If you’re Hemingway’s heir un-apparent or address your grandmother as “hombre ,” then you just might have the balls for the bulls at St. Fermin. Bull-running is the most dangerous street theater in the world and, dating from pagan times, it may be the longest-running show on earth. If Mexico and Southern France are considered Off Off Broadway, there are possibilities of offshore reruns for the three-day Pamplona event.
Pamplona is a sleepy country town in the soft green hills of northern Spain that abruptly wakes up during its seven-day feast of St. Fermin, looking like a Spanish version of MGM’s “Brigadoon” celebrating a Super Bowl. Its youths dress in red neckerchiefs and waist sashes, their shirts and trousers immaculate linen white. Amateur bands thump pasodobles, the townfolk jig ancient dances from dusk till dawn.
But the jewels in the crown of the event are the three daily bull runs, when six huge bulls are let loose to storm 850 yards of cobblestone streets from the Hill of St. Vicente to the city’s bullring. A thousand or so youths, fleet-footed and funk-faced, attempt to run in front of them.
“The bull runs are a tragicomedy,” playwright Arthur Miller proclaimed at this year’s fest. Its cast comprises tons of people and tonnes of bulls.
If the third run, July 9, ended in near tragedy, it began with knockabout farce. From 7 a.m., when the runners amassed in the Town Hall Square, about a third of the way down the course, it was clear that some were drunk on manly ego; others were drunk on drink. A wee tipple for stage fright may be excusable. But several runners, especially from foreign parts, hadn’t a clue about the spectacle they were about to perform in.
Blame it, if you will, on Hemingway. The mother ofall machos visited Pamplona’s bull runs six or seven times between 1922 and 1959. “I remember eating with him at the Hotel Perla,” a seasoned local runner told Variety. “He drank four bottles at lunch, went to the afternoon bullfight, and then to bed.” And his running? “Hemingway never once ran in his life,” he added.
Maybe some runners should have followed Hemingway’s cue. By 7:50 a.m., this Variety reviewer had fallen in with a mild-mannered fireman from Ohio named Greg. “Do you think we’ll be able to outrun the bulls?” he asked. Maybe, but a bull at full tilt runs 850 yards in 90 seconds. And “running” at Pamplona is also a euphemism. As the Municipal Police moved aside at 7:55 to allow runners to take position, 500 runners tried to get the hell out of there.
When great courage is revealed to be gross ignorance, it is hard to feel empathy for many of the runners at St. Fermin. Variety managed just a blind dash along Estafeta Street, head down, heart racing, legs (maybe) moving, before Little Blondie was a mere foot or two — well, maybe, three — away.
It is here that the St. Fermin revels as high-actioner art. Turn Arnie, Sly, Dolph and Steven on all fours, bundle them into a black gleaming skin, add a set of horns and teach the combo to steam up a street, and you still have no idea of the sheer weight, power and muscle-beauty of a Maria Luis Dominguez bull performing at its bucking best.
From nearby, Little Blondie was stunning. At the moment we were trying to appear a natural part of a shop doorway and stole a glimpse at the animal, Little Blondie was hitting a local lad in the ribs with a nonchalant side-flick of one horn.
In Estafeta Street, five bulls flashed by like a sweating, black express train. Slowing, swaying, saliva-dribbling Nibbler suggested the makings of a left-of-field, nervy perf with the undertow of neurosis of method acting at its finest.
He took seven minutes to stumble to the bullring, sending 13 runners to hospital along the way. Next day, local pundits singled out Nibbler’s performance. “It was terrifying. In all my 13 years of running I’ve never seen anything like it,” commented Vicente Martinez.
Said Carlos Alva, who used to train as a wannabe bullfighter with Orson Welles, “Bulls might have got bigger, but they’re weaker and less predictable. This can’t go on,” he concluded.
Variety would never want to give a bull the bird. But if the bulls at Pamplona appear less and less bullish about running, the prestige and glitter of this extraordinary event can only grow dimmer — although this reviewer’s heart goes out to the star of any cast who is slaughtered and eaten on the day of his career-defining performance.