When Oscar “Budd” Boetticher, the last of the old Hollywood two-fisted directors, died on November 27, 2001, his passing was barely noted. This old-fashioned studio pro with an independent streak, a colorful history (including a turn as a bullfighter in Mexico), and a career of some 35 features, had been largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated film scholars and western buffs. His work was poorly represented on VHS at the height of that format and, as of October 2008, only four of his over forty features were on DVD. Has any other celebrated American director ever been so poorly served by home video?
The Films of Budd Boetticher, a handsome box set of five defining films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, goes a long way to correcting that neglect. In anticipation of the November 4 release of the DVD set, we recall the career and celebrate the films of Budd Boetticher.
Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many of the two-fisted directors of the silent days landed in the director’s chair, but with a high society twist only Hollywood could have written. Born Oscar Boetticher Jr., the sports-mad kid from a wealthy family planned a career in athletics until he saw his first bullfight in Mexico City and stayed to learn the sport, under the tutelage of two of the finest and most respected matadors in Mexico. He wound up teaching Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand and worked his way up the ladder, learning his craft on the job: production assistant, second assistant director, first assistant director, then cutting his teeth on a string of B movies for Columbia until he broke away from the mire of low budget quickies with his own script. The Boetticher we know as Budd was born with The Bullfighter and the Lady, inspired by his own adventures as a young torero in Mexico (though certainly embellished for the screen), and filled with a reverence for the tradition of torero and a love of the Mexican culture.
It earned him a 1951 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story and catapulted him up to the A list. The mid-list salt-mines of his subsequent Universal contract were almost as constraining as his B movie assignments, but made some interesting films in his two years there, notably the WWII adventure Red Ball Express, and the westerns Horizons West, Seminole, and The Man From the Alamo. His reputation as one of the great directors of American westerns, however, was made with the terse, austere, ruthless western Seven Men From Now, a film that was all but impossible to see in any form for decades until it was rescued from the vaults, restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, revived in the 2000 Telluride and New York Film Festivals, and eventually released by Paramount in a beautifully mastered DVD with a wealth of worthy supplements.
Seven Men From Now was written by Burt Kennedy, a fledgling screenwriter under contract to John Wayne’s production company, Batjac. Wayne reportedly loved the script but passed on starring in it himself because he was finishing up The Searchers (which, coincidentally, has many affinities with Seven Men) and the career-conscious actor was careful to space his westerns out. Wayne had produced Boetticher’s breakthrough film The Bullfighter and the Lady and offered him the script.
It was the beginning of a beautiful filmmaking relationship, though not for Wayne. Seven Men From Now brought out the best in Boetticher, who pared himself down to the rugged essentials and wrenched up the tension between the central characters, isolated in the empty desert, with remarkable economy. And it was his first collaboration with craggy, lean actor Randolph Scott, who subsequently hired Boetticher and Kennedy to continue making films with his own company. Boetticher directed Scott in six more films: Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Along, the otherwise forgettable Westbound (1959), a contractual obligation Boetticher directed out of friendship, and most importantly three written by Burt Kennedy: The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station. Tight, taut, graceful and visceral, often savage and always rich in character, Boetticher’s Kennedy-scripted films, nicknamed the “Ranown Cycle,” are lean stories about men on the dangerous, inhospitable frontier, and they stand next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford. To my mind, they are the most beautiful cycle of westerns in the fifties. (The Ranown title is taken from the production entity formed by Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown, and if it is technically imprecise — they did not produce every film in the series — it serves its purpose just fine as a descriptive title.)
Boetticher made one more film, the offbeat little gangster picture The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, before he too turned his back on civilization and wandered into his own desert to create his dream project, a portrait of Mexico’s greatest torero Carlos Arruza on his return to the ring as a rejoneador, a horseback bullfighter. The project took him to Mexico for seven years and the ordeal almost killed him, but he finished Arruza. Boetticher directed one more feature, the low budget 1969 western A Time For Dying, and the video documentary My Kingdom For… (1985), but he never gave up his hopes to get back into Hollywood. He died on November 27, 2001, leaving behind a handful of scripts he had spent decades trying to produced, and an underrated career of lean, smartly made movies.
Please enjoy the collection of interviews and essay we will be featuring on Parallax View over the next few days.
Update November 9, 2008
Here are the links to the Boetticher-related features on Parallax View:
‘Seven Men from Now’ – A Cinema Masterpiece (review by Richard T. Jameson)
Budd Boetticher: A Career (essay by Sean Axmaker)
Budd Boetticher and the Ranown Cycle: ‘What a director is supposed to do’ (interview with Budd Boetticher conducted by Sean Axmaker)
Burt Kennedy: Writing Broadway in Arizona (interview with Burt Kennedy conducted by Sean Axmaker)
Budd Boetticher: A DVD Wish List (by Sean Axmaker)
Ride Lonesome: The Career of Budd Boetticher (a complete career retrospective written by Sean Axmaker for Senses of Cinema, 2005)
© 2008 Sean Axmaker