JT Petty’s third feature The Burrowers is another of his distinctively unusual takes on a generally conventional genre. Set in the Dakota Territory of 1879, where survival is already a challenge, Petty brings a starkly unglamorized sensibility to life and mortality on the Dakota prairie: it opens with a boy come a courting to a farmgirl only to discover a massacre and what appears to be the abduction of the girl. Clancy Brown and William Mapother, who have faces that look like they’ve survived tough times, are perfect as the leaders in a hunting party after a kidnapped girl: confident but unpretentious and very respectful of the country. But they think they’re tracking an Indian raiding party. What they find are fetid holes in the prairie ground filled with bone and blood and sinew, as if a body has been digested by the Earth. Which is close to the truth. Petty plays the unforgiving tensions between the settlers and the native tribes with palpable animosity, the distrust so great that their fragile truce snaps before they even take on the burrowers, the underground creatures that have been hunting on the prairie. He keeps the threat visually vague and the insect-like burrowers shadowy and smudged, creating his horror out of mystery and suggestion, but it’s nothing supernatural or alien. It’s a real western/horror/monster movie with a devoted frontier sensibility and loving nods to The Searchers.
The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and toured various festivals dedicated to films of the fantastic but was otherwise released direct to DVD by Lionsgate (they did the same thing with Ryuhei Kitamura’s English language debut Midnight Meat Train, adapted from the story by Clive Barker). The film deserves better. I spoke with Petty over the phone a couple of weeks before the April 21 DVD release.
Why a horror western?
I’m always trying to get a little bit outside the genre. I think people who watch scary movies now are such a sophisticated group of watchers. We’re probably the first generation that takes multiple viewings for granted, that you can see anything as many times as you want to see it. We’re sort of the video generation and the twenty-year-olds now just assume they can see anything they want anytime they want as many times as they want. So what’s already been done, we’ve seen so many times that I think it’s hard to actually scare people inside that framework. So once you get a little outside the genre, you can hopefully surprise people again.
What makes the combination of western and horror so resonant for you as a filmmaker?
A lot of it is just they’re two of the most cinematic experiences that you have watching a movie. If a horror movie does well, it’s entirely because of the direction, it’s classically not the performance. All the things that do make a horror movie pornographic also make it exceptionally cinematic. If you have a well directed horror movie with a crappy story and bad actors, it can still be a pretty awesome horror movie. And to some extent, the same thing with the western. All of those spaghetti westerns with dubbed voices and obvious cartoonish characters but have this amazing cinematic strength to them still resonate. So I guess horror and western movies are both, in a very specific way, the most cinematic movie you can make. Is that a fair statement to make?
The release of The Films of Budd Boetticher finally brings five essential films by the director to DVD. Along with Paramount’s release of Seven Men From Now a few years ago, his career-defining “Ranown Cycle,” the six westerns starring Randolph Scott that made Boetticher’s reputation, is now available on home video. It’s a triumph, but it’s only a start. The five films in the box set more than double the amount of films by Boetticher available on DVD. Boetticher’s first western, the 1951 The Cimarron Kid with Audie Murphy, and his 1953 The Man From the Alamo with Glenn Ford, arguably the best film of his Universal period, are available in the Universal budget release Classic Western Round-Up Volume 2 (why didn’t they draw a couple of Boetticher’s other Universal westerns to fill out of the set and make it an unnamed tribute to the director?). And then there’s Behind Locked Doors, a genuine B movie whose reputation is based largely on the appearance of cult actor Tor Johnson as a crazed wrestler in an insane asylum. As a footnote, The Fleet That Came To Stay, a combat documentary short that Boetticher made while serving in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy during World War II, is available on various DVD anthologies, including the VCI release Combat Camera: The Pacific.
That’s nine features in a career that spans 35-some features and numerous television productions.
Here’s a checklist of ten Boetticher films that I would lobby for DVD release:
The Missing Juror (1944) / Escape in the Fog (1945)
These two films from Boetticher’s apprenticeship in the Columbia B movie factory are nothing like the films that made his reputation, but they are engaging and stylish thrillers that make the most of his budgetary limitations. Each runs barely over an hour. Together, they would make an engaging double feature disc. Languishing somewhere in the vaults of Sony, they have never been released on home video but do sometimes appear on TV.
The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)
The first Budd Boetticher movie. Literally. His previous films were all credited to Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name. With this semi-autobiographical film, about a brash American in Mexico who befriends and trains under a legendary bullfighter, he used the name we all know him by: Budd Boetticher. The film, produced by John Wayne, earned Boetticher his only Oscar nomination (for “Best Original Story”) and raised his stature in the industry, but the film released in 1951 was not the film he intended; under the guidance of John Ford, the film was cut down to under 90 minutes to get a release. In 1987, the film was restored to its original 124-minute running time and shown at film festivals and subsequently released on VHS and laserdisc. A special edition featuring both the release version and the restored Director’s Cut is long overdue.
Burt Kennedy has a long resume as a director, with such credits to his name as The Rounders, Welcome to Hard Times and Support Your Local Gunfighter. But he started his film career as a screenwriter under contract to John Wayne and made his reputation with four brilliant westerns that Budd Boetticher directed and Randolph Scott starred in: Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. I had been trying to get an interview with Kennedy for a long time. All it took, it turns out, was a little help from Budd Boetticher. During my second trip to interview the Boetticher I mentioned my problem in connecting with Kennedy. He simply called him up set up a meeting for later that day, and I raced to catch Kennedy in his home in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles before he left that evening for a rodeo (seriously). I eventually interviewed Kennedy twice, first in 1989 and then again in1994. In these excerpts he talks about his origins and discusses his work with Boetticher beginning with Seven Men From Now, Kennedy’s first produced script. He died in 2001.
I want to ask about your background. I read, in old publicity reports, that you were the son of vaudevillians.
Yeah, my mom and dad were a headline act in vaudeville for 20 years, the Keith-Orpheum circuit. They were dancers. As a matter of fact, they danced in the Webber-Field show in New York in 1911 and Vernon and Irene Castle were in the chorus. And of course Vernon and Irene Castle did dances later on that people could do. My folks didn’t, my folks were just real good dancers, but that’s why they didn’t have the popularity that Vernon and Irene Castle did. They had a great act. And I was born in a trunk.
Born on the road?
Yeah. I don’t really remember much of it. I remember some because I worked in the act when I was about 5 and I think I was a has-been at 7. Vaudeville didn’t just die out, vaudeville just died overnight. I mean radio is kind of still around, you know, it had its heyday and then it went gradually downhill, but it’s still there. But not vaudeville. One day vaudeville was going full bore and the next day pictures took over and all these acts were out of business.
“They can lick you (which they can‘t) or they can fire you, and once you know that you‘re not afraid of anybody.” – Budd Boetticher on producers, 1988 interview
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. 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. That’s the short version.
“I grew up rich, spoiled, and arrogant,” he joked in a 1992 interview. “It was bad enough being rich, but to be a rich athlete, I must have really been obnoxious.” This sports-mad son of a successful Illinois hardware magnate had planed for himself a career in athletics and threw himself into boxing, track, and football. At Ohio State, a knee injury (his second on the gridiron) sidelined him and he took a year off to recover. His plan was a long tour of South America, but his trip stopped short when 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. It was their sponsorship that gave this big, muscular American college kid entry into a sport where Americans were almost unknown.
When his parents, who had since moved to Los Angeles and moved among the best social circles, found out he braving the bulls in South of the border rings, his mother plotted ways to pull him safely back North. Her solution: land him a job as bullfighting adviser on a movie. With a little help from family friend Hal Roach, he was hired onto 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. More important to his calling and his career was the crash course he got in moviemaking. In his autobiography When in Disgrace, Boetticher gave credit to editor Barbara McLain for explaining and illustrating the mechanics of storytelling in the most practical manner. The bullfighting kid who never really thought much about the movies was suddenly hooked on making them.
Boetticher 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. His first credited feature, One Mysterious Night (1944), was a 60 minute Boston Blackie mystery destined to be forgotten almost immediately after it was released. He signed it Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name.
Those were the days when Hollywood apprenticed its own, promoting from the ranks, and Boetticher learned some of his most important lessons then: how to stay on a 12 day schedule, how to deal handle the front office, how to hold your authority a crew much older and more experienced than you. Most of these films are unavailable, but the few I managed to see almost 20 years ago were entertaining, lean, a little rugged, and better than one would expect. My memories of Escape in the Fog, for instance, are of the exterior fog that envelopes the night in a blanket. It creates a nice mood of mystery while masking the limitations of his B movie sets. Following his Columbia apprenticeship he spent a few years in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy (where he turned out documentaries and service films for both civilians and soldiers), he returned to Hollywood to find himself back in the B movie rut.
My first contact with Budd Boetticher was in 1987. I was a graduate student in film studies at the University of Oregon and I thought I was getting his agent’s phone number from the DGA. I found out very quickly that it was his home number when he answered personally. He was an affable man and very forgiving of the enthusiastic student who tried to lure him north from his home in Ramona, California for a retrospective of his films at the U of O in Eugene. “I don’t want to go to a tribute where no one is interested in my films,” he replied in his matter-of-fact, gruff/friendly manner. “Why don’t you come down and visit me here instead?” I did, numerous times, conducting hours of interviews with him between 1988 and 1992. I stayed in touch with him and his wife, Mary, until his death.
In the following excerpts he talks about his films with Randolph Scott and Burt Kennedy and touches on making Arruza. For more on Boetticher’s love affair with bullfighting and the amazing odyssey in Mexico while making Arruza, try to track down his autobiography When in Disgrace, a very entertaining read (and, sadly, out of print).
Spoiler alert: Be warned that Boetticher discusses key scenes and plot points of the films.
You never directed John Wayne in a film, but he played a major part in your life. He produced your breakthrough film The Bullfighter and the Lady and he was at least partially responsible for Seven Men From Now. How did you connect on Seven Men From Now?
I was doing pictures at what used to be Selznick studios, I forget what they called it when I was there, and Duke was doing a picture with Ford and he called me in. He said “Bood, I’ve got a script over here I want you to read,” so I came over and picked it up at lunch and I read thirty-five pages and I walked back on the set and he was sitting with a bunch of people 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 “Budd Boetticher, Burt Kennedy,” and Burt stood up. We shook hands and I said “Mr. Kennedy, you are a brilliant, brilliant writer. I don’t have to read anymore. I’m so glad I met you.” He said “Oh, we met a long time ago. I played the rabble rouser in A Man From Texas [working title to Man From the Alamo].” He’d been an actor. And that’s what started us. All you had to do was read one of his scripts. Anybody who didn’t like Burt Kennedy’s writing was crazy. The best scene I’ve ever directed in my life, I directed word for word from his script, and that’s when Lee Marvin and Walter Reed and Gail Russell and Randy are in the covered wagon. Marvin says “You know, a funny thing, I knew a big tall good lookin’ fellow once,” and he starts making love to Gail Russell. That was great writing.
The following essay, adapted from a review published in Queen Anne News (Seattle), appears in the new anthology from the National Society of Film Critics, The B List, edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson (Da Capo Press).
The making of Seven Men from Now was a modest enterprise. John Wayne’s old Batjac production company had a B-movie arm in addition to the main unit, which set up A-class vehicles for producer-star Wayne, and Seven Men From Now, which clocks in at a second-feature length of just under an hour and 20 minutes, was produced under its auspices for release by Warner Bros.
The screenwriter, Burt Kennedy, was a newcomer who’d been scribbling for radio; the director, Budd Boetticher, was a colorful fellow who’d started as a bullfighter in Mexico, made some trim B movies in the ’40s—and one distinctive, highly personal film, The Bullfighter and the Lady (produced by Wayne, as it happens) in 1950—and then reverted to only slightly more upscale Bs later in the decade. At the time Seven Men from Now went into production, Wayne was busy giving his finest performance ever in John Ford’s Western The Searchers, so the leading role fell to Randolph Scott, a fading star who’d been working in mostly unremarkable Westerns since the mid-’40s.
No one at Batjac or at Warners was expecting more from Seven Men from Now than reasonable profitability. Yet the three men’s talents blended uncannily, producing the best movie by far ever to sport the Batjac label. It’s not just a terrific Western but a cinema masterpiece—an ironical, beautifully spare bit of storytelling that became the ideal showcase for Scott’s sandy reticence.
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.