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In an introductory pamphlet included as part of this beautifully packaged two-disc collector's set of El Cid, Martin Scorsese writes the following: "El Cid is a picture that marks the passing of an era in American moviemaking, from Hollywood-based to international production, from studio era decorum to a greater frankness. It has the splendor and scale of a DeMille picture, but the sense of craftsmanship is quite different."
Of Scorsese's arguments, it's much easier to see the former point than the latter, given the epic grandeur of this film, which is on par with classics like Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and The Magnificent Seven. But there is a European sensibility present in Mann's picture, in terms of detail and mise-en-scene, along with the bloated indulgence of golden-era Hollywood that marked films of this scale. This was the early 1960s, a time when a film could have a title preceded by a name that referred to the producer, not the director (in this case, Samuel Bronston). El Cid's three hours begin with an overture and are interrupted by an intermission - both integral parts of the royal scale of mid-century filmmaking. But for all its excess, this classic is beautiful, exciting, and melodramatic, for mostly all the right reasons.
Charlton Heston stars as the title character, Rodrigo de Beva, son of a Spanish noble who earns his fabled nickname (which means "the master" in a disused Spanish dialect of Arabic) by showing mercy to a couple of Moorish invaders. Afterwards El Cid returns home to his lover, Chimene, played by the lovely and amazing Sophia Loren, only to learn that he has been called a traitor. After being accused of treason for his mercy, he kills Chimene's father in a brutal sword fight to defend his honor, and must thereafter deal with her vengeful wrath. Jousting, battles, duplicitous behavior, exile, and redemption follow, with the expected exoneration, heroics, death, and reuniting of the two lovers. But as schticky as it sounds, El Cid is great fun to watch.
Heston, in this pre-Apes incarnation, looks sinewy, chiseled, and very blonde. The young actor was built for roles like this, displaying an ambivalent sense of classical heroism that actors like Kirk Douglas were never capable of. Anthony Mann, working far afield of his iconic Westerns like Winchester '73 and his excellent Korean War picture, Men in War, has a firm grasp on the material and seems to handle the impossibly intricate scenes involving thousands of extras with ease and style. Mann was the original director of Spartacus, after all, until the studio replaced him with Stanley Kubrick.
But the biggest stars in El Cid really aren't Loren or Heston or even it's director, rather they are the intangible minutiae; the set design, the locations, the scenery, the giant battle scenes, and images of countless troops marching against darkened skies, ready for battle. They don't make films like this anymore, and perhaps that's a good thing. But for fans of the old-school or those unfamiliar with cinema's past, El Cid is an example of the excellence that can be wrung from Hollywood's monumental filmmaking era of the early 1960s.
Bonus features of the Miriam Collection DVD include an El Cid comic book, an audio commentary with Bill Bronston, the son of Samuel Bronston, and various featurettes and still galleries. SEE ALSO: www.imdb.com/title/tt0054847
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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