El Cid (1961) dir. Anthony Mann
Starring: Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren
By Alan Bacchus
“El Cid” was made at the height of the epic-period in Hollywood. In the early 60’s with the increasing popularity of TV Hollywood endeavoured to make bigger and longer movies to get audiences out of their homes and back into the theatres for an experience they couldn’t get on the small screen (hmm, things haven’t changed much since then). This caused a trend in making giant, expensive, lengthy blockbusters, with huge casts, huge running times, with widescreen photography. This golden age lasted approximately from 1956 – 1964 and saw the annual smut of epics that included “Ben Hur”, “Spartacus”, Lawrence of Arabia”, “King of Kings”, “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Cleopatra” - some were great, some were mediocre and of course, many were bad. One of the best and under appreciated was “El Cid” – a non Hollywood film – financed and produced entirely with European money by super-producer Samuel Bronston.
In medieval Spain 1000+AD Spain is under constant conflict with the aggressive Moors – the Muslim Africans– both living in Spain and those across the Atlantic. Charlton Heston plays Rodrigo Diaz, one of Spain’s great knights. Diaz falls out of favour of Ferdinand’s royal court when he frees a group of captured Moors. But Diaz’s kindness and civility with the Moors creates a groundswell of support for the exiled warrior, and from the eyes of people Diaz becomes ‘El Cid’ (the Lord). Diaz redeems himself with the royals and leads the patriotic charge against the oncoming Moor Army from the south.
Diaz is the typical hero – inadvertently drawn into conflict and battle, but resolute in his commitment to his people and country. Much of the conflict is between his fiancé/wife (Sophia Loren), who wishes to live a humble life with Diaz. But the genre demands a hero who goes from ordinary man to legend to martyr and finally to myth. Diaz moves through all these stages and finishes the film with a rousing send off worthy of any of the aforementioned battle epics.
Nothing frustrates me more than an epic that extends its running time with uninteresting sword & sandal dialogue cooped up in studio interior scenes. The wideangle frame constantly craves the big scale and big spectacle. “Spartacus” and “Ben Hur” often suffer from this. But “El Cid” rarely stays in the same location and rarely stays indoors. For most of the time Heston is outside on his horse against deep vistas of expansive lands.
It’s refreshing to watch tangible productive value on the screen, as opposed to post-production CGI which is now a cost-effective way of tricking us. Mann stages a dozen major set pieces featuring hundred, if not thousands, of extras. The attack on Valencia occurs on a long stretch of beach against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea and a grand castle on a hilltop in the background. There’s no doubting the castle, the water, the horses and the warriors are all real and no amount of CGI will ever replace the real thing. Another glorious scene is Diaz’s dramatic joust to the death set against another magnificent medieval castle. “El Cid” isn’t without its banal dialogue scenes, but it’s kept to the bare minimum to push the story through to the set pieces, which drives the story.
On the downside, I don’t know if it’s the cinematography or the DVD transfer but the film looks aged – too aged and dated for a 70mm film. This era of colour photography often had problems with contrasty imaging and lack of depth and detailing. “El Cid” is big and has fine composition, but it never looks beautiful, as say, “Lawrence of Arabia”, which was made one year later.
It’s fitting the new DVD box set is as big as the movie. Alliance Films' 3-DVD set looks impressive on my DVD shelf. The sand-textured box, which matches well my “Lawrence of Arabia” set, contains two books, authentically recreated original production notes and a graphic novel (comic strip in those days) version of the film. Also included is a well-written essay from Martin Scorsese and a set of ‘lobby’ cards (what do you with these DVD lobby cards, anyway?)
You'll be doing yourself a disservice if you get caught up in the political correctness or try to find parallels to today's global political climate. Don't judge the filmmakers on who they chose to be the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys'. "El Cid" is not to be over-intellectualized - just watch the film.
“El Cid 3-Disc Set” is available on DVD from Alliance Films.