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The lasting image most people carry away from El Cid is that of the film’s hero valiantly leading his army into battle along a vast beach. He’s dead, of course, perched stiffly atop his horse lest his troops be demoralized by his demise, but medieval heroism was no picnic.
The reaction provoked by this scene is generally awe leavened by giggles. The same is true of the film as a whole: The epic scope and lavish spectacle of it all aren’t always sufficient to mask the film’s thematic shortcomings. Born of an era when a plethora of epics strove to provide entertainment on a scale beyond television’s reach, the 32-year-old saga’s production was extravagant by the standards of its day. El Cid was filmed on location in Spain, employed some 3,000 extras, spent a year in pre-production, and boasted an eight-month shooting schedule. On the occasion of its re-release, the 1961 blockbuster, produced by Samuel Bronston (King of Kings, The Fall of the Roman Empire) and directed by Anthony Mann, has been restored and re-recorded in Dolby stereo. And it’s still a testimonial to the belief that scale alone is a virtue.
Chronicling the life of 11th-century Spanish warrior Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, El Cid is loosely based on Corneille’s 1637 play, The Cid, though Frederic M. Frank and Philip Yordan’s script takes honor as its focus rather than taking the play’s more personal one: the impossibility of finding a compromise between duty and passion. Rodrigo (Charlton Heston) earns his nickname—which means “a warrior with the courage to be just”—by honorably releasing two Muslim prisoners of war. Thereafter, he confounds his countrymen by espousing a sort of multicultural nationalism (“We have so much to give to each other, and to Spain,” he intones), suggesting that Christian and Muslim Spaniards unite against a common enemy, the Moors of North Africa.
Thereafter, honor dictates his every move: He slays his beloved’s father in a duel over his own father’s honor; he defends his honor by undergoing a grueling trial by combat; he challenges the honor of King Ferdinand’s heir and is exiled for his trouble. As if that weren’t enough, he accedes to the people’s demand that he become their leader and defies his king to save Spain from marauding invaders. Along the way, he loses and painstakingly regains the heart of his true love. If this sounds like the stuff of grand opera, it is: The El Cid legend has provided plots for three.
As you might expect of such a large-scale work, the film’s psychological nuances are sacrificed in favor of the panoramic. And while melodrama robs the film’s characters of their human dimension, it sets the tone for many a satisfying, if clichéd, moment: Angry rivals literally throw down the gauntlet; our hero takes on 13 armed men and wins; a beady-eyed antagonist gives his followers directorates like, “Kill!” “Burn!” Only the film’s heavyhanded Christ imagery is intrusively overdone. It seems fitting that Rodrigo is a Christlike voice of reason when confronted with the proverbial angry mob, less so when he comforts a leper, takes shelter in a stable, and, at one point, actually shoulders a cross. But there’s no room for shades of gray in films like this. One onlooker’s wry remark that Rodrigo is “a noble subject, if he had only a noble king” is the closest the film comes to psychological probing.
Meanwhile, our hero’s better half, Chimene (Sophia Loren), spends much of the film apologizing for her gender. Not surprising in 11th-century Spain, where warriors used “women!” as the ugliest of epithets. Yet it was evidently not much fun being an actress in the early ’60s, either: Loren was so concerned about her physical appeal that she refused to let the film’s makeup artists age her character at all, with the result that as Rodrigo gets older and older, his wife stays perpetually and absurdly girlish. And while Rodrigo anguishes over ageless questions (“Can a man live without honor?”), she waits impatiently for him amid heavy sighs (“They say every woman in love is tormented this way…”).
But in many ways, Chimene has the last laugh. Despite her father’s dying injunction to “avenge me as a son would,” she gets her revenge in a stereotypically feminine way, namely, by refusing to have sex with Rodrigo after their marriage. (This tactic on her part is one of several promising but unexplored themes in the film—another notable example being the incestuous relations between King Ferdinand’s son and daughter.) In El Cid, good manners toward ladies are paramount: After Chimene tells Rodrigo over dinner of her plot with his rival (“We planned your death together!”), he still stands when she gets up from the table.
But that El Cid is dated doesn’t always work to the film’s disadvantage. Of those things that are more effective when implied rather than made explicit, sex and violence are perhaps the foremost. El Cid is sustained by both, but it would be fairly easy for a modern moviegoer not to notice. The film is never graphic in its depiction of either: When Rodrigo kills Chimene’s father, he does so off-camera beneath a flight of stairs; the ill-omened lovers merely hug from time to time; and despite the film’s grand-scale battles, blood is seldom in evidence. You could call such omissions a disregard for realism if they weren’t such a relief. The only really grating anomalies are the more prosaic ones: Where did those medieval warriors get all that eyeliner?