Tall in the Director's Chair : Budd Boetticher made some of the best-remembered Westerns of '50s and '60s; they don't make 'em like that (or him) anymore

Michael Wilmington is a frequent contributor to Calendar

"They're all gone now except for me and Sammy Fuller," Budd Boetticher says quietly.

The last roundup, perhaps? Oscar (Budd) Boetticher Jr. is talking about the major directors of the Hollywood Western's Golden Age. And the colleagues he's recalling--the Howard Hawkses, Raoul Walshes, Anthony Manns, Don Siegels and William Wellmans-- are mostly gone. So is the Western's grandmaster: the man born Sean Aloysius O'Feeney, who, though he won more Oscars than any other American director (six), liked to introduce himself, almost defiantly, with the terse credential: "My name's John Ford. I make Westerns."

"Jack Ford was a great actor," Boetticher says now, sitting in the immaculately colorful living room of his San Diego Estates condominium, south of Ramona. "A demon. And a very good man. . . . "

His voice is both wry and nostalgic. When Boetticher (it's pronounced " Bet- i-ker") was in his heyday in the 1950s--making taut, trim little classics like "The Tall T," "Ride Lonesome" and "Comanche Station"--there were Westerns everywhere, dozens released each year in the theaters, more than a score (including "Gunsmoke" and "Wagon Train") on TV. So ubiquitous were the shoot-'em-ups that if you'd argued back then that "The Searchers" or "Rio Bravo" were great movies, you'd have been greeted with astonishment. ("High Noon," maybe--but a John Wayne movie?)

That's why Boetticher's reputation, like many others, took root first in Europe. The legendary French critic Andre Bazin discovered him in 1956, singling out "Seven Men From Now" for the highest praise. Since then, among aficionados, he's been a favorite; among colleagues, a director's director. Sam Peckinpah once claimed to have watched Boetticher's 1951 "Bullfighter and the Lady" 10 times. Sergio ("Once Upon a Time in the West") Leone, spotting him in Milan at the Salso Maggiore Festival, gave the jubilant cry: "Budd! I stole everything from you!" And the Sunday after our last talk, Boetticher filmed, at request, a birthday greeting on horseback for admirer Martin Scorsese.

Peckinpah and Leone, the "Western New Wave" of the '60s and '70s, are gone now too. But, ironically, the Western itself, the most commercially viable American movie genre for six decades since 1903's "The Great Train Robbery," yet considered commercially dead after 1976, has made a sudden, recent comeback: first with 1990's critical and box-office mega-hit "Dances With Wolves," and then, last summer, with Clint Eastwood's great, bleak "Unforgiven" and Michael Mann's flashy remake of Cooper's pre-Revolution Eastern frontier saga "The Last of the Mohicans." The latter two topped Variety's box-office charts for three and two weeks, respectively.

What does Boetticher think of them? "Dances With Wolves" was his favorite. ("I loved it.") "Last of the Mohicans" he's missed--though friends gave him mixed reports. And, as for "Unforgiven": "I thought it was very, very well done, beautifully done. . . . I was impressed with it on every level--even though it's a picture I never would have made--because it's really a dark Western.

"And it's very difficult for me to see a Clint Eastwood picture" (because of his disappointment over Eastwood's 1970 "Two Mules for Sister Sara," which Boetticher wrote, but which was rewritten by Albert Maltz and later filmed by Siegel). "But I really like Clint. . . . One of my big disappointments is that I never had a chance to work with him.

"I'm glad they're back," he says simply. "It gives me a chance again."

When he smiles, Budd Boetticher sometimes resembles '40s tough guy movie actor Lloyd Nolan, and his genial swagger recalls his old drinking buddy John Wayne--who always called him "Bood." As he talks, he does seem bigger than life: Moviemaker, horseman, adventurer and one of the few Norte Americanos who mastered the art of bullfighting, right before the heyday of Dominguin, Arruza and Manolete.

Here's how Robert Mitchum recalls him: "Life around Budd was always exciting. I remember once, about 20 years back, he and I are walking down this Tijuana street and along come three of the toughest tequilaed-up yokels you ever saw. Budd happened to be in a feisty mood and, out of the blue, (he) says, 'You take the one in the middle and I'll take the other two.' I cleared out, slunk away . . . and left him to work it out with all three. I felt sorry for them."

In Boetticher's version, the soused trio bit the dust. But he claims Mitchum's discretion stemmed from taste rather than timidity: "The three toughest guys I ever met in Hollywood were Bob Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Ron Ely." And he adds: "I hate 'macho' . . . even though that's what I was all my life."

In that life, Boetticher--a controversial man who often seems to divide the world between "dear friends" and "deadly enemies" in his anecdotes--survived divorce, drinking, battling in the Hollywood wilds, and a bullring goring that left him with a splinter in his stomach, plus a tumor that eventually swelled to the size of two fists, nearly killing him 50 years later.

During the 10-year period (1958-1967) when he was shooting his bullfighting documentary "Arruza" in Mexico, he went through a personal hell, incarcerated, respectively, in a Mexican asylum and prison. At the latter, his cellmates and companeros included a killer named Hatpin, so called because of the lethal pin hidden in his belly scar-tissue.

Today, at 76, living in Ramona with wife Mary, sitting among a welter of posters, portraits, books and bullfighting regalia, he still fills several roles easily.

First: the horseman, with a stable of purebred Portuguese Lusitanos, which he regularly shows in a nearby facsimile bullring. Next: The author, currently working on "Where Are the Elephants?" the second volume of his memoirs. The first, "When in Disgrace" (published by Neville, in 1989), was a fascinating, scarily candid, delightfully detailed account, focusing on the nightmare odyssey of "Arruza."

And, last, the filmmaker--with production plans and two scripts, both Westerns, ready to shoot, another script ready to trim, another sketched out. (The completed scripts are a Spanish-set 1800's adventure called "A Horse for Mr. Barnum," and an American Western, "When There's Sumpthin' To Do." The script-in-progress is an adaptation of "When in Disgrace.")

When asked to name his own favorite Westerns, Boetticher quickly cites Ford's "Stagecoach," Hawks' "Red River" and "My favorite picture of all time --I've seen it 20 times or more--John Huston's 'Treasure of Sierra Madre.' "

At first, Boetticher had no real Western background. Born in Chicago, he lived with his parents near his adopted father's hardware concern in Evansville, Ind. "I didn't see a lot of Westerns in the '30s and early '40s," he says now. "I was not a Western fan. At Culver (the Indiana military prep school) or Ohio State, I saw the comedies of people like Capra and Billy Wilder--and that's what I probably thought I'd (like to) do. But, because of my sports background (football, basketball and track, as well as boxing, riding and bullfighting), they gave me action pictures."

Though raised in wealth, young Budd took a detour down the wild side, running off to Mexico City when he was 20, living with a notorious madam in her plush bordello, and then deciding in 1938, on romantic impulse, to learn bullfighting. A matador he became, picking up friends that included his celebrated teachers Lorenzo Garza and Fermin (Armillita) Espinosa and also the young Arruza. Eventually, that career led him into filmmaking; in 1940, he was hired as bullfight adviser on the Rouben Mamoulian-Tyrone Power remake of "Blood and Sand." Today, he says: "What I learned from bullfighting is to have absolutely no fear in dealing with anyone from Hollywood. It gave me tremendous concentration and a lot of control."

But he adds: "It was different then. I never try to sell bullfighting today."

From 1950 to 1960, Boetticher directed the "shows" that established his reputation, including a dozen Westerns, on modest budgets, six of which are considered classics. Those are the "Ranown Westerns," made for star-producer Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown: "Seven Men From Now" (1956), "The Tall T" and "Decision at Sundown" (both 1957), "Buchanan Rides Alone" (1958), "Ride Lonesome" (1959) and "Comanche Station" (1960). (A seventh Boetticher-Scott collaboration, 1959's "Westbound," was made for Warners rather than Columbia, and Boetticher himself dismisses it.)

The Ranowns, with their harsh, opulent landscapes, terrifying bursts of action, cock-eyed absurdist humor and perversely compelling relationships between hero and villain, are tense fables of duty and dishonor. Set in scorching terrains that become corridas for mano-a-mano combat, they gave Boetticher his cinematic cultural icon status in Europe.

But not, as strongly, in America--where, as Andrew Sarris puts it, Westerns are one of those genres "that Americans do best but appreciate least."

Boetticher thinks the basic appeal of the Western lies in its simplicity: "A man has a job to do--or a couple of men. They try to do it against tremendous odds. They do it. Those are the three sections: beginning, middle and ending. It's just that simple. But they can still manage to screw it up."

How?

"Well, one of the biggest problems is mis- casting. Very good directors who can do other things magnificently, make a Western . . . and have no idea which end of the horse moves forward. Take (Lawrence Kasdan's 1985) 'Silverado.' One of your stars is riding into town; killers are waiting for him. And he rides right down Main Street--where they could have killed him with a brick!"

"Then there's the psychological Western: 'My mother was a prostitute in Dubuque, and that's why I hate women.' They didn't think like that in the old days. They weren't that well-educated; they weren't that smart. They were just men with guns trying to lick the West.

"That's why, in (1959's) 'Ride Lonesome,' I started in that gigantic high shot (of Randolph Scott, tracking down James Best), to show how infinitesimal a man on his horse, with his pack, was in that vast expanse of the United States--surrounded by Indians who were out of sight. It was a very local, individual time of survival."

The Western's severest detractors frequently cite two flaws: The genre's portrayal of women and the way Western movies rationalize the historical tragedy of the genocide of the continent's native Americans. As Boetticher's admiration for "Dances With Wolves" shows, he doesn't disagree with the current revulsion against anti-Indian cliches; indeed, his 1953 film, "Seminole," portrays Florida's Seminole Chief Osceola (Anthony Quinn) as a hero, his U.S. Army antagonists as villains.

As for the other objection: "I was on a symposium with James Michener in Texas, and one woman got up and just raised hell, saying that in my Westerns, the women weren't important. Well, the women were very important in those days; they were very strong." But, claims Boetticher, they just weren't the focus of his movies. "The women were 'incidental' in those films, because the story was somewhere else."

Like many older directors, Boetticher decries the post-'60s sea change in Hollywood itself: its inflated budgets and more graphic portrayals of sex and violence. "There is no reason," he says disgustedly, "to spend 20, 30, 40, 50 . . . 90 million dollars for a picture. You have people making pictures today who don't know how to make pictures."

He also has little use for most of the street action movies that some critics think replaced the Western. "The brutality on the screen (today) is absurd. Kids watch the (Arnold) Schwarzenegger pictures and they say: 'Why not kill everybody? Look: Everybody's blowing everybody up!' "

When asked the secret of his own Westerns, auteur Boetticher gives a surprising answer. "What was different about my Westerns was the beautiful job Burt Kennedy did in the original screenplays." Kennedy, who later became a director ("Support Your Local Sheriff"), wrote five of Boetticher's Ranowns: including, uncredited, most of "Buchanan Rides Alone."

"That's what writers and directors who care about each other can do," says Boetticher, who still talks and works regularly with Kennedy. His other great, close collaborator, cinematographer Lucien ("The Wild Bunch") Ballard--who photographed six Boettichers, and last worked with him through 1982, on "My Kingdom for . . . ," a documentary on Boetticher's horses--was accidentally killed two years ago on a golf course.

Then there were the Boetticher villains.

"We had a pattern . . . Randy (Scott), who wanted to help new actors, went along with it completely. In the old days, villains were dark: Black horse, black suit and hat. You couldn't wait for them to get killed. Which I felt was wrong. . . . I learned something from watching Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will"--the full four-hour version, after the war, with my roommates and friends (actor) Richard Carlson, ("Gunsmoke" creator) Charles Marquis Warren and Gene Kelly. Now, Riefenstahl was a great director and she obviously loved Hitler.

"So, I wanted to show these colorful villains--(Lee) Marvin, (Richard) Boone, (Claude) Akins and the others--who made a job of killing. . . . And they admired Randy. They damned near fell in love with Randy. But they had to be killed at the end--which makes you really care about the situation."

At the 1956 Pantages sneak premiere of "Seven Men From Now," Boetticher's personal favorite among all his movies, he remembers the audience becoming so struck with Lee Marvin's flamboyant heavy Big Masters, they demanded that the projectionist stop the show and run Marvin's death scene twice.

"One of the funniest questions I ever heard: A young Italian got up and said, 'Mr. Boetticher, I have noticed that all your villains fall in love with Randolph Scott. Could this be possibly some latent homosexuality in your own makeup?' I said, 'You know, I've never considered that. Do you have a pen or pencil?' He said, 'Yes, sir.' I said, 'Good. Please put your name down, and your telephone number, and your address, and if I find out you're right, you'll be the first one I call.' "

From William S. Hart to Gary Cooper, Hawks, Peckinpah and, today, Clint Eastwood, a handful of names have real luster among connoisseurs of the movie Western. The most luminous belong to two old friends of Boetticher's: filmmaker John Ford and actor John Wayne.

Ford and Wayne made 17 movies (and two TV shows) together, including one, 1956's "The Searchers," now commonly cited as the best movie Western. They were an odd pair. The towering Duke, discovered by Ford as a prop boy, called his much-awarded mentor "Coach." Much of what Ford, notoriously acid-tongued on the set, called his favorite star is unprintable. But, in an affectionate moment, the combative Irish-Catholic Democrat once said of Wayne, "I love that damned Republican."

"John Wayne and I were very good friends," Boetticher says. "And sometimes, we were deadly enemies. It was a love-hate relationship. Without him, I would probably never have made 'The Bullfighter and the Lady.' (Wayne produced it.) So, he was principally responsible for my career. But we disagreed about a lot of things . . . like politics."

With Ford, Boetticher was on different ground. "Just before the end, when he was dying of cancer, he only saw a few people, like Katharine Hepburn and Maureen O'Hara. . . . And Mary (Boetticher) and I would go to Copa de Oro in Bel-Air and then to Palm Desert to see him. I really got to love him. We would sneak him in a case of stout, which he wasn't supposed to drink. But the nurses were so great that they'd go into the kitchen, so I could sneak the stout in under his bed.

"He would tell me, time after time, all about the next picture he was gonna make." (It was another cavalry Western, centering, like "Sergeant Rutledge," (1960) on the role of Afro-Americans in the West.) "The last time I saw him, it was really sad. . . . I said, 'Jack, you haven't told me any more new ideas about the picture you're going to make.' And he said--he reached over and squeezed my hand, that tough old SOB--and said: 'Budd, you know damned well I'm never going to make another movie.' We never saw him again."

Boetticher pauses. "You know, if you told me I could be the greatest director in the world--which John Ford was--but that I'd have to die like that, I wouldn't do it."

Boetticher backtracks to 1960. "There was one time at Warners, I was doing "The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond" and a lot of my pals, like Woody Strode, were doing 'Sergeant Rutledge.' So, I walked over to Ford's set at lunchtime.

"He was sitting under the camera with his campaign hat on and his eye patch, chewing on a silk handkerchief, all of the cast circled around the camera. Very, very quiet. I didn't see Jack. And I walked in and I said: 'Good morning, everybody! Anybody for lunch?' And there's dead quiet. Everybody looks at me like, 'Oh, brother . . . . ' And Ford said, 'Who's that?' I said, 'Hi, Jack! Budd Boetticher.' And he said, 'Oh! I didn't know you without your (matador's) cape.'

"So, I stormed outside and waited for the SOB. And he came out, whistling. I said, 'What the hell was that all about? What do you mean, you don't know me without my cape?' And he looked at me and said, 'I don't want any of those (expletive) actors to know I've got any friends.' "

Boetticher's smile comes back, splitting his face in two. " That was John Ford!"

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