Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Story of Ferdinand

Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand and Disney's adaptation Ferdinand the Bull are a delightful story that shows just how closely the animators could hew to a source text if they chose to. As a visual example, consider how well they replicated the cover of the original book for the title card of the film.

The similarities don't end there. Visual echoes are clear throughout the short. For another example, here is Ferdinand en route to Madrid for the bullfights...

And both were inspired by the real Puente Nuevo ("New Bridge") completed in 1793 in the Andalusian city of Ronda, Spain.

And then these guys in funny hats...

That similarity in the art is to be expected, since the original story was really a venue for the illustration of Robert Lawson, who faithfully reproduced the sights of southern Spain. The story goes that Munro Leaf spent one afternoon in 1935 drafting the story on a single sheet of looseleaf, so that his illustrator friend could have a project to showcase his talents. That story is exceedingly short and simple, as we shall see.

Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand. All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers. 
He had a favorite spot out in the pasture under a cork tree. It was his favorite tree and he would sit in its shade all day and smell the flowers. Sometimes his mother, who was a cow, would worry about him.  She was afraid he would be lonesome all by himself. 
"Why don't you run and play with the other little bulls and skip and butt your head?" she would say. 
But Ferdinand would shake his head.  "I like it better here where I can sit just quietly and smell the flowers." 
His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy. 
As the years went by Ferdinand grew and grew until he was very big and strong. All the other bulls who had grown up with him in the same pasture would fight each other all day. They would butt each other and stick each other with their horns.  What they wanted most of all was to be picked to fight at the bill fights in Madrid. But not Ferdinand--he still liked to sit just quietly under the cork tree and smell the flowers. 
One day five men came in very funny hats to pick the biggest, fastest roughest bull to fight in the bull fights in Madrid. All the other bulls ran around snorting and butting, leaping and jumping so the men would think that they were very very strong and fierce and pick them. 
Ferdinand knew that they wouldn't pick him and he didn't care.  So he went out to his favorite cork tree to sit down. He didn't look where he was sitting and instead of sitting on the nice cool grass in the shade he sat on a bumble bee. Well, if you were a bumble bee and a bull sat on you what would you do?  You would sting him. And that is just what this bee did to Ferdinand. 
Wow!  Did it hurt!  Ferdinand jumped up with a snort.  He ran around puffing and snorting, butting and pawing the ground as if he were crazy. The five men saw him and they all shouted with joy.  here was the largest and fiercest bull of all.  Just the one for the bull fights in Madrid! So they took him away for the bullfight day in a cart. 
What a day it was!  Flags were flying, bands were playing... and all the lovely ladies had flowers in their hair. They had a parade into the bull ring. First came the Banderilleros with long sharp pins with ribbons on them to stick in the bull and make him mad. Next came the Picadores who rode skinny horses and they had long spears to stick in the bull and make him madder. Then came the Matador, the proudest of all--he thought he was very handsome, and bowed to the ladies.  He had a red cape and a sword and was supposed to stick the bull last of all. 
Then came the bull, and you know who that was don't you? --FERDINAND. 
They called him Ferdinand the Fierce and all of the Banderilleros were afraid of him and the Picadores were afraid of him and the Matador was scared stiff. 
Ferdinand ran to the middle of the ring and everyone shouted and clapped because they thought he was going to fight fiercely and butt and snort and stick his horns around. But not Ferdinand.  When he got to the middle of the ring he saw the flowers in all the lovely ladies' hair and he just sat down quietly and smelled. He wouldn't fight and be fierce no matter what they did.  He just sat and smelled.  And the Banderilleros were mad and the Picadores were madder and the Matador was so mad he cried because he couldn't show off with his cape and sword. 
So they had to take Ferdinand home. And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. 
He is very happy.   

Disney's 1938 Academy Award-winning animated short took the story almost verbatim as well as borrowing images from the art. That story itself is charming - Mahatma Gandhi cited it as his favourite book - but is given even greater richness with Lawson's beautiful illustrations. In its proper printed form, there is practically one drawing for every sentence or two. They have the same quality of detail, dynamism, and humour found in all great illustration work, especially from the first half of the Twentieth Century.

When the book was first published in 1936, it was immediately controversial. What may have simply been Leaf's innocent make-work project for a friend was taken as a political statement of pacifism on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco banned the book in Spain and Hitler did the same in Germany, which is about as good an accolade as one can get. Alternately, Stalin loved it and allowed it to pass Communist censors, and Walt Disney went ahead to make a film of it. With World War II looming on the horizon, one could easily speculate on how different nations may have wished to encourage or discourage pacifistic tendencies. Karl Cohen, in an article about pacifism in animation, wonders aloud about what Ferdinand the Bull and The Reluctant Dragon (another arguably pacifistic film) might have indicated, having been released in short order but not so long before Disney was making WWII propaganda films for the Allies.

Another fixture that makes Ronda, Spain famous, besides its bridge, is one of the oldest continuously used bullfighting rings in the country. Torn between its traditional place in Iberian culture and objective concerns for animal welfare, the origins of bullfighting are lost to history. The use of bulls in sport and ritual was ubiquitous around the Mediterranean and Middle East. Frescoes found in the buildings of the Minoan civilization on Crete, dating back nearly 5000 years, depict athletes leaping and somersaulting over bulls. Recall the golden calf of the Biblical Exodus. Bulls were ritually slaughtered in the Roman mystery cult called Mithraism and used in the public spectacles of the Roman Colosseum. When the Moors conquered Spain, they introduced horses to the sport and it became a pastime of Mediaeval nobles. Old Roman colosseums were recommissioned for bullfights and new arenas, called Plaza de Toros, were built where they could. In the early 1700's, the nobles on horseback turned the proceedings over to commoners on foot, under pressure from the anti-bullfighting King Philip V and a Papal decree, and the modern art of bullfighting began.

Panorama of Ronda's Plaza de Toros, finished in 1785.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Ronda was home to one of the most innovative bullfighters of all time, Francisco Romero. Prior to him, bullfighting and the killing of the bull at its conclusion was the prerogative of those nobles. Supposedly he hopped over the fence of the Plaza de Toros, asked for permission to deliver the final blows with his sword, using a white kerchief as a distraction against the dying bull. Thus he originated three traditions in one: the matador on foot, the muleta cape, and the estoque sword for the final thrust that ends the bull's life. Francisco's son Juan was a bullfighter, and he introduced the concept of the bullfighting team that included the picadores on horseback, banderilleros who thrust the lances (banderillas) into the back and neck of the bull, and the cachetero who wields the short knife of the same name which finally puts the tormented bull out of its misery. Juan's son Pedro elevated the sport to an artform of elegance, courage, and machismo over the course of faultless battles with nearly 6000 bulls before he retired in 1799 (though legend has it that he fought his last at the age of 80, where he dispatched several bulls at once).

The art of bullfighting is highly ritualistic, with key steps in the performance. In the initial stage, tercio de varas, the matador tests the bull with a series of passes through the cape. Then a picador thrusts a lance into the bull's shoulder. Watching how the bull charges the horses informs the matador further as to the bull's behaviour (and in the old days before padding was introduced, the number of horses killed by bulls in a bullfight far exceeded the number of bulls killed by humans). Then come the banderilleros in the tercio de banderillas stage to thrust their lances. Finally comes the tercio de muerte. The matador enters the ring to engage in a series of passes with the bull, delivered with dramatic maneuvers called faena, each with its own name. After the bull has been worn down with the passes, the matador makes the final strike into its heart with the sword. However, if spectators and the matador agree that the bull has fought exceptionally, then it may be spared and put out to stud for the remainder of its life. Clearly an event of this sort raises questions of animal cruelty and rejoinders about the treatment and processing of animals for food. It has been banned in several countries and districts of Spain. The Story of Ferdinand  implicitly satirizes bullfighting... The crowd wants blood and the poor matador is driven to tears because he can't show off. Munro Leaf consistently juxtaposes the pomp and machismo of the bullfighting spectacle - from the showy bulls to the showy matador - against the peaceable disposition of Ferdinand, who is content to simply appreciate nature's beauty without having to prove himself to anyone.

The matador in fits.
All that, from fascists to bullfights, may be reading too much into what is, at heart, a gentle story about a gentle soul who just likes to smell the flowers.

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