desert (to borrow a ricochet reference from Ford’s The Searchers).
Scott plays self-imposed outcasts with a past and a mission, and his journeys become wound up with a woman he saves/escorts and a collection of mercenary outlaws who invite themselves along as riding companions and competitors: both after the same thing and neither ready to back down. Yet these men that would see each other dead will save each other’s lives before the final showdown.
In Ride Lonesome, the men are Boone and Wid (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn, in his film debut), outlaws who want to start fresh. Bringing in wanted man Billy John (James Best, at his punk-kid best) will give them amnesty, but Scott’s driven bounty hunter, Brigade, has already captured him and he’s on a mission of vengeance against Billy John’s ruthless criminal brother (Lee Van Cleef, who brings an oily charm to the role). In Comanche Station, it’s Ben Lane (Claude Akins), a smiling snake of a outlaw who wants the reward that Scott’s Jefferson Cody is due for rescuing a white woman (Nancy Gates) from Indian captivity.
Boetticher’s visual style settled into the CinemaScope of Ride Lonesome. With the addition of widescreen, Boetticher shot longer takes, often shooting complete travelling scenes in one long take using a dolly car. The films chronicle long journeys, with pauses and stops along the way, which begin and end in the wilderness, and again the terrain is used to dramatic effect. Scott makes his entrance into each film walking through a sheer crevice, hemmed in by walls of rock on either side, and this image is the defining state of his world: barren deserts, rugged plains where the rocks jut out of the earth instead of trees, and featureless valleys, all ringed by distant mountains that are as much fences as borders, trapping them in a domain far from civilization. Even when the films leave the sun-parched desert for the green coolness of the forest (Boetticher carefully paces the rhythm of landscape his parties travel through), it’s merely an oasis in the self-inflicted purgatory.
“A man needs a reason to ride this country. You gotta reason?”, Scott’s characters ask the men he meets. More than a valid query, it’s a telling one. These characters are driven by the past and can’t stop talking of the future, but the films are viscerally in the moment, in the now, as if neither past nor future exist. When all is said and done, these are American frontier odysseys with tragic dimensions. At the end of each film, Scott escorts his party back to the fringes of civilization, but turns back into to wilderness himself. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards suffers the same fate in one of the great American films of all time, The Searchers, but as Randolph Scott turns away time and time again, driven by the ghosts of his past in Seven Men, in Ride Lonesome, in Comanche Station, to a self-imposed exile, the quietly understated gesture is transformed into an existential expression of impossible loss.
Talk is the domain of Kennedy’s antagonists, from Bill Masters and Frank Usher to Boone in Ride Lonesome and Ben Lane in Comanche Station. Where Scott’s hard-bitten heroes keep their plans to themselves until they’re forced to reveal them, these garrulous, swank gents can’t help but revel in their plans, whether it’s a taunt (in Lane’s case) or a matter of forthright respect (Boone). And one of the things they talk about to almost embarrassing extremes is sex. The erotic rhapsodies of Pernell Robert’s Boone, pitched to Karen Steele’s Mrs Lane in Ride Lonesome, is the ultimate expression, and one has to wonder how much Boetticher’s romance with Steele influenced this almost pornographic blank verse (couched, as always, in colloquial dialogue and delivered with a longing sigh by Roberts). Never has a woman been reduced to such a pure sexual object in a Boetticher film – Steele’s arch performance doesn’t help humanize her, but that hardly explains the body-hugging costume and torpedo-breast blouse – yet there is a strange, powerful expression of loneliness, of lust, of desire in his dialogue.
These are the qualities that bring life to the archetypes, the themes, the poker games of the Boetticher-Kennedy films. It’s no surprise that these films were ignored by the critical establishment. This was, after all, the age of the super-Western, the “adult” Western, the psychologically shaded studies and symbolic commentaries. Where the heavy-handed “sophistication” of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and the mock mythicism of Shane (George Stevens, 1953), with their stock villains and stalwart heroes and the self-aggrandizing direction of Hollywood pros trying to “lift” the silly little Western genre into art, look all the more plastic and pretentious with the years, Boetticher’s tight, taut, often savage little pictures are both graceful and visceral, direct and rich in character. The Boetticher-Kennedy Westerns aren’t concerned with history or social commentary. These are simply Westerns reduced to their essentials, lean stories about men on the frontier living a life in a dangerous, inhospitable world and they look better than ever today.
Boetticher made one more film before he too turned his back on civilization and wandered into the desert. The offbeat gangster picture The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) stars Ray Danton as the real-life dancer turned urban thug and mob killer, and Karen Steele as his girlfriend, Alice. “Legs Diamond was a big hoax. In real life Diamond was a son of a bitch, probably the worst man who ever lived”, Boetticher told Bertrand Tavernier in a 1964 interview.
As I progressed in my research I realized I couldn’t possibly make a film out of it, and I didn’t want to. I’d seen the crowds of films like Scarface [Howard Hawks, 1932] and I decided the public would be sick of all those mass killings and bursts of machine-gun fire. So I decided to make a comedy out of it, a real comedy about Legs Diamond and Alice; I mean that inside a serious framework I adopted a comic style and a comic tone, treating tragic scenes in quite a light manner, with gags.
Boetticher and cinematographer Lucien Ballard decided to shoot the black-and-white film as if it had been made in the 1920s, during the reign of the real Legs Diamond. This meant cutting out all camera movements except for pans, shooting “flat” compositions rather than emphasizing depth in the frame, and over- and under-exposing scenes to emphasize the contrast between the darkness of Danton’s Diamond and the lightness of Steele’s Alice. Boetticher remembers his clash with producer Milt Sperling over that stylistic choice:
So at the first day of rushes, here came my producer, and he said “Budd, I thought you said that Lucien Ballard was a good cameraman?,” and I said “Quote me correctly: he’s a great cameraman.” He said “Well my god, this stuff looks like its been shot in 1920.” So how you gonna win?
Budd and Emily had separated in April 1956 and Emily sued for divorce in 1957, between Decision at Sundown and Westbound. While waiting for the divorce to become final, Boetticher began a tempestuous relationship with an actress he met on Decision at Sundown. In his autobiography, he referred to her, alternately, as “Lady Guinevere” and “Morgan le Fay,” but she was in fact Karen Steele. She went on to featured roles in three more Boetticher features during their three-year relationship: “the saddest three years of my life. Because I was such an idiot.”
Legs Diamond marked the end of Boetticher’s relationship with Karen Steele. Then Lucien Ballard introduced him to Debra Paget. After a whirlwind romance they married in March 1960 and, on 7 May 1961, Boetticher and Paget drove their new white and silver Rolls Royce to “Pastaje”, Carlos Arruza’s ranch, where Boetticher planned to begin his dream project in earnest. Legs Diamond would be Boetticher’s last Hollywood film for almost a decade, for Boetticher would spend the 1960s sacrificing everything to complete his labour of love, the documentary Arruza.
Boetticher had long dreamed of making the definitive bullfight film. After Bullfighter and the Lady and The Magnificent Matador, two works of Hollywood fiction, he turned his energies to documentary, specifically a portrait of Mexico’s greatest torero, Carlos Arruza, and his return to the corrida as a rejoneador, a horseback bullfighter. In October 1957, Boetticher formed a partnership with Randolph Scott to film Arruza, and on 5 May 1958 he began shooting in Nogales, Mexico. Over the next three years, Boetticher shot weekend bullfights between, and sometimes during, his Hollywood productions – eighteen separate bullfights in all – to gather material that would become the background to his narrative.
With the necessary footage recorded, Boetticher headed to “Pastaje” in 1961 with Paget, who would portray Arruza’s wife Mari in the fictionalised docu-drama that would frame the documentary bullfights. Boetticher had some of the financing secured, a script and a cast, and figured the shoot would last a few months. He had counted on Mexican financing to cover the final $200,000 of the budget, but the hoped-for investments never came through and Boetticher’s business manager Jeff Martin was unable to secure the amount Stateside. Finally, just as the money came through, a motion picture industry strike in Mexico froze all productions.
Boetticher entered a period of depression, marked by heavy drinking, and Paget (pressured by an overprotective mother, who Boetticher insists never approved of him or their marriage) left him. Boetticher’s explanation of the divorce is unusual to say the least: he refused to leave Mexico until Arruza was completed and Paget, who was due in Europe for a film, refused to leave Boetticher while he waited out the strike. According to Boetticher, the only way he could save Paget’s career was to force her to leave, so he went on a drinking binge. She was granted a divorce on 25 September 1961. She would not be the last sacrifice he made for his art.
As Boetticher battled with his business partners for control of the picture over the next few years, they “arranged” to have him committed at the Sanitarium of the Flowers in Tlalpan and gaoled for non-payment of his hotel bill. Over the next few years, money was secured and lost and Boetticher, peso-less, was kept alive through residuals from his Maverick episodes, the help of friends and his own tenacity. He raised the necessary capital to shoot Arruza for two last corridas in Mexico City on 23 January and 6 February 1966, and was finally in a position to complete his production (with Elsa Cardenas, one of Mexico’s top starlets, cast in Paget’s place) when Carlos Arruza was killed in a car accident on 20 May 1966. With his leading man dead, his creditors began pressuring him once more. Temporary help came through from his old friend, Audie Murphy, who covered his immediate debts. Finally, while editing his final footage of Arruza at nights in the Churubusco Studios, Boetticher developed galloping pneumonia and was hospitalised. The doctors gave up hope on his surviving. Weeks later, he walked out of the hospital.
Fellow Western director John Sturges stepped in and paid off Boetticher’s outstanding debts and provided him with the capital to complete the production. Arruza’s real-life wife and children were drafted to play themselves in the final scenes (watching Arruza’s last fight on a television screen), and Sturges hired Ken Purdy to rewrite the narration and Jason Robards to narrate the English version. Sturges, now the film’s producer, was unhappy with Boetticher’s approach and recut the film himself, but Boetticher’s contract guaranteed him artistic control and he wrestled the film back. His final, uncompromised cut features his structure, the score he originally conceived, and his own narration, spoken by Anthony Quinn. Early versions of the film were screened privately at MGM and later at the 1968 San Francisco Film Festival, but Boetticher’s complete Arruza was premiered in Tijuana on 22 May 1971 in a gala presentation. Boetticher used the strength of the Los Angeles reviews to sell Jospeh E. Levine on distributing the film through his company Avco-Embassy. The struggle to complete and release Arruza, which had begun in 1958, was finally over thirteen years later.
The trials and challenges faced by Boetticher on the creation of Arruza are the stuff of legends. The adventure is too great and complicated to fully encapsulate here – Boetticher dedicates two-thirds of 391-page autobiography, When In Disgrace, to chronicling this spellbinding odyssey – but (to quote another maverick filmmaker) “It’s all true.”
Everything about Mexico was just amazing. But it’s all true. When I first came back no one believed me. They knew I was alive, they didn’t how, but everything happened.
Quentin Tarantino once expressed interest in putting this story on the screen. It deserves it
While the Randolph Scott Westerns represent the critical high-water mark of Boetticher’s career, Arruza is the film that defines Boetticher’s character. For seven years, Boetticher lived in Mexico, broke most of the time, and faced imprisonment and death, because he would refused to give up and compromise his vision. Boetticher remarked in a 1970 interview:
I did not compromise on any shot in Arruza. And I still sit in the theater and cry a little and love it and shout “Olé” at my friend. So I cut Arruza. Right or wrong, that’s it.
During the final years of Arruza, Boetticher started developing other projects. He finished two original screenplays, “A Time For Dying” and “Two Mules For Sister Sara”, both of which were produced, and two original story ideas, titled “A Horse For Mr. Barnum” and “When There’s Sumpthin’ To Do”, to date still unproduced.
A Time For Dying (1969) became Boetticher’s last feature. The story reads like a dark twist on his Scott Westerns: a naïve farm boy with a talent for shooting falls in with an equally naïve young woman from the East, lured West by the promise a job that turns out to be prostitution. Too innocent and dim to understand their predicaments – a kangaroo court trial by Judge Roy Bean, a meeting with Jesse James, and a shoot-out with psychotic gunfighter Billy Pimple – they become two more victims of the lawless frontier. The production was set with Peter Fonda as the kid when Audie Murphy, in desperate need of money to cover his gambling debts, approached him. Boetticher turned the film into a low-budget production, cast inexpensive no-names in the leads, with Victor Jory as Roy Bean and Murphy as Jesse James, a small but impressive part. The financing was shady and the film was never meant to play the US, and when Audie Murphy died in 1971 the ownership of the film was thrown into question. Though it had played on television, it made its belated New York theatrical debut in 1982, where both Vincent Canby and Andrew Sarris praised it.
Boetticher’s original screenplay for Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970) revolved around a loner cowboy who comes across a nun making her way through the Mexican desert by herself. The cowboy becomes her protector and, when he finally helps her across the American border, he discovers that she is actually Mexican nobility in disguise to escape the revolution. By the time it reached the screen, under the direction of Don Siegel, it had been completely rewritten. Boetticher had scripted the gentle sunset Western for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, and sold it with the provision that he was to direct, but producer Carroll Case made a deal with Martin Rackin at Universal, who brought in Seigel to direct and in Albert Maltz to rewrite the script for Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine. Suddenly the royal lady was a prostitute working for the revolutionaries and the cowboy a snarling mercenary. Boetticher sued Case, Rackin and Universal for breach of contract, then sued for screen credit when Maltz formally requested the WGA for solo screen credit. He lost his suits and his script credit; his name on the film appears as “Original story by Budd Boetticher”.
You could say that Boetticher left Hollywood after A Time For Dying. After a brief, impulsive marriage to Margo Jenson in 1969, he met Mary Chelde. They married on 19 June 1972 and spent a few fruitless years trying to put deals together. After a series of frustrations, Budd and Mary pooled their resources and struck out in a different direction. They travelled to Europe (where he was fêted at a series of film festivals and cinémateque retrospectives) and bought a string of Portuguese-Andalusian horses, which they brought back to the US to raise and breed. Boetticher’s final production was a shot-on-video documentary about the history and training of those horses, called My Kingdom For… (1988). He shot background material in French and Spanish museums while he and Mary toured Europe, but the bulk of the documentary consists of training sessions with horses in the art of rejonea (sans bull, of course) and exhibitions for aficionados and friends (you can spot James Coburn in the stands). Staged at their stable in Ramona, California (where they made their home in the late 1970s), Boetticher would dress in the colourful regalia of the horseback matador. Lucien Ballard shot a number of these exhibitions and Robert Stack narrates the production. The video was produced privately and marketed through direct channels to Aficionados Club members, Andalusian owners and other horse owners.
In 1989 Boetticher published his first and only book, When In Disgrace. “I originally wrote the book, which is now the middle third of the book, the minute I got back from Mexico in 1968”, he explained in a 1989 interview. “Originally, it started when Debra and I were crossing the border, which is 148 or 150 pages into the book now. We ended when the picture [Arruza] was finished.” On the urging of editors he turned it into an autobiography, but the amazing odyssey of “Arruza” remains the meat of the book. At one time, it was another possible project Boetticher hoped to produce with Burt Kennedy directing.
Boetticher never gave up his hopes to get back into Hollywood. He spent decades reworking his original scripts: “When There’s Sumpthin’ to Do”, a Western about a crew of ageing cowboys who cross the border to find adventure in the Mexican revolution, originally written for John Wayne and Robert Mitchum; and “A Horse For Mr. Barnum”, about a trio of American cowboys sent to Spain to bring back a string of Andalusian horses for the Barnum circus. In 1987, he appeared at Sundance where the restored print Bullfighter and the Lady made its début. In 1988, Robert Towne cast him in a bit part in Tequila Sunrise as a gourmet judge who gives a green card to a cook at his favourite restaurant, a thank-you for Boetticher’s help in securing and editing a bullfighting montage that plays on a video screen. And, in 1993, Boetticher was presented the Lifetime Achievement award by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the same year Clint Eastwood won the Oscars and the LA Film Critics Association award for Best Picture and Best Director for Unforgiven.
I kept in touch with Boetticher over the years and in practically every conversation he described how one or another of his project was ready to start shooting next Spring, or in the Fall. None of them happened. Boetticher’s age may have put producers off (even though his daily regimen of training kept him more fit than probably any studio executive in Hollywood) and his Westerns were certainly not the kind of material Hollywood was clamouring for. Both Hollywood and Boetticher had changed over the decades since he stepped into Mexico to make Arruza. They didn’t seem like a good fit anymore. The hope of another film, however, seemed to drive him.
In 2000, the UCLA Film and Television Archive rescued his masterpiece, Seven Men From Now, effectively missing-in-action for decades, from the vaults of Batjac. The restored print “premiered” at UCLA and was featured in Budd Boetticher tributes at the 2000 New York Film Festival and the 2000 Telluride Film Festival. Boetticher, ever the storyteller, appeared to tell a few of his stories to the crowds. New prints of his classic Ranown films made the rounds of film festivals and film societies.
After his brief vogue in the auteur-driven critical climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his years of being fêted in film festivals across Europe and South America in the 1980s, this was his last hurrah. And just in time. Cancer was killing him. The man whose retirement kept him vigorous through his sixties and seventies, working and training his horses four hours a day, was confined to his home outside Ramona, California. He looked gaunt and frail in his final public appearance at Cinecon 37, a LA-based festival of classic movies, in September, 2001, and passed away two months later, on 29 November 2001, at his home. Mary was at his side. He was 85.