Tuesday, February 5, 2008

El Cid

“El Cid” (1961), is one of the greatest spectacles ever made, a feast for the eyes and ears. It tells the tale of Spain’s greatest hero, a knight who lives by a code of honor that would bend most other men.

Though made in the early 1960s and dealing with a medieval hero, its story and message echo what is occurring in today’s world. Consider the following:

The film’s opening scene shows the fundamentalist Moslem chieftain Ben Yussuf (Herbert Lom) from Africa exhorting his followers to conquer Spain, the land across the waters, and from there the rest of Europe and eventually the entire world. Allah has willed it to him that the world be made a Moslem one. He is willing to spare no Christian man, woman or child from fulfilling his mission. Sound familiar?

Conquering eleventh century Spain could be easily accomplished, as it is a patchwork of feuding kingdoms, boasting petty rulers with even pettier heirs more concerned about their tiny fiefdoms than the enemy scourge that is gathering across the waters to sweep over Spain.

The knight Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston) is on his way to his wedding to his betrothed, the beautiful Chimene (Sophia Loren) when he engages the Moors (not the Moops) in a battle. He captures two Moorish prisoners and since he is their captor, their fate is in his hands. Rodrigo says Moslem and Christian have been killing each other for centuries and to what end? He secures a solemn vow from them that they will never raise a hand against his king, Ferdinand.

One of them, Moutamin (Douglas Wilmer, from “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), by the way one of the greatest films ever made) tells him a man who shows great compassion towards his enemies is a worthy man and gives him the title “El Cid” which means “The Lord.” Rodrigo and Moutamin become great friends and allies.

Word gets back to Ferdinand’s court that he let Moorish prisoners go. Disapproval and censure is swift, and Rodrigo is dubbed a traitor. To avenge his honor, he engages in a duel with the king’s champion and kills him. The king’s champion is Chimene’s father, and the love story on display here becomes a truly memorable one. Their deep loves turns into a hateful marriage, but that hate melts away years later when she realizes what a man of deep honor her husband is.

Rodrigo redeems himself when he fights in a jousting contest and is awarded the city of Calahorra for his king. This is one of the cinema’s great action sequences. Filmed on the grounds of a real castle, hundreds of spectators stand among colorful pennants as the two champions engage in a grueling lance and swordfight. The sequence took five weeks to film and lasts almost ten minutes long.

Ferdinand dies and the kingdom falls into the hands of his bickering children Urraca (Genevieve Page), Alfonso (John Fraser) and Sancho (Gary Raymond, also from “Jason and the Argonauts”). Rodrigo tries to warn them of the growing threat overseas and brings his Moorish allies to court, saying they need to band together to fight Ben Yussuf. Appalled at the idea of having Moors in their Christian court, the Moorish assistance is rejected by the new rulers.

Rodrigo is exiled and the legend of El Cid begins. Still loyal to the kingdom that has forsaken him, he wins territories and battles for his king while unifying the Spanish kingdoms against Ben Yussuf.

That’s just the barebones of the movie, as it runs almost three hours long, but so well paced is the movie that the 184-minute running time just flies by.

Producer Samuel Bronston independently financed the movie and no expense was spared in recreating medieval Spain. Actual cathedrals and castles were used, and thousands of extras are on display to enact the spectacular battles. No CGI here, and the costumes, sets and props are exquisitely detailed and appointed. I don’t how historically accurate those sets and costumes are, but it sure is a beautiful film to look at.

Equally glorious is the score by master composer Miklos Rozsa. There are background scores and then there are musical scores and Rozsa’s “El Cid” is definitely one of the latter. It’s a stunning symphonic achievement, with the love theme being one of Rozsa’s most heart achingly beautiful.

Heston was born to play roles like this and Loren is exquisite as his wife, as their relationship becomes a roller coaster of emotions. Reportedly, Heston and Loren did not care for each other offscreen, but that doesn’t come through.

Heston is perfect playing the big emotions, but he always seems uncomfortable in his love scenes (in all his movies, not just “El Cid.”). I’ve always been struck by the parallels between “El Cid” and his performance in “The Ten Commandments” (1956). In both movies, they enjoy strong relationships with their wives, but in the second half when they become legendary figures, and the beards become longer, they become such grand figures, that you can’t picture Moses or El Cid sitting down with the wife for a relaxing dinner. They’re too busy changing history. Heston’s performance in these latter scenes in “El Cid” is so good you forgive the awkwardness of his earlier scenes with Loren.

Director Anthony Mann was a master of wide-screen composition and he uses it beautifully. Rodrigo’s and Chimene’s initial meeting from opposite sides of the room until they come together in the middle bathed in a golden light from a skylight above is a particular highlight.

There are a few other minor demerits. While the huge climatic battle scene at the end is an awesome spectacle, with the two armies charging towards each other on the beach, and Rozsa’s furious music propelling them forward, once the armies have clashed, I don’t feel the battle isn’t as exciting as it could be. A director like DeMille was great at capturing individual moments in his action scenes, but here the actual battle could use a little more oomph.

A risible moment is the song that comes up as the exit music, with words sung by a huge chorus set to Rozsa’s indelible love theme. The song is called “The Falcon and the Dove.” Ugh. Rozsa didn’t want a song at the end, but was overruled by producer Bronston, who hoped to have a hit record from it. When Rozsa re-recorded the score for the soundtrack album, he omitted the chorus and gave us his the exit music he wanted, a glorious full blown rendition of the love theme. I wish Rozsa had convinced Bronston to keep his original idea.

But all is forgiven when one thinks of the film’s final scenes, with El Cid riding into legend. I don’t want to spoil it for those that haven’t seen it, but that sunlight, Rozsa’s incredible organ music and that final image of El Cid riding along the shoreline is one of the greatest movie endings of all time.

And one of the film’s messages, that Christians and Moslems can learn much from each other but must join forces to defeat fundamentalist evil in their midst, is needed today more than ever before.

The two-disc DVD is a real treat. I had heard stories about the bad transfer, but it looks splendid to me, albeit a little brown in spots. Due to the film changing ownership hands over the years, much of the original master material is missing, so the film probably looks as good as it ever will. I wish the film’s intermission music, “The El Cid March” (a wonderfully stirring piece) had been placed at the beginning of the second disc instead of the end of the first, but that’s a minor quibble.

The extra features are particularly generous, with segments devoted to producer Bronston, director Mann, composer Rozsa, the making of the film and film preservation. The extra features alone run almost two hours!

Though it’s early in the year, the DVD release of “El Cid” looks hard to top as the DVD event of the year. Let’s hope that the next Bronston release, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964), is equally impressive.

Rating for “El Cid”: Three and a half stars.

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