El Cid(1961), produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Anthony Mann, depicting the life of legendary Eleventh-century Spanish hero, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is one of the greatest screen epics ever made. Charlton Heston plays Rodrigo aka El Cid in one of his most popular film portrayals and Sophia Loren plays his wife Doña Ximena.
Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is the national hero of Spain. He was born circa 1043 of noble yet obscure descent. At the age of 28 he became commander in chief of the armies of Castile. He was a warrior, a nobleman, a knight, and a champion. Sworn to the service of God and dedicated to saving Spain, he never lost a battle, and did more than any man of his time to rescue Spain from the Moors. He was also the perfect chivalric knight, devoted to his wife and children; a magnificent warrior, unerringly true to his word and merciful to his opponents. Impressed by his bravery, his Moorish opponents bestowed him the title “Al Seid” or “El Cid”- meaning “The Lord”. Cid was immortalized forever in the epic poem, El Cantar de Mío Cid. It is the first great poem in the Spanish language and was written about the year 1140, only fifty years or so after he died. Ballads by the bushel have since embellished the fame of El Cid. Pierre Corneille made him the hero of France’s first great play, Le Cid. Jules Massenet turned the play into an opera. All these literary works presents an idealized and romanticized portrait of Cid, using history merely as a starting point. Of course, the real Cid lived in a far more complex socio-political climate; at a time when the concept of Spanish nationalism did not exist. Spain was divided into many small kingdoms, which were ruled by both Christian and Muslim kings; and they made war against each other without concerning about god or religion. In other words, Christians allied with Muslims and vice versa in wars that were fought for territory. The same goes for Cid too, but as with all great historical figures, who becomes legends in their lifetime or death, we idealize and romanticize them; make them better than they are, because now they are an aspirational symbol to a nation or the world at large. This is the Cid portrayed in director Anthony Mann’s visually breathtaking epic, El Cid(1961); the hero of legends and ballads, an epitome of everything good, noble and heroic in a man. And who better to embody this hero of heroes, the noblest of warriors and the chivalrous of Knights other than Charlton Heston. Heston, by then, had portrayed some of the greatest heroes of all time- mythical and historical: Moses, Ben-Hur, President Andrew Jackson, but As Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, a character based on fact and legend, Heston had what is surely the most heroic role of his career. Cid, as portrayed by Heston, is a figure of noble proportions who, of course, does no wrong, only right. The wrong is done by others around him who are moved by anger, envy and greed. He just moves through a series of encounters, personal and martial, in which he usually wins. And his victory is not achieved only through violent battles, he wins over most of his enemies through forgiveness and tolerance; whether its the Muslim kings of Spain, or his romantic rival Ordonez, or his lover turned foe turned wife, Ximena, or his jealous king, Alfonso; all become converts into Cid’s cult when confronted with the honor, humility and yeah, even the divinity of this great knight. In short, he’s very much a sword-wielding ‘Christ’.
This Christ imagery is accentuated in almost every spectacular frame of this mammoth 3 hour plus epic film, complete with moments of Cid’s crucifixion and resurrection. In his introduction scene, Heston’s Rodrigo is seen saving a large cross, sacred to the people of the village he has defended, and, Christ like, carries it on his shoulder; in some ways, a fantastic metaphor for what Charlton Heston is doing for this film: he’s carrying the burden of this gigantic epic singlehandedly, and truth be told, there are very few actors who can, not just hold themselves in front of such elaborately designed pomp, pageantry and regal rites unleashed in every frame, but tower over them and make their presence felt.; there’s absolutely nobody today for sure, there were less even then. Unlike his previous epics like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur” where Heston was second or even the last choice of the filmmakers, for El Cid, Anthony Mann and producer Samuel Bronston had Heston as the one and only one choice. It was not just because Heston was at the height of his stardom, which he was- having just delivered a mega-blockbuster in Ben-Hur and having won an Oscar for his performance in it, but also because there wasn’t anyone out there who could convey the physical, moral ad spiritual strength of the character as Heston could do. To play a really good, chivalrous, noble and heroic person is truly a boring affair for any actor, it’s an equally boring affair for the audience to watch one as well; so the actor playing such a character must totally believe in these character traits and breathe enough conviction into his performance that he (and the character) would not be laughed off the screen by the audience. Obviously Heston could do it, more than above other beefy heroes of the time like a Kirk Douglas or a Burt Lancaster; who all had a certain amoral, wicked quality to their screen persona. That’s why i believe Kirk Douglas was much better in “The Vikings” than in “Spartacus”. Heston, with his towering visage, a face that looks cut from granite, and a rich, deep voice, embodies the nobility and heroism of the character exquisitely, El Cid may not be the best film that Heston ever made, neither is this his best screen performance, but this most definitely is the definitive Charlton Heston epic. This film symbolizes Heston as a Star and actor more than any other film, and the film owes its effectiveness and success as much (or more) to his presence\performance than to Samuel Bronston’s showmanship and Anthony Mann’s cinematic artistry.
The film opens with a scene that has great contemporary relevance. We see a fiery-eyed, fundamentalist Muslim emir, Ben Yusuf(Herbert Lom) of the Almoravid dynasty, taunting and exhorting a group of Spanish Muslim Kings to go to war against their Christian neighbors. He is disappointed with the more modern, secular and pacifist Spanish Emirs who peacefully coexist with the Christian kings, and issues this warning to them: “The Prophet has commanded us to rule the world. Where in all your land of Spain is the glory of Allah? When men speak of you, they speak of poets, musicmakers, doctors, scientists. Where are your warriors? You dare call yourselves sons of the Prophet? You have become women! Burn your books. Make warriors of your poets. Let your doctors invent new poisons for our arrows. Let your scientists invent new war machines. And then kill! Burn! Infidels live on your frontiers. Encourage them to kill each other. And when they are weak and torn, I will sweep up from Africa. And thus the empire of the one God, the true God Allah, will spread. First across Spain. Then across Europe. Then — the whole world!.” Even though the film tells the story from the POV of El Cid and the Christian world, the film still tries to present a balanced religious perspective: not long after this scene, we see Rodrigo capturing the Emirs, Al-Mu’tamin (Douglas Wilmer) of Zaragoza and Al-Kadir (Frank Thring) of Valencia, who have attacked Castile at Ben Yusuf’s exhortation. But more interested in peace than in wreaking vengeance, Rodrigo escorts his prisoners to Vivar and releases them on condition that they never again attack lands belonging to King Ferdinand of Castile (Ralph Truman). The Emirs proclaim him “El Cid” and swear allegiance to him.
But for his act of mercy, Don Rodrigo is accused of treason by Count Ordonez (Raf Vallone). Though Rodrigo manages to make peace with the Emirs, he cannot convince the Christians about the worth of his actions; and he’s branded a traitor and a coward. Following which, a feud breaks out between his family and his ladylove, Ximena’s family, as Rodrigo’s proud father, Don Diego (Michael Hordern) calls Ximena’s father, Count Gormaz (Andrew Cruickshank), a liar and Gormaz retaliates by slapping him and challenging him to a duel. Rodrigo was on his way to wed Ximena when he had to detour to save the villages from the attack of the Emirs. Now both the lovers are locked in a tight embrace, and they anxiously await the king’s verdict on Rodrigo’s actions. But the news that Rodrigo receives is of the humiliation of his father by Count Gormaz. A man of honor to the end, Rodrigo confronts Gormaz and requests him to apologize to his father; Gormaz refuses, so Rodrigo fights the duel in his father’s stead to protect his father’s honor. In the resulting duel, Rodrigo kills Gormaz, thereby incurring the wrath of Ximena. She renounces her love for him and swears to kill him to avenge her father. Thus, an act of pacifism and religious tolerance performed by Rodrigo ends up completely destroying him and altering his life forever. But one cant keep a good man down for long: when a rival king lays claim to the city of Calahorra, and challenges Ferdinand to settle the issue through a jousting contest with his champion, Rodrigo takes up the challenge and triumphs his opponent in a brutal fight. This jousting contest is one the most spectacular and rousing action set pieces in film history; perhaps not as elaborate and big as the chariot race in Ben-Hur, but it does come a close second,. Now Rodrigo is anointed the King’s champion, and he’s charged with escorting Prince Sancho (Gary Raymond) on a mission to collect tribute from the Emirs. En route, they’re betrayed by Count Ordonez into a deathtrap, but Rodrigo is saved by Al-Mu’tamin, who arrives with his army and helps Rodrigo and his men defeat the assassins arranged to kill them- prompting Rodrigo to muse “Betrayed by a Christian. Saved by a Moor.” Obviously, the film does its best not to turn the film into a Christians (the good) Vs Muslims (the bad), and tries to show that there are good & bad guys on both sides.
Count Ordonez is captured, and despite his strong assertions that it was Ximena who encouraged the betrayal, Rodrigo forgives him, and insists that the young Prince Sancho, who’s the heir to the throne, also does the same, as kindness and forgiveness are important traits that a king should possess. In addition to this, Rodrigo demands Ximena’s hand in marriage from the king; King agrees to this- in order to put an end to their family feud. Though Rodrigo and Ximena are married, their marriage s not consummated, as Ximena’s hatred for him remains and she wouldn’t willingly give herself to him; and Rodrigo wouldn’t take her any other way. Even as Rodrigo’s life is plunged into turmoil, the political situation in the kingdom is also getting worse: after the death of Ferdinand, his younger son, Prince Alfonso (John Fraser) tells the elder son Prince Sancho that their father wanted his kingdom divided between his heirs: Castile to Sancho, Asturias and León to Alfonso, and Calahorra to their sister, Princess Urraca (Geneviève Page). Sancho does not accept this and wants the whole kingdom all for himself. He has Alfonso exiled to the dungeons of Zamora. Rodrigo, who has sworn before god to protect all three sons of Ferdinand, cannot allow this; he intercepts Sancho’s soldiers who are taking Alfonso to prison, and frees Alfonso by defeating all 13 of the soldiers single-handedly; proclaiming loudly that “What you do is against God’s law. Were you 13 times 13, I would not be alone.” thus proving that his allegiance to his god is not just in beating back the Moorish invaders but also in establishing justice in Christendom. But his actions does not quell the civil war: Alfonso join hands with Urraca to take on Sancho; Ben Yusuf, taking advantage of the situation, has Sancho treacherously killed and let the blame fall on Alfonso for his brother’s murder. At Alfonso’s coronation, Rodrigo forces him to swore on the bible that he had nothing do with his brother’s killing. Alfonso is incensed by Rodrigo’s noble impudence, and he confiscates Rodrigo’s lands and his titles and banishes him from the kingdom. But Rodrigo’s act of upholding honor even at he risk of banishment, endears him to Ximena. She finally understands what kind of man he is, and under what circumstances he was forced to kill her father. She also realizes that her love for him would never die. Ximena joins Rodrigo in exile and willfully gives herself to him, thus consummating their marriage. Though Rodrigo is exiled, many of his old subjects track him down. Having voluntarily given up their lands and titles, they join Cid as he go off into foreign lands to fight and achieve more glory. Here ends the first half of the film.
The second half of the film begins about ten-years later, and to show the age, Heston grew a gray-flecked beard and wore a facial scar to showcase Rodrigo’s battle scarring in the interim. He now has two children with Ximena, and he returns to Castile after Alfonso recalls him to take charge of the armies to fight off Ben Yusuf’s North African army. Rodrigo accepts the order, but when his request to include the Spanish Emirs in the defense of the country is met with stern disapproval from Alfonso, he refuses to partake in the King’s mission. He then goes off on his own to defend the country- allying once again with Al-Mu’tamin, and captures Valencia– where Al-Kadir had broken the truce and allied with Yusuf- without spilling any blood. Meanwhile, Alfonso’s army is badly beaten in their battle against Yusuf; Alfonso blames Rodrigo for the defeat and he kidnaps Ximena and the children and have them put into prison. Despite this, Rodrigo claims the city of Valencia in Alfonso’s name , and not his own, and sends the crown to Alfonso. Alfonso is baffled by Rodrigo’s action and decides to ride to Valencia to support Rodrigo, who’s besieged by Yusuf’s forces. Meanwhile, Ximena was saved from prison by Ordonez- who’s had a change of heart, and she joins her husband in Valencia. Rodrigo triumphantly leads his men into battle against Yusuf’s forces; the battle was going well for Rodrigo’s forces, when a stray arrow strikes him in the chest and forces him to withdraw. Doctors inform him that they can probably remove the arrow and save his life, but he will be incapacitated for a long time after the surgery. Unwilling to abandon his army at this critical moment, Rodrigo obtains a promise from Ximena to leave the arrow and let him ride back into battle, dying or dead. By this time, King Alfonso has reached Valencia- he comes to Rodrigo’s bedside and asks for his forgiveness. Rodrigo dies surrounded by his family and his allies. Honoring his wishes, his allies strap him on to his great white steed Babieca, thus allowing the Cid to leads his soldiers into battle one last time. Cid’s appearance terrifies the Moors, who, believing that Cid has risen from the dead, flees from the battlefield, crushing Ben Yusuf to death in the ensuing melee.
Like all great melodramatic epics, El Cid extracts the last drop of emotion from the audience. The final half hour of El Cid are some of the most emotionally charged and also, in some ways, chillingly weird (a corpse leading an army) moments ever put on film. The conquest of Valencia, the splendid final battle between Cid and Yusuf’s forces, the reunion between Cid, his family and his king, then Cid’s incapacitation and death, and then his resurrection and the ride into legend; each step keeps building up the emotions, and it reaches its zenith when we have the iconic image of Cid’s corpse riding into the ocean, with the rest praying to god to receive the soul “of the purest knight of all”. The film leaves us on such an extraordinary high note that even in these cynical times when very few believe in real heroes (only masked comic book heroes seems to have any value today ), even less in the concept of nobility and heroism, one fully believes and applauds a pure heroic soul like the Cid. And Heston’s performance is sufficiently big and grand- even his whispering sounds like bellowing; no point in holding back in a film of this scale. where very frame is so massively filled- one can write a book on the splendid locations, grand costumes, sets and set decoration of the film. This is in no way a subtle film, and a subtle performance isn’t going to work here, especially since it’s such a mythic figure of legendary proportions that Heston is portraying here. Today, Charlton Heston is considered a divisive figure, because of his politics and all, but there’s no question about the man’s ability and unique screen presence to carry off roles like these, and shoulder gigantic epics of such immense scale. Italian heartthrob, Sophia Loren as Ximena doesn’t get to stretch her acting muscles much, she mainly provides her star power and luscious beauty to the film. One of the more surprisingly solid performances comes from John Frasier as King Alfonso-a complex performance that see a cocky, amateur prince becoming a responsible monarch. Another major star of the film (and a holdover from Ben-Hur along with Heston) is music maestro Miklos Rozsa, who delivers a grand and emotionally stirring score befitting such a grand epic.
Anthony Mann’s direction beautifully balances the mix of spectacle and the intimate, drama and action, stirring, romantic and the tragic. He alternates epic long shots of the ruggedly beautiful Spanish terrain, dotted with vast armies, castles, pomp and pageantry with luscious close-ups of gorgeous faces that fill the entire 70mm screen. Mann started out as a director of low-budget B Noirs where darkness and claustrophobia envelops the screen, and then he gradated to directing expansive, psychologically complex Westerns with stars like James Stewart. In El Cid, we find the influence of both these film aesthetics: the outdoor action sequences have a fluidity and dynamism that’s rarely seen in the lumbering epics of the time, while the indoor sequences- and this film has quite a lot of indoor sequences for an epic- are moodily lit, using fire as a major metaphor for the emotions driving the protagonists- one of my favorite frames from the film is the scene depicting the first-night feast for the newly weds, where Heston and Loren are seated on the opposite ends of a long banquet table and the camera looks at them through the fireplace, filling the space between them with fire. This visually dense film does not have much density when it comes to narrative or characterization- which was a strong suit of Mann’s Westerns, but one gets a few glimpses of it in the love-hate relationship between Cid and Ximena as well as the one between Cid and Alfonso. El Cid, which cost just about, $7 million to make ( it looks three times richer on screen, thanks to Mann’s artistry and the Spanish government’s immense benevolence in granting castles, soldiers and period props for almost no money), took in a extraordinary $26 million at the box office, encouraging Madrid-based producer Samuel Bronston to bankroll more epics. Bronston was a wannabe Cecil B. DeMille, who wanted to create his own version of Hollywood in Spain. Using the country’s cheap labor and the cooperation of Dictator Franco’s regime, he attempted to make grand and spectacular family entertainment that could be exhibited as prestigious roadshow engagements- which was a rage at the time. But apart from El Cid, none of the other epics he made at the time- like 55 Days at Peking or Fall of the Roman Empire– were profitable, and his dream of “Hollywood in Spain” was over in just 5 years.