But “The Bullfighter and the Lady” (1951) is so much more than mere beefcake. A meditation on what it means to be a man, the story is driven by the relationship between Robert Stack, a cocky American tourist, and Gilbert Roland, Mexico’s leading torero (bullfighter).
This role comes early in Robert Stack’s career. Usually he plays the Alpha male in every movie, and so it’s unusual to see him play a character who is so green. But if there’s one man who can out-macho Robert Stack, it’s Gilbert Roland.
|If there's any man who can out-macho Robert Stack (left), it's Gilbert Roland.|
In the opening sequence, when Robert first sees Gilbert’s prowess in the ring, he is mesmerized, as captivated as an adolescent idolizing a hero. Essentially he wants to be Gilbert – without, of course, understanding all the risks, work, and weight that entails.
|Robert Stack sets eyes upon Gilbert Roland and is mesmerized.|
|Gilbert Roland, the torero par excellence, as gazed upon by Robert Stack.|
Nevertheless, he manipulates an introduction to Gilbert, persuading Gilbert to teach him how to bullfight. Robert is strutting, over-confident, immature, while Gilbert has true adult masculine gravitas. He is the torero par excellence, revered – essentially fetishized – by both sexes. Gilbert understands, while Robert does not, the full burden of shouldering such responsibility.
I won’t spoil the film by revealing plot, except to say that Robert must learn (the hard way) what it takes to grow up and fill a man’s shoes.
|The lessons are underway. Gilbert Roland close behind Robert Stack, arms encircling him to hold the cape. |
He is both instructor and protector.
|In a scene with interesting phallic imagery, Gilbert Roland teaches shirtless Robert Stack how to aim his sword.|
|The great torero.|
In addition, the film is perhaps the only one I’ve ever seen (of its period at least) that doesn't take a patronizing approach toward Mexican culture, instead evoking and exploring it in all its centuries-old dignity.
[This film isn't on DVD (yet), so how can you see it? There are some VHS copies floating around (remember those?), and you can also stream it on NetFlix if you're a member.]