Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Budd Boetticher's "Arruza" Script: A Map With No Treasure

 A few months ago I got a knock on the door well after 8:00 PM.  It startled me since I wasn’t expecting anyone -- turns out it was a U.P.S. guy making a very late delivery.   The package was from my film collector buddy Jeff Joseph who was in the process of selling and shipping out his entire collection (the end of another era.)  Among the flotsam and jetsam and oddities he'd picked over the years was a copy of Budd Boetticher's original 1959 script for “The Carlos Arruza Story," which he thought I'd like to have.

[Above:  1970's oil portrait of Budd by art director Leslie Thomas]

It was a timely gift:  I'd been thinking a lot about Budd who’d passed away in 2001 after a legendary career as a filmmaker, bullfighter and world-class hellraiser.   I’d met him in the early 1990’s soon after moving to L.A., and he’d become like a second grandfather to me; sometimes I still think I’ll pick up the phone and hear his gravelly voice on the other end.  

His later years were spent in self-imposed exile from Hollywood, living like an aging bandit king in the rocky hill country near Ramona, California with his wife, Mary.  There, they bred and trained magnificent Lusitano horses, and Budd held court at home surrounded by mementoes, paintings and posters from his career.

[above:  handcarved wooden chair Budd won bullfighting in Mexico in the 1940's] 

The last years were tough ones:  despite the retrospectives and tributes, he was plagued by serious money worries and increasingly fragile health (including, unbelievably, surgery to remove a sliver of bull’s horn in his lower gut from being gored in the ass by a bull in the 1940’s.)  As with Welles and too many other directors, everyone wanted to talk about the early movies – but nobody wanted to help him get money to make a new film.  To be fair Budd could sometimes be his own worst enemy:  once, I’d contacted a well-known Spanish producer who’d expressed interest in looking at Budd’s sadly never-made final project A Horse For Mr. Barnum; when I passed the producer’s contact information on, Budd snapped back:  “give him my number – if he wants to call me I’ll be happy to talk.”

To this day most biographies of Budd are split down the middle like an axe cleaving a log in two.  There are the prolific early years as a studio director turning out tough, taut action movies, capped by the glorious cycle of Randolph Scott-starring westerns in the mid-1950’s – including 7 Men From Now, The Tall T and Ride Lonesome.  One of -- if not the single greatest -- director/actor collaborations in American film.

Then the later years, after he returned from his strange, inexplicable odyssey to Mexico, when he managed to make only one more feature, the melancholy Audie Murphy-starring A Time For Dying.

Sitting right in the middle of his life’s story, like one of those weird, phantasmagorical creatures they used to draw on medieval maps to indicate unknown territory:  the infamous documentary Arruza

It occupies roughly the same position in Budd’s life as the white whale did in Ahab’s.  There’s a before Arruza, and an after Arruza.

[Right:  Budd and his wife, Mary Boetticher.]

The movie itself is almost incidental to the story surrounding it:  how Budd drove down to Mexico in the early 1960’s to start filming it in a white Rolls Royce with his then-wife, the starlet Debra Paget, and her mother … How Paget and her mama returned a few months later, leaving Budd to stay, and stay, and stay.  Intent on finishing a documentary that had come to define his life much more than the man it was supposedly about … How he remained in Mexico, through divorce, bankruptcy, short periods in prison and a mental hospital … even through the tragic death (in an unrelated car accident) of his best friend and star, Carlos Arruza.

The story itself, and Budd’s many re-tellings of it, came to take on the fabric of a modern-day medieval romance, with Budd on a never-ending quest, like Orlando Furioso, in search of an unattainable goal.

When he finally emerged from the wilderness in the late 1960’s, film in hand – the world had changed around him.  The New Hollywood era of Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider was just kicking off, no one remembered him or his earlier films. 

He’d returned, finally, to silence and indifference.

This then, sitting in a plain brown box with a U.P.S. sticker on it, was the script that started it all.

It's dated June 5, 1959 -- which means it comes before the long, long years in exile in Mexico (although he'd obviously already spent a lot of time thinking about the project and shooting footage -- the script references film he'd already shot of numerous bullfights in the mid-1950's with Arruza.)

I read the script -- and it left me with very strong and very mixed feelings.  Knowing everything that was to come after -- his divorce from Paget, the virtual end of his Hollywood career and all his contacts in the industry, Arruza's accidental death -- it's hard not to see it as a blueprint for madness.  

I'd been reading a bunch of classic 1950's-era Donald Duck comics written by Carl Barks to my son recently.  Many of them revolve around the discovery of a lost map.  A journey into the jungle in search of fabulous Mayan treasure.  The kind of adventure story Hollywood loved to make back then starring Stewart Granger or Victor Mature.  Budd's vision of Arruza's life is definitely an adventure story of a kind -- and an unabashed love letter to the man himself.  

Like Randolph Scott and Richard Boone in The Tall T, this was a love affair, even if a platonic one.

It's reading a lot -- probably too much -- into it, but Budd's Arruza script seems like a map with no treasure at the end.  A journey with no real destination.

Like the finished film, the script is a strange beast, neither fish nor fowl.  It's a staged documentary recreating Arruza's retirement from bullfighting and his decision -- prompted by crushing boredom and ennui -- to return as a rejoneador fighting on horseback. 

 The "documentary" is so highly scripted by Budd though, that it's practically fiction.  It's probably closest in spirit to the staged Disney live-action films of the 1950's about lovable gophers out in the desert etc. -- except in this case it's men drinking tequila and killing bulls.  So it's hard to know who the target audience would've been for this, probably another fatal flaw.

The thought suddenly hit me that the Arruza story would've been successful if Budd had just fictionalized the whole thing like his earlier films The Magnificent Matador and The Bullfighter & The Lady, and hired someone -- Tony Quinn, Ricardo Montalban, George Chakiris -- to play Arruza.  He'd done it before and those movies did okay, Hollywood knew what to do with that kind of story.

But of course he couldn't do it here.  He had to present his idealized, mythologized "love letter" to Arruza, bulls and horses in his own strange, half-real way.

It's over 50 years now since Budd started on that journey -- the film Arruza came out in a bastardized version edited by John Sturges, sank like a stone -- and he never really finished it.  Never really stopped hoping he'd re-emerge from the wilderness to find a hero's welcome, wealth, a loving family, the adoring cheers of the crowd.  All the things that the idealized Aruzza in Budd's script revels in.  All the things Budd lost or threw away.


  1. Thanks for the terrific post, Dennis. I got to shake hands with Mr. Boetticher and tell him how much I enjoyed his work during the retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image in 2000. He happily signed "When In Disgrace" for me while promising that the follow-up -- "Where Are the Elephants?" -- would be coming soon. I'm wondering now if it will ever see the light of day.

  2. Wow, one of the best blog posts I've read in quite a while.

    Budd's story (along with the decades-long vanishing act of the mighty 7 Men From Now) adds a special weirdness to his films, making them seem even more incredible.

    Thanks for the post. And for the great photos.

  3. Inexplicable? I don't know. In any case, Boetticher explained his motivation in an interview with Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin. He relates how he answered the question to a student he was teaching at the University of Mexico:

    I said to him, "Wouldn't it have been a wonderful thing if the director of The Agony and the Ecstasy had Michelangelo instead of Charlton Heston?"
    I had my own private genius for eight years, who did what I wanted, stood where I asked him to, walked out in the sun to be in the light, and fought the bulls to the best of his ability right in front of every one of my cameras. You don't get that very often in a career.

  4. I sat in a screening room in Mexico City somewhere during in the early sixties and watched Budd pitch his movie based on 35mm footage he'd been shooting of Arruza as rejoneador on horseback during the previous seven or eight years; wonderful stuff, some of it from unique, ground level angles. He had just been tossed out of the Hilton hotel for not paying his sizable bill, and was broke.
    But when he got up in front of "The Money", he pitched like Koufax in a groove. He fielded questions like Gingrich on steroids. He bullshited like a Miura in his pen. Boetticher deserved two ears and a tail for his performance that night. A few days he got tossed in the 'pen' for his earlier performance at the Hilton.