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The success of the 1959 Ben Hur it won a then-record 11 Oscars (later tied by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and was the decade's highest-grossing picture triggered a slew of outsize period films. Screenwriters ransacked the history books to find tales of great battles, and warriors with a charisma to match their military prowess. Curiously, the two finest epics of the period (in my opinion) were about chapters of history few Americans knew of, involving confrontations between the Christian and Muslim worlds. One was, set in a middle-Eastern outpost of World War I, was David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, in 1962. The other, released a year earlier, was Mann's El Cid.
Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston) is an 11th-century Spanish soldier who tempered force with wisdom, seeking a peace with the large local Islamic minority it is his job to subdue, and preaching moderation in the Court of King Ferdinand. This combination of battlefield bravery and diplomatic restraint causes the royals to misunderstand Rodrigo and the Moors to suspect him, but his valor and sanctity eventually earn the awe of everyone but the North African warlord Yussuf (Herbert Lom), whose tirade I quoted at the beginning of this article, and whose army rides against Spain at the film's climax.
The script, by Yordan, Ben Barzman and Frederic M. Frank, is constructed as a series of confrontations that become conversions, as each of Rodrigo's antagonists turns to an adherent. His rival Ordonez (Raf Vallone) tries to kill him, fails, is forgiven and comes to believe he is a god. His wife, Jimena (Sophia Loren), tries to kill him, is forgiven and slowly falls in adoring love with him. Ferdinand's successor, the young Alfonso (John Fraser), banishes Rodrigo, is still championed by him, recognizes his power and finally marches by Cid's side.
The religious metaphor couldn't be clearer: the movie's Cid is a man-god, Jesus with a sword, a truly holy warrior; and his is the one justifiable Crusade. At the beginning of the film, Rodrigo saves a large cross, sacred to the people of the village he has defended, and, Christlike, carries it on his shoulder. In the middle, preparing for a solo battle with 13 men, Rodrigo proclaims, "What you do is against God's law. Were you 13 times 13, I would not be alone." At the end, he is mortally wounded, perhaps dead, yet on horseback he leads his army to victory against Islam's petrified foe another death and resurrection for a Mann hero.
Rodrigo's battle cry is unequivocally religious, royalist and nationalist: "For God, the King and Spain!" But you'd be wrong to see El Cid as the victory of good Christians over bad Muslims. The issues are much more tangled. Rodrigo realizes that from the start, when he is, as he says, "Betrayed by a Christian. Saved by a Moor." His very epithet is Arabic, bestowed on him by a Muslim chief who tells him, "We have a word for a warrior with the vision to be just and the courage to be merciful... El Cid." And while he befriends (and thus pacifies) many on the Moorish side, he has a hard time convincing the Court that not all non-Christians are devils.
Standing stalwartly for his ideals, yet honoring his fealty to the Crown, Rodrigo is a burly humanist in a world torn by fundamentalist certainties. As the armies march into their final battle, each is convinced it has God on its side. And the price for believing in the wrong god is fatal. In a testy tete-a-tete with Ordonez, Yussuf asks, "You dare to think of [Rodrigo] as we do of our Prophet?" Ordonez replies, "We do," and Yussuf thunders, "Then this will be more than a battle. It will be our god against yours." With that invocation of his deity, Yussuf stabs Ordonez to death.
Watching El Cid today (which I urge you to do), you will of course notice the modern political reverberations. The movie seems to predict the religious wars of the late 20th century, not just in the Middle East but in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and (in a slightly less belligerent way) the United States. You will also detect motifs reused in more recent epics: the plot device that a war's outcome will be decided by the best fighter on each side (Troy), the notion of Christian and Muslim chiefs as friends (Kingdom of Heaven).
But the film gives off more than eerie presentiments. Like the best action films, El Cid is both turbulent and intelligent, with characters who analyze their passions as they eloquently articulate them. The Court scenes, in particular, have the complex intrigue, if not quite the poetry, of a Shakespearean history play. This richness is especially evident in the film's love story. Challenged to a death duel by Jimena's father, Rodrigo kills the man, thus cuing her to choose between love and blood. She is cold to his protest that "The man you chose to love could do only what he did," yet still he presses his suit...
Rodrigo: I told my love it had no right to live. But it wouldn't die.
Jimena [fiercely]: Kill it.
Rodrigo: You kill it! Tell me you don't love me.
Jimena: I cannot. Not yet. But I will make myself worthy of you, Rodrigo. I will learn to hate you.