1961; Director: Anthony Mann; Screenplay: Philip Yordan, Fredric M. Frank. Ben Barzman
With Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Raf Vallone, Genevieve Page, Herbert Lom
The Miriam Collection / The Weinstein Company
Available Jan. 29, List Price $39.95
In the decade of grand historical films spurred by the box-office and Oscar success of Ben-Hur in 1959 and petering out with the likes of Khartoum and Cromwell in the late 60s the two finest epics were about chapters of history few Americans knew of, involving confrontations between the Christian and Muslim worlds. One, set in a middle-Eastern outpost of World War I, was David Lean and Robert Bolt's Lawrence of Arabia, in 1962. The other, released a year earlier, was Mann's El Cid.
Mann had inched his way up the prestige scale, from his '40s B-movie noirs (with such tangy titles as Desperate, Railroaded! and Raw Deal) to his '50s Westerns starring James Stewart films like Bend of the River, The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie about a man, with good intentions and a bad past, who must endure something close to death before his climactic resurrection. By the '60s, when producer Samuel Bronston called, Mann was ready for the scope and majesty of a subject like the Cid. The film, a critical and popular hit, somehow had not been issued on an American DVD until now.
El Cid's "two-disc deluxe edition" marks the first release in The Miriam Collection. (Miriam was the mother of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Max their father; their names were blended to form the brothers' earlier company, Miramax.) The series continues with three other epics produced by Bronston: 55 Days at Peking, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Circus World, and with films from Akira Kurosawa and Pedro Almodovar. None of those can match the narrative, emotional and visual intelligence of this film about a man of peace who becomes an inspiring military leader.
Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (Heston) is an 11th-century Spanish soldier who tempers 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 raises suspicions among the royals and the Moors, but his valor and sanctity eventually earn the awe of everyone but the North African warlord Yussuf (Lom), whose tirade at the beginning of the film has a fanatical scorch worthy of bin Laden. "The Prophet has commanded us to rule the world," he shouts, telling his adherents to "kill! Burn! Infidels live on your frontiers. Encourage them to kill each other. And when they are weak and torn, I will sweep up from Africa. And thus the empire of the one God, the true God Allah, will spread. First across Spain. Then across Europe. Then, the whole world!" At the film's climax Yussuf's army rides against Spain.
The script is constructed as a series of confrontations that become conversions, as each of Rodrigo's antagonists turns to an acolyte. 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. 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!" 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.
These modern political reverberations are inescapable to a viewer today. El Cid seems to predict the religious wars of the late 20th century, not just in the Middle East but in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Eastern Europe. But the movie gives off more than eerie presentiments. Like the best action films, El Cid is both turbulent and intellectual, its characters analyzing their passions as they eloquently articulate them. The scenes in the Spanish court 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. "I told my love it had no right to live. But it wouldn't die." Fiercely, almost spitting it out, she says, "Kill it!" "You kill it," he replies. "Tell me you don't love me." Sadly, summoning her angry pride, she says, "I cannot. Not yet. But I will make myself worthy of you, Rodrigo. I will learn to hate you."
According to the extras on the DVD, Loren and Heston did almost learn to hate each other. He was so annoyed that her salary was higher (Loren was just the second actress, after Elizabeth Taylor to earn $1 million for a picture), among other grievances, that in some of the love scenes he barely looked at her. Much of El Cid was written by the blacklisted Ben Barzman, whose widow Norma makes the case that he basically wrote all of it, and recalls that, just before the film's premiere, Bronston slipped him a $50,000 bonus and bought Norma a mink coat she didn't want.
Bronston lavished money on the 30,000 costumes and on assuring that Heston's sword was made by the Toledo foundry that, nearly nine centuries before, had forged the sword for Rodrigo. He gave work to thousands of local farmers and soldiers, who filled in the pre-CGI landscapes but barely got to utter a word. (Of the 23 actors listed on-screen in this paean to a Spanish hero, not one of them Spanish.) The film made so much money, some $50 million on a $6 million investment, that the financially slippery producer was for once able to pay off his debts.
On the commentary track, film historian Neal M. Rosendorf keeps pointing out the intended similarities between Rodrigo and Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who had made his country's castles, plains and army available to Bronston. Maybe Franco thought so, but El Cid was very much a liberal hero out of Barzman's leftist ideals. Rodrigo must also have appealed to President John F. Kennedy, who had the film screened three times at the White House. This sumptuous box set, which actually comes in a box, includes the original 40-page souvenir program sold at the film's road shows and a 32-page comic book, both reduced in size, as well as five color reproductions of stills. But the real gift is the film, magnificently restored and ready to take its place as the epitome of movie epics.
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