DVD Review Of El Cid
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/3/10
El Cid is one of those Hollywood-European mega co-productions of the 1950s and 1960s that were crafted to combat the growing influence of television. The film industry wanted sheer size and spectacle to be able to battle the threat it sensed from the little screen. Westerns, Sword and Sandal epics, and historical films of all stripes were in vogue. Most were overblown fare like Cleopatra, while very few were intelligent films, like Stanley Kubrickís Spartacus, or Anthony Mannís El Cid. Mann, in fact, was the original director of Spartacus, whom star and producer Kirk Douglas replaced with Kubrick. He was also an accomplished director of standards in the Western genre, like The Tin Star, and even Hollywood classics like The Glenn Miller Story. Yet, he was never the auteur director that Kubrick was. there was never a signature Mann style. His films are well crafted, well acted, well written, and nothing more. Granted, in this day of Hollywood schlock in all forms, such should not be so lightly dismissed. Nonetheless, El Cid both benefits and suffers from these very qualities.
It is not a great film. There is simply no great theme nor message to be imparted. Neither is there any standout bit of acting. Yes, Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, as the classic star-crossed lovers, give very good performances, but never does one doubt what will occur in the film, even if one is not familiar with the real life history of El Cid, the man. That is because it is a film that is Classical, in every sense of the word. Yes, there are the stereotypes of the era- the foaming, dark-skinned and heathenous Moors. And there is the inevitable near deification of El Cid. But, despite that, the film is a gorgeous tapestry of design and color, and the action moves along so briskly that its narrative snaps at the viewer. Mann also does an admirable job of using narrative ellipses to propel the action. One need not see every scene through till its narrative end, and not every battle need be shown.
The plot is as follows: in the Eleventh Century, Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (Heston), on his way to marry his lover, encounters the remnants of a devastating Moorish attack, led by a foaming Moorish general, Ben Yussef (Herbert Lom). Somehow, he captures some of the Moors, and shows mercy on them, in the face of a lynch mob in his home town. The Moorish Emir he spares, swears fealty to Rodrigo, and calls him The Cid. He is denounced by the armies of King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman) as a traitor, and is made to stand trial. Count Gormaz (Andrew Cruickshank), father of Cidís beloved, Chimene (Loren), insults Cidís father, Don Diego (Michael Hordern), who defends his son, and he and Cid fight it out in the time worn, but film ready, act of macho honor. Heston ends up killing Gormaz, and Chimene vows to hate Cid. With Gormaz, the Kingís Champion, dead, a rival King challenges Ferdinand for the possession of a disputed city. Cid volunteers to take Gormazís place, and slays the other Kingís champion. He then is sent to lead an expedition against the Moors by Ferdinand, and survives an assassination attempt by a knight, Ordonez (Raf Vallone), who loves Chimene, and vows to kill Cid for her. Cid survives, and spares the traitor. He then finds out Chimene was behind it, after he gets Ferdinand to allow him to marry Chimene, to support her for causing her fatherís death. Chimene leaves him for a nunnery. Time passes, and King Ferdinand dies. The Kingís two sons, Sancho (Gary Raymond) and Alfonso (John Fraser) battle it out over the kingdom. Alfonso tries to kill his older brother, but fails and is to be banished to a dungeon. Cid rescues him and delivers him to their sister, Urraca (Genevieve Page, almost as beautiful as Loren in this film), who clearly is engaging in some sort of incestuous relationship with Alfonso. The duo call on Cidís help, but he refuses, and they then plot to kill Sancho, who comes to Urracaís castle to retrieve his errant brother. They succeed in ambushing Sancho, but Cid kills the Kingís killer, then humiliates Alfonso in front of his subjects by forcing him to swear on the Bible that he did not kill his brother. For this he is exiled, and reconciles with a chastened Chimene. But, their exile is short-lived, as many of Cidís comrades abandon Alfonso for him. Then we get the good old fashioned intermission. The second half of the film opens with a grayed Cid sporting a scar across his face. Years have passed, and he is pleading with Alfonso to allow his Moorish allies to help Alfonso against the coming attack of Ben Yussef. Alfonso orders him to assist him in another battle, but Cid decides to try and save the port city of Valencia from Ben Yussefís hordes. His men take the city, and crush the corrupt Moslem rulers. His followers want Cid to take the crown as King of Valencia, but he sends it to Alfonso, who feels humbled by Cidís generosity, after he had earlier imprisoned Chimene and Cidís twin daughters, who were rescued by Ordonez, whose change of heart toward Cid mirrors that of Alfonso. Alfonso, meanwhile, beaten in the battle he ordered Cid to join, instead marches on Valencia, and saves the town from Ben Yussef, even as Cid has been mortally wounded by an arrow to the shoulder. Cid makes Chimene promise to stap his corpse to a horse so he can spiritually lead the Spaniards against the Moors, who believe Cidís death has broken the Spanish will. His corpse rides out on a white steed (in contrast to the black garbed Moslems), and the Spaniards drive off the invaders. Even in death he wins (and the Christ-like parallels multiply). Almost in anticipation of Hestonís later role in Planet Of The Apes, the film ends with his character riding off along a beach on a horse.
The filmís visuals are occasionally stunning, and, while the screenplay by Philip Yordan, Ben Barzman and Fredric M. Frank, from a story by Frank, is solid, one does wonder how differently a true film master like Michelangelo Antonioni would have handles such a film. We never get inside any of the characters because they act upon such a large stage that what they say and do almost does not matter, as it is dwarfed by the seeming weight of history. In a sense, the film is like a Frederic Edwin Church painting, wherein natural forces marginalize the efforts of man. The music score by Miklůs Růzsa, was much lauded, but in retrospect, it does not hold up against the visuals of cinematographer Robert Krasker. Interestingly, perhaps the most important technical aspect that succeeds in this film is the editing by Robert Lawrence. Repeatedly, the scenes end before typical Hollywood reveals that hammer a point home, especially in epic films like this. There are dozens of examples, but note the scene where Cid kills Chimeneís father. First, we never see the final deed, as both men are behind the staircase when Cid strikes his deathblow. Second, after getting Chimene to agree to avenge his death, we see her turn, to see Cid in darkness under the stairs, but then we get the fade. We never see the typical confrontation between the lovers That is delayed for a few minutes. What this shows is that Mann was handed an elephant, and did his best to leave some sort of imprint of himself on it.
The film won some awards at the Golden Globes, and Oscars- mostly technical stuff, but it was a smash hit. The film is shown in a 2.20:1 aspect ratio and clocks in at almost three and a quarter hours in length, and comes in 1 three disk DVD package, as part of The Miriam Collection of films. Unfortunately, the film is split at its intermission, and spread across two DVDs. In this day and age, this is a major boner. Even worse is that the audio commentary is also split. The commentary, by Bill Bronston (son of producer Sauel Bronston) and Neal M. Rosendorf, a film historian, is ok, mentioning some of the unfortunate stereotyping that was portrayed, but itís nothing special. Perhaps the most insightful thing mentioned is how the film used Islamic expansion as a metaphor for the Cold War, whereas now it can be read literally, and how Sam Bronston was clueless as to the deeper themes in the film. Disk 1 features radio interviews with Heston and Loren, while Disk 2 has the featurettes. Thereís a making of featurette, a film on the career of Bronston as a producer, one on Anthony Mannísd career as a director, one on the music of Miklůs Růzsa, a film on film preservation, and a gallery of theatrical trailers. The worst extra feature, though, comes on Disk 3. There is nothing but a lengthy interview with a none too bright evangelist named John Bevere, who spends his whole interview as an apologist for Christianity, as well as spewing bizarre 1950s era ultra-nationalistic tripe, and generally misinterpreting the film. Itís an embarrassing feature, and one wonders what connection to the people involved in the DVD this man has, and why he would be featured so prominently in the packaging.
Overall, El Cid is a terrific popcorn movie to watch, but a film of depth and great art itís not. Akira Kurosawa would have really lifted a project like this into the heavens. These days, all of the thousands of extras would simply be added in via CG, so it is quite impressive to see a film that truly was epic in scope. I also prefer the old method of putting all the credits at the start of the film, and, of course, thereís Charlton Heston. Simply put, Heston is the quintessential American Alpha Male Movie Star. John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson. No one really compares, except for, perhaps, Gary Cooper. While this film does not test his acting chops the way Major Dundee did, nor is it as iconic as his roles in Planet Of The Apes nor The Ten Commandments, it may be the role Heston was most suited to play, for it seems that he is never straining, and always in his comfort zone. Regardless, watch El Cid if you want an idea of what the filmgoing experience was, at its best, during the middle of last century.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]
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