Monday, October 20, 2014

El Cid (1961)

A Spanish-Italian-US co-production, El Cid is both very much in the tradition of grand Hollywood epics and also points to a newer style of epic. While the Hollywood epics of the 50s were (mostly) done in the studio El Cid makes very extensive use indeed of location shooting. In fact there are very very few process shots, and I can’t recall seeing a single obvious matte painting. Everything here looks real because for the most part it is real. In spirit however it’s in line with the heroic 50s Hollywood approach to epics (which is in my view no bad thing).

Director Anthony Mann had not done an epic prior to this but he had done some much-admired westerns and that experience proved to be extremely useful. There’s a great feel for the landscape an there are quite a few scenes that would not be out of place in a western. And they work extremely well in the context of the picture.

Rodrigo de Vivar, known as El Cid, is Spain’s national hero. The situation in Spain in the 11th century was exceptionally complex with a variety of Christian and Moorish kingdoms fighting among themselves and also facing the threat from the North African Almoravid empire. The movie, like most epics, plays fast and loose with history but what the story may lack in historical accuracy it makes up for in entertainment value.

The movie version of Rodrigo de Vivar (Charlton Heston) is a minor nobleman who rises to the heights of power. He frees a number of Moorish emirs after a battle and as a result finds himself accused of treason. This is awkward enough but it will lead him into greater difficulties with his bride-to-be Jimena (played by Sophia Loren), her father, and the king. To regain his honour means facing almost certain death but Rodrigo has a destiny and it proves to be inescapable. He then finds himself caught in the middle of a nasty little dynastic squabble as the old king’s two sons Sancho and Alfonso and daughter Urraca carve up the kingdom. Finally he must save Spain from the invading hordes of the fanatical Almoravid king Ben Yussuf (Herbert Lom). This involves him in yet more difficulties with Alfonso, a king who seems incapable of behaving like a king but to who he has sworn his fealty.

Rodrigo does not do any of this as a result of his own ambitions, or his own desires. He keeps finding himself in situations where his honour will only allow him to do one thing, and that one thing always has the effect of bringing him a step nearer to his destiny. He will eventually have a crown for the taking but again his honour intervenes. He has a destiny but that is not always a comfortable thing to live with.

The title character has to be a larger-than-life hero with a definite mythic quality and no-one could do that sot of thing better than Charlton Heston. However the character has to be someone we can empathise with even when his motivations are foreign and unfamiliar to us, as they often are given that he is very a medieval hero and a man of his time. Heston does a pretty good job in this respect, managing to convey the idea that this is a man who does not think the way we think but at the same time making him quite sympathetic. Heston was never given to excessive emoting but he does enough to bring the character to life. And he has the stature and the charisma to make convincing hero. Heston has been seriously underrated as an actor. He had a particular style that wasn’t suited to every part or to every movie but in the right part he simply had no equal.

Sophia Loren has an equally challenging task. Jimena is a woman to whom honour is every bit as important as it is to Rodrigo and what she yearns to do as a woman often conflicts with what her honour forces her to do. Sophia Loren would probably not have been most people’s first choice for such a demanding rôle but she carries it off rather well. She never lets us forget that Jimena is a proud Spanish noblewoman but she also never lets us forget that she is a woman.

John Fraser has mostly worked in television and he also has a tough acting assignment as the weak, treacherous and cowardly Alfonso who slowly and painfully learns what it means to be a king. Geneviève Page is splendid as the dangerous and duplicitous Princess Urraca. Herbert Lom overacts outrageously and delightfully as Ben Yussuf and gives his character some real menace as well.

As an Australian I cannot neglect to mention Frank Thring’s deliciously over-ripe performance as the treacherous and villainous Al Kadir.

Anthony Mann’s considerable reputation as a director rests mainly on his early film noir work and on his classic 1950s westerns with James Stewart. The two epics he made late in his career are not generally quite so well regarded. This may well be quite unjust since El Cid demonstrates a rather consummate mastery of the historical epic genre. He handles the spectacle side of things confidently while some of the more intimate scenes are even more impressive. His compositions are inventive and accomplished and rather painterly while he and cinematographer Robert Krasker make skillful use of colour not just for magnificence but for emotional impact. The production design by Veniero Colasanti and John Moore adds further lustre. 

It’s worth pointing out that not only do the action scenes look great, they are never there purely to provide spectacle. Every action scene advances the plot and advances the trajectory of the development of the characters involved. 

There are so many memorable scenes in this movie but there are several that really stand out. There’s the scene with the two women rivals looking out through slatted windows, almost a film noir scene. There’s the cinematically gorgeous scene of the horsemen riding along the beach at dusk carrying torches. There’s the wonderful moment with the traitor meeting King Sancho, with the wind howling outside, and directly following that the scene of murder outside the walls. In that last scene, as so often in this film, Mann and Kranker make superb use of deep focus photography. Mann’s compositions are not only meticulous in the horizontal frame but in depth as well, a very unusual and effective feature for this type of film in 1961. Also worth mentioning is the scene with the shaft of sunlight coming through the cupola when Rodrigo and Jimena meet early in the movie.

The audio commentary by William Bronston (the son of the film’s producer) and academic Neal Rosendorf is marred by a desperate and excruciating attempt to apologise for the fact that a movie that is already very politically correct wasn’t even more politically correct. It’s frankly embarrassing to listen to. Once they get back to talking about the movie itself things pick up and they do have some worthwhile information to impart. One interesting anecdote from Rosendorf concerns an interview he did with Charlton Heston in the 1990s. Heston showed him the sword he’d used in the movie, and it was a real sword and it was very very heavy. In fact this movie is virtually unique in that everything is real. If armour was supposed to be made of metal and leather then the costumes were made of metal and leather. The attention to detail and to capturing the sense of reality was obsessive but it pays off.

Another intriguing point made in the commentary track is that Anthony Mann was very enthusiastic about the idea of making epics. You can’t make a truly satisfactory movie in any genre unless you have a respect for the genre and that’s one of the reasons this movie works - Mann did have that respect for the epic genre.

While modern audiences will be inclined to see the movie in terms of the clash of cultures between Moslem and Christian Spain Bronston and Rosendorf suggest that it can also be viewed as a Cold War parable and that Rodrigo’s struggle against the Moors can be seen as representing General Franco’s successful struggle to save Spain from the Communists during the Civil War. 

Of course the movie can also be read as a story about the nature of heroes and the challenge of living with honour.

This is not the kind of movie that should ever be seen on television in butchered pan-and-scan prints. It probably really needs to be seen at a cinema but Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray presentation is the next best thing. And it really is superb. It’s not just the spectacle that is important in this movie. Just as important is the use of colour, at times very bright colour, at other times very subdued. This Blu-Ray presents the movie in all its glory and the transfer is just about flawless. Anchor Bay have also included a host of extras on a second disc. Considering the very reasonable price this two-disc set is great value.

El Cid, a huge box-office hit in its day, is a complex multi-layered film and a visually stunning epic. Very highly recommended.

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