Rouben Mamoulian is one of the best directors of Golden Age Hollywood, but his efforts often go underseen and underappreciated. One only has to watch his films to admire, and love, his skill as a director. Love Me Tonight (1932) sweeps and swoons with romantic energy; Queen Christina (1933) is a moody biopic that plays with shadows and sexuality; Becky Sharp (1935) is one of the first Technicolor features and is an array of delectable pastels to backdrop to colourful cohorts. And, of course, Mamoulian’s finest work – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) an imaginative horror that looks deep into the monster lurking in man’s soul.

Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand (1941) is also undeniably exquisite art. Played on the gorgeous, yet volatile nitrate as part of BFI’s Film on Film Festival, there has never been a Mamoulian presentation quite like it in recent years.

Starring Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth, Blood and Sand revolves around Juan, a matador in Spain who has been marred by criticism all his life. When he goes off to train to be a bullfighter, he leave behind a childhood sweetheart. As his stardom begins to rise, Juan is pulled to a lavish world but pulled away from the life and love within his heart.

Blood and Sand was based on a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez, and previously was adapted into a silent film. The vibrancy of this world is astonishing. The colours seep into your vision with stirring oranges and reds. Mamoulian himself was inspired by the work of Spanish artists such as Goya, El Greco, and Velazquez. It has been said on production, the director utilised spray colours to change backdrops and props, and painted shadows onto the backdrops, rather than change the lighting. The painstaking effort it took to enhance his vision worked, giving this lush look. With exterior shots filmed in Mexico City, Blood and Sand is so drenched in heat that it simmers off the screen.

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The other breath-taking element to Blood and Sand is the costuming. The matador costumes embroidered with silver and gold even garner a gasp from the characters themselves as they are revealed – striking, opulent, and expensive.

Where the costuming is most effective is with Rita Hayworth’s socialite Doña Sol. Whoever thought of placing Hayworth’s villainous heiress in rich royal purple in her opening scenes deserves a medal. Setting her off against a see of green, reds, and blue – it is clear from clothing alone that this woman is beyond exceptional. When she is seducing Juan, however, there is a clever change to white. It is effective storytelling through clothing, especially when Carmen appears on Doña’s doorstep in black lace, as though she were already a widow. The contrast is bold and daring as Doña shimmers in loose see-through material, ensnaring whatever suitor she deems fit.

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Much like Juan himself, carrying on long after his fame, Blood and Sand overstays its welcome. The script and story is a laborious undertaking which, at times works in the sizzling arena, but towards the end becomes a bit of a chore. The actors do a fine work but only Rita Hayworth truly triumphs as this seductive siren. As Laird Creager’s oafish critic denotes: If this is death in the afternoon, she is death in the evening.

Still, in spite of an unengaging script, Blood and Sand captivates with its vision. It feels especially bold to watch it on nitrate – a medium that is as beautiful as a Spanish sunset, and as dangerous as a bullfighting arena.

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