screened Monday August 25 2008 on DVD in Astoria Queens
I much prefer the compact noirs and westerns of Anthony Mann to this three-hour, loosely historical epic with Charlton Heston inevitably playing the Christ-figure superhero with lockjawed conviction. The story largely proceeds as a grim Medieval intrigue whose fatal crossings among characters (few if any of whom are agreeable) engage more than the final act, when the narrative makes a beeline bid for El Cid’s martyrdom through unwavering loyalty to an undeserving king. The non-stop testing of El Cid’s loyalty to his country in the service of God, leading to the character’s gradual transformation from a strong but peace-loving pragmatist (think Spanish Obama) to near-fanatical patriot, could in theory follow the pattern of many a psychologically tortured Mann protagonist, but Heston’s two-dimensional reading of the role as a warrior Pilgrim’s Progress pretty much wipes out that prospect. For his part Mann often follows Heston’s lead, as his visual storytelling is largely iconographic in the silent film sense, alternating bold close-ups with spectacular crowd shots. At best, Mann makes vivid use of his Cinemascope canvases, at times using deep focus and foreground/background contrasts to amplify the inherent width of the frame, particularly in intimate interior scenes depicting the uneasy courtship between El Cid and Ximena (Sophia Loren, used agreeably as window dressing). It’s in these smaller scenes, the kind that contemporary blockbusters would treat as instantly disposable, that Mann, one of Manny Farber’s favorite termite directors, finds his creative crevices within this massive white elephant of a production.
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IF the worth of a big historical movie were measured solely by its wealth of spectacle, by the castles and crowds and battles in it, and by the amount of noise it makes, then Samuel Bronston’s latest epic about Spain’s national hero, “El Cid,” would easily command attention as the worthiest historical movie ever made.
For it is hard to remember a picture in which the sheer pictorial punch was greater than it is in this three-hour exhibition of kings and warriors in medieval Spain.
It is hard to remember a picture—not excluding “Henry V,” “Ivanhoe,” “Helen of Troy” and, naturally, “Ben-Hur”—in which scenery and regal rites and warfare have been so magnificently assembled and photographed as they are in this dazzler, which opened at the Warner Theatre last night…
The pure graphic structure of the pictures, the imposing arrangement of the scenes, the dynamic flow of the action against strong backgrounds, all photographed with the 70-mm. color camera and projected on the Super-Technirama screen, give a grandeur and eloquence to this production that are worth seeing for themselves. Robert Krasker, the cinematographer, merits as much credit as Anthony Mann, the director.
There’s a sequence, for instance, in which the hero and another armored knight battle with lance and broadsword on a brilliantly decked tournament field below the ramparts of a great gray-green castle that is absolutely stunning to behold. (The castle is actually Belmonte, one of the famous castles in modern Spain, where this picture was shot, but it is supposed to represent the ancient city of Calahorra, which was won for the King of Castile by El Cid.)
In short, the spectacle is terrific. Only the human drama is stiff and dull in this narrative, concocted by Philip Yordan and Frederic M. Frank from ancient ballads, legends, a seventeenth-century play by Corneille and a lot of more recent material about the Middle Ages uncovered in Hollywood.
El Cid, played by Charlton Heston in his best marble-monumental style, is a figure of noble proportions who, of course, does no wrong, only right. The wrong is done by others around him who are moved by anger, envy and greed. He just moves through a series of encounters, personal and martial, in which he usually wins.
Sophia Loren is lovely, agile and a latent force, little more, as the noble lady who loves him, spurns him and tries to do him in (for honorably killing her father), then is married to him and stands by to the end. And many others—Raf Vallone, Hurd Hatfield, John Fraser, Ralph Truman and Genevieve Page—are colorful and graphic as moving statuary in other roles.
A musical score by Miklos Rozsa is rhythmic and rousing to the extent that it is likely to have one’s ears ringing long after one leaves this massive film, which is actually no more than a big drama of a king-serving Robin Hood.
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, December 15, 1961
El Cid is a fast-action color-rich, corpse-strewn, battle picture. The Spanish scenery is magnificent, the costumes are vivid, the chain mail and Toledo steel gear impressive. Perhaps the 11th century of art directors Veniero Colasanti and John Moore exceeds reality, but only scholars will complain of that. Action rather than acting characterizes this film.
Yet the film creates respect for its sheer picturemaking skills. Director Anthony Mann, with assists from associate producer Michael Waszynski who worked closely with him, battle manager Yakima Canutt, and a vast number of technicians, have labored to create stunning panoramic images.
Of acting there is less to say after acknowledging that Charlton Heston’s masculine personality ideally suits the title role. His powerful performance is the central arch of the narrative. Sophia Loren, as first his sweetheart and later his wife, has a relatively passive role.
Most provocative performance among the supporting players is that of Genevieve Page, as the self-willed princess who protects the weakling brother (John Fraser) who becomes king after she, sweet sibling, has the older brother slain.
- Original review in Variety
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Richard Corliss, Time
One of the very finest epics produced by Samuel Bronston, equally impressive in terms of script (by Philip Yordan, who mercifully steers clear of florid archaisms) and spectacle. Heston is aptly heroic as the 11th-century patriot destined to die in the fight for a Moor-less Spain, Mann’s direction is stately and thrilling, and Miklos Rosza’s superb score perfectly complements the crisp and simple widescreen images. Sobriety and restraint, in fact, are perhaps the keynotes of the film’s success, with the result that a potentially risible finale (in which Cid’s corpse is borne into the realm of legend, strapped to his horse as it leads his men to battle) becomes genuinely stirring.
- Geoff Andrew, Time Out
To say that El Cid is the most intelligent of the elephantine epics of the early ’60s is to damn it with faint praise; more useful to see it in conjunction with Man of the West as Anthony Mann’s summarization of the fierce sense of primeval bravery and morality which haunted the director’s great westerns. Mann’s medieval Spain is mythical where his American frontier is visceral, yet in both settings the protagonists find themselves dragged reluctantly into heroism… While veterans like William Wyler and George Stevens let swollen pageantry swamp authorial vision in their own epic productions, Mann’s rigorous control keeps El Cid ruthlessly lean despite the vast landscapes and masses of people filling the widescreen: Interiors are composed like sprawling murals while battle sequences are shot through with austere clarity, both infused with the director’s astonishing moral intensity. If the picture lacks the stark weight of Man of the West, it’s because the narrative gives the main character less room for conflict; Heston’s El Cid is given a scar across his face, yet his unwavering nobleness pales next to the disturbing incipient brutality of Gary Cooper’s Link in the 1958 western. Nevertheless, there’s no denying El Cid‘s lucid grandeur as it reaches its famous climax, a simultaneously triumphant and tragic portrait of the warrior as corpse that, like the best of Mann’s work, never neglects the human toll of heroism.
- Fernando Croce, Slant
Technically ambitious but artistically underwhelming, this 1961 epic by Anthony Mann (Man of the West) stars Charlton Heston as an 11th-century hero who drives the Moors from Spain. The film has been described as “glum,” and that is indeed apt for a story that focuses so much on its central character’s losses in the face of his simultaneous, mythic approbation. Then again, Mann has always been interested in the hidden weaknesses in prevailing myths, so that’s not unusual. What is unusual in El Cid is the degree to which technology takes over his filmmaking, as it does here with so many grandiose and bravura moments with a roving camera that don’t add up to anything beyond spectacle. As an achievement of Hollywood’s technical advancements in the postwar years, and also as part of the filmographies of Mann and Heston, the film is well worth a look. But it is not the artistic equal of other epics of its day, such as Lawrence of Arabia.
–Tom Keogh, Amazon.com
Director Anthony Mann gets the possessor credit when fans and critics speak of “El Cid,” but the film assigns that billing to its producer, the imperturbable hustler Samuel Bronston, who practically reinvented movie spectacles on the plains of Spain in the early 1960s. Shunning the waning studio culture of Hollywood, Bronston created his own studio in Madrid in 1958 and financed it with an intricate money laundering operation involving the Franco government and a vindictive member of the DuPont family who didn’t think losses should be part of the risk. His meteoric empire soared with “El Cid” and plummeted with “Fall of the Roman Empire,” also directed by Mann, three years later. As lawyers and prosecutors investigated the company’s transgressions, Bronston’s epics were more often shelved than shown.
Now the Weinstein Company is scheduling DVD restorations of the films (part of its Miriam Collection), beginning this coming week with “El Cid,” encouraging a re-assessment of Bronston and his work. Vindication seems likely. Bronston, who died in 1994 at 85, beaten by creditors and Alzheimer’s, is difficult for film lovers to hate. As he put it, he was “insane” for movies, and by most accounts uninterested in personal wealth; he poured the money he raised into his pictures, which are often dazzling.
That’s one reason people bond over “El Cid,” especially if they saw it as intended, filling the massive screen of the old, resplendent, and lamented Warner Theater on 47th Street and Broadway, where it opened in December 1961. With its glorious vistas, clanking battles, luminous colors, thumping Miklos Rozsa music, and unforgettable climax, all unfolding in 70mm grandeur like a living tapestry, it was cinema as circus — an enveloping, emotional, even inspirational event. The DVD, good as it is (clean transfer, bright and stable colors, impenetrable blacks, vivid audio), can only imply that experience, like the reproduction of a Vermeer.
If RKO once gave Orson Welles “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had,” Bronston gave Mann the entirety of Spain — with its castles and churches, an army, whole communities of costume-sewers, and an elastic check to cover such extras as swords made in the same foundry that served the real Cid. Mann returned the favor. In some respects, “El Cid” is the pinnacle of his career, a visionary extrapolation of characteristic themes involving heroism, violence, treachery, fragile alliances, and moral ambiguity, previously explored in genre films he made over two decades.
Yet “El Cid” is different: It’s a driven, humorless picture in which moral absolution is embodied in the Cid’s increasing conviction that he is chosen, that if right makes might (as he prays it will before a brutal, brilliantly filmed tournament), so must might make right. He is blinding and blinded by his own conviction. Gone are the charming rogues, comical asides, and ambivalent gallants of Mann’s noirs and Westerns. Not entirely gone is the heroic kink, the touch of madness that defines Mann’s guardians of order.
The love angle is heightened and undermined by the casting of Mr. Heston and Ms. Loren. Their individual close-ups are sensational, their two-shots less so… Mr. Heston is one of few leading men who never displayed chemistry with a woman, excepting — bada-bing — Kim Hunter in “Planet of the Apes.” Given a chance to turn the corner with Ms. Loren, he could not overcome, according to the accompanying documentaries, his resentment of her higher salary and vanity, though she is no more fastidiously coiffed and made-up than he. In their initial union, staged by Mann to command the fullness of widescreen, they walk to the softly lit center, hands outstretched, and nibble at each other like goldfish. The actors really come alive when simmering in mutual odium.
An hour or so into the three-hour story, the narrative takes a remarkable turn: Rodrigo has been appointed the king’s champion and rejected by Chimene. He disappears from the film for six minutes, during which the king dies and the princes, one purported to be incestuously involved with his sister, try to kill each other… Suddenly, the Cid appears, alone, willing to kill 13 of the king’s guards to liberate the devious Alfonso. This is clearly an act of treason, but Rodrigo’s probity is, one might say, unmoored from realpolitik. He radiates crazed individualism — not unlike the Lee J. Cobb character in Mann’s “Man of the West” (1958). As a result of his action, the king will be assassinated, Rodrigo banished, and Chimene imprisoned. The complexity of Mann’s portrait is underscored at the battle of Valencia, when Rodrigo intemperately decides to abandon the battle. Similarly, Rodrigo’s deathbed determination to lead the final charge and his reconciliation with Alfonso are expressions of arrant pride. The fact that his indispensability is Q.E.D. does not diminish the narcissism that launches him into the realm of legend.
Within its generic requirements, “El Cid” is not unflawed, but the flaws are insignificant. To justify international financing, Bronston had to hire international players, resulting in Spaniards who speak with American, British, French, and Italian — never Spanish — accents. Several performances are memorable: Andrew Cruickshank as Chimene’s burly father, Douglas Wilmer as the good Moor, Genevieve Page as Urraca (whose supreme moment is her dentalized reading of the line, “After all, we would lose a city”), and John Fraser as Alfonso, who shares with Mr. Heston one of the film’s finest minutes, when Rodrigo forces Alfonso to swear his innocence. Mann shot the scene with four camera setups and inserted a half-second glimpse of a Bible as a rhythmic punctuation in the editing.
Cinematographer Robert Krasker, who established black-and-white standards in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” is no less rigorous here in color. The script, mostly by Ben Barzman, with contributions by Ben Maddow and possibly others (though not Philip Yordan, who claimed it), is famous for averting spectacle-speak. Unfortunately, neither man was credited because of the 1950s blacklist. Rozsa’s score similarly succeeds by averting cliché, favoring brasses and percussion for Rodrigo, strings for Chimene, and the full orchestra for personal and military rapprochement. No film had more fanfares, and not even Count Basie’s “New Testament” band could have played them with greater precision. Bronston always got his money’s worth.
- Gary Giddins, The New York Sun
Not many filmmakers could make the transition to epic filmmaking with all their signature touches intact. After his series of masterful 1950s Westerns, Anthony Mann more or less succeeds. He still seems overwhelmed by the film’s gigantic scope, and his trademark action scenes are lost in a jumble of moving bodies, but his compositions within the massive, labyrinthine sets are still quite fascinating… Mann’s expertise normally involved the outdoors, but here it’s the interiors that dazzle (much like his early, cheap films noir). The limitless depth of field and expansive frame — filled with doorways, arches and staircases — once again reveal the psychological torment of Mann’s characters.
So for some strange reason, Anthony Mann transitioned from being the single best Western director of the 1950s to a maker of extravagant epic period-pieces such as this film in the 1960s. The “Mann sensibility” is still undeniably present here; in spite of the formalistic attitudes of many characters, the film is just as gritty and sweaty as Mann’s best work. The main problem here doesn’t even lie in the over-the-top performance of Charlton Heston, or anyone else, but just in the film’s overall pacing. Oddly enough, the story breezes by rather quickly for the first two and a half hours, but the last thirty minutes seem painfully drawn out. The way in which the film drags to its finale is all the more disappointing since it is coming from Anthony Mann, perhaps the single most “no-bullshit” director of all-time.
While it is easy to get tied up and distracted by all the surface-level appearance of El Cid, Mann manages to work his way around the “epic-ness” of the picture and make it come off fairly straightforward and intimately. The film’s scope covers a long period of time but it, for lack of a better description, makes sense in the long run. Cid’s relationship with Chimene is initially confusing, what with all the extreme changes in attitudes, but it begins to make sense once the audience begins to realize the repetitious nature of their loving and hating patterns. Unfortunately, that’s not to say that there is some deep character study brewing underneath the story (like there is in Mann’s westerns) but the relationships and the characters are well drawn for what they are. This is quite a lot, though, especially considering how prestigious and “serious” such content is intended to be.
On the more positive side, Mann’s visual eye is at its best here, with some of the most gorgeous compositions in his entire career on display. While one can argue that it is difficult not to make such a large-scale production look beautiful, Mann still does it in his usual intimate and greasy way. His attention to textures is always a wonderful thing to watch unfold, especially when said textures are captured as gorgeously as they are here. There are plenty of things wrong with this movie, but it is worthwhile experience to just sit back and appreciate on a purely visual level.
At the time he began work on El Cid, Mann had a lot to prove. In spite of a distinguished career that demonstrated a mastery of numerous genres, the director had been humiliated when he was replaced by Stanley Kubrick as the director of Spartacus. El Cid was his chance to redeem himself and to merge his expertise at character psychology — evident in his many Westerns with James Stewart — with a broad physical canvas.
Mann could hardly have chosen a better collaborator for this endeavor than cinematographer Robert Krasker, BSC, who had crafted stunning images in the 1956 epic Alexander the Great, yet whose Oscar-winning work on The Third Man proved him to be equally adept at mastering relationship-driven cinema. Shooting in Super Technirama 70, Krasker gave El Cid the widescreen grandeur that its epic subject required, composing images that are rich in detail, in both width and depth. Throughout the film, Krasker and Mann pack the frame with information and often add to Heston’s mythic power by bringing him close to the camera while keeping the masses of extras in the background in focus, an effect that stresses the enormity of El Cid’s struggle and makes him look larger than life. The scenes of spectacle are given added resonance and power by Krasker’s delicate handling of the more intimate scenes between them: His delicate lighting of Heston and Loren beautifully conveys the characters’ love (and hides the fact that in real life the actors hated each other).
— Jim Hemphill, American Cinematographer
Here is El Cid, a swords-and-sandals epic typical of the 1950s and early 1960s, when Cinemascope (here actually 70mm Super Technirama), international location shooting, and massive budgets tried to upstage the popular success of television. How could Mann find expression in this framework, swamped by the showmanship of the era? The answer is that he decided to tell not the psychology of his story visually, but rather visually tell the story itself. El Cid could nearly be a silent film. Abhorring the pageantry that so often accompanies such super-productions, Mann’s artistic crew—Robert Krasker’s photography, Veniero Colasanti and John Moore’s production design and costumes, and Maciek Piotrowski’s paintings and murals—create one of the most visually rich, tactile, voluptuous, and three-dimensional period piece ever recorded on film.
El Cid’s surface beauty is insurmountable, one built piece by piece from the actors up, a predecessor to the world-creation efforts of George Lucas and Peter Jackson. It is a style of colossal filmmaking centered on thinking of and then artistically executing every possible detail on screen in order to create a fantasy world that moves less like a plot and more like fate. It is moving from psychology-based storytelling to mythic storytelling, the move of the film not dynamic but an inevitability, calibrated and expressed by the production itself.
This is why Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren are the leads, actors whose cheekbones and sternness say everything about their characters, making their talks together practically superfluous. There are sacrifices to be made in such a style. The lovely Geneviève Page expresses a subtlety of character in her princess (and then queen) of Spain, a mix of motivations, desires, and malice, that the film’s scope cannot possibly focus on. Instead of subtlety, details explode in the beautiful, saturated color. Every detail in this film helps tell the audience the essence of each character, the implication of each action. In such a film humanity is played down for fantastic broad gestures, and the dialog becomes mere dressing to this materialist feast.
Even if motivations, psychology, and events themselves seem unclear—as is often the case in El Cid—who feels what and how we should feel for them is never in any doubt. Anthony Mann has still managed to extrapolate interior states to the exterior, only this time he is working not on the individual, psychological scale, but in the broad strokes of the mythic.
Design speaking for character, the confines of the arch, the pliable grace of the staircase. Sophia Loren, upon hearing her love, Charlton Heston, is a traitor.
Pictorial plot, the weight of the film’s inevitable history. The king, dead.
Moral judgment and historical fate in the darkness. A mission of assassination.
Sharp, insistent acting when necessary. The new king (John Fraser) forced by Heston to swear to God.
Moral weight pushing historical imperatives in one direction, the personal and the familial in the other. Heston, Loren, and their children, each in their own corner.
Splendor and isolation. The new king, alone with his sister (Geneviève Page).
Isolation changes to fruitfulness. The new king, given a new chance by the crown won by Heston.
Baroque production; history and appearance dwarfing the individual. Loren observes Heston’s last reassurance to his troops.
Chiaroscuro and graphic abstraction. The Islamic army at night march.
Gold, red, purple, and flesh. Heston on his deathbed.
Voluptuousness of texture, color, and shadow. Heston embraces the new king, who has been inspired by his example.
- Daniel Kasman, The Auteurs’ Notebook
It was all the movie business could do. Television was eating into its audience, viewers more eager to sit at home and enjoy limited entertainment on a small 12” screen vs. taking the entire family to their local 1000 seat theater. Even with superior sound, enhanced visual quality (with developments like Cinemascope and Todd-O Vision), and a larger than life overall experience, the novelty of the new living room technology was changing the cultural dynamic. Then some enterprising distributors decided to use the old roadshow roll out. Developed in the days when a simultaneous national release was virtually impossible, these special event presentations saw a film – and various accompanying attractions/actors/advertising – canvas the country, drumming up interest via the mere exclusivity of a city-to-city play date. One of the last mavericks of such an approach was Samuel Bronston, and one of his biggest hits centered on the fabled Spanish hero, El Cid.
It takes oversized actors to carry off Mann’s motives, and Heston is the perfect proto-idol. While not quite Latin in his looks, he is one of the few thoroughly modern actors who appear comfortable, even authentic, in outlandish 11th century garb. It’s easy to scoff at this material, to see El Cid as a throwback to the days when producers provided audiences with the pre-CGI notion of eye candy and figured that this would be enough – and in some cases, it was. But within this rather dense narrative, Mann incorporates enough Shakespearean substance to amplify the ideas projected. It makes the main character’s last act sacrifice, and the denouements surrounding it, all the more memorable.
- Bill Gibron, PopMatters
“El Cid is one of the greatest epic films ever made. Anthony Mann’s sense of composition, his use of space, and his graceful camera movements bring to life an ancient tapestry where the transformation of an ordinary man into a legend become almost a mystical experience.” Lavish praise from Martin Scorsese, one of the forces behind the restoration and re-release of El Cid. Pardon me if I am not in wholehearted agreement.
Beyond the spectacle and pageantry, El Cid‘s virtues are limited. The costumes and set design are as imposing as the magnificent backdrops against which the turbulent battles occur, and the effort necessary to orchestrate the realistic clash of thousands of swords is remarkable, but while these things form the grand centerpiece of the film, they cannot entirely camouflage its shortcomings. Acting is by far the biggest problem. Both Charlton Heston and Sofia Loren have imposing screen personalities, but, at least in this picture, neither is capable of projecting real emotion or drawing us into a rapport with their characters. Heston and Loren make a handsome couple, but their performances are wooden.
The plot is high melodrama with few surprises. Diaz is the hero, and he does all the superhuman things expected from a knight “with God on [his] side.” El Cid turns more often to the ridiculous than the sublime. Perhaps if the movie didn’t take itself so seriously, there wouldn’t be opportunities for unintentional laughter, but, from the bombastic dialogue to the stentorian score, El Cid is about as self-important as a motion picture can be. Regardless, there are still moments of breathtaking, almost transcendant splendor, when the film makers attain the grand aspirations they strive for. When recalling great battles in recent films, only a few come to mind (Last of the Mohicans and Glory, for example), none of which have the scope or power of what Anthony Mann achieved in El Cid. And, while I don’t share all of Scorsese’s views about this movie, there’s still much value in his words.
Released in 1961, El Cid is one of the few films that can actually live up to the description “grand-scale, sweeping historical epic.”
- Jacquie Kubin, Donnie Tempo
Critics today generally acknowledge El Cid as one of the best films of its kind while dismissing Bronston’s other epics as empty-headed spectacle, but it’s really more complicated than that. Looking back on Bronston’s oeuvre now, under conditions that at least approximate their original roadshow presentations one can see that El Cid is generally magnificent but also flawed, and that Bronston’s other epics are (often similarly) flawed but also magnificent. All are far more intelligent than the average Hollywood spectacle of the 1950s; even the John Wayne circus movie, despite some questionable casting (Claudia Cardinale as Wayne’s daughter?) offers impressively rich characterizations, particularly Wayne’s resentment toward his alcoholic ex-wife, played with unnerving authenticity by Rita Hayworth. 55 Days at Peking, like El Cid grapples with cultural clashes with an intelligence and subtlety sorely lacking in high concept movies today. And like El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire transports viewers to a time and place rarely dramatized in movies, and with (for the time) an incredible level of authenticity and detail.
In his excellent introduction penned for the DVD release, Martin Scorsese makes several good points, citing El Cid as a turning point in the industry’s move away from homegrown epics produced in and around Hollywood to big international productions shot in Europe with actors and locales from all over the continent, which in turn infused these productions with a different look and approach that markedly separated them from the ’50s-style CinemaScope epics produced by Fox and the other majors. (Perhaps only the filmed-in-California The War Lord, also starring Heston, managed to capture that Euro-feel without actually shooting abroad.) When it was new, audiences had never seen a movie about 11th century knights with so much authenticity, with real castles and swordfights where one could feel the full weight of the broadswords. In Hollywood movies such weaponry was brandished about like fencing foils.
Like other Bronston admirers, he also points to the advantages of full scale sets and thousands of extras, and how they carry a weight and texture impossible (or, at least, not yet duplicated) with CGI technology. It’s one thing to see 500,000 CGI troops storm a castle, and another to see 1/20th as many real costumed extras clambering over real sets.
Finally, he pinpoints Charlton Heston’s contribution to such films, as both a star-collaborator and for the larger-than-life performances I recently discussed here. Scorsese writes, “There’s something truly monumental about Heston at his greatest – he doesn’t play it, but embodies it.” That’s exactly it: though classically trained actors on the stage were often called upon to express honor and loyalty, Heston better than anyone else had a remarkable capacity to, with a minimum of dialogue, express such complex emotions on film.
That’s really the heart of El Cid, the story of a just man in unjust times, a truly noble man serving a king not worthy of him. Perhaps the film resonates so strongly because it’s so heartbreaking to watch, to see Rodrigo’s misplaced devotion and the consequences of it, bearing witness to a man mistakenly assuming that his and King Alfonso’s aims – a united Spain – are one and the same. Heston later on would come to specialize in playing cynical antiheroes, the very antithesis of El Cid. He excelled at both kinds of parts, but here his performance is truly special. The stupid and selfish decisions of his king utterly confound him yet his devotion to a cause larger than himself remains unabated. (El Cid must certainly resonate with a veritable busload of sitting and former generals serving under the Bush administration.)
Heston and Loren reportedly didn’t get along, and because of her scheduling demands, in a few scenes it’s clear the two are acting out footage shot perhaps months apart. One especially awkward moment has the two locked in an embrace but the entire sequence is cut together so that the audience sees only Loren and Heston in different shots, both extreme close-ups to hide the fact that they were nowhere near one another when performing their dialogue.
The one-of-a-kind ending is quite moving but also slightly comic. Two shots at the very end that conceptually are enormously poetic don’t adapt well cinematically, and tend to elicit this contradictory reaction from audiences.
- Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk
Three decades down the line, “El Cid” seems more dated than some of its contemporaries. It’s overly long and it’s overly melodramatic, but it’s also a perfect example of the kind of film they just don’t make anymore, because they can’t.
- Richard Harrington, Washington Post
At its best, this tale of the legendary medieval general (Charlton Heston) uniting the Christian and “good Moor” princedoms of Spain against the “bad African Moors,” offers tableau spectacle in 70 mm Technirama. Long lines of shield-bearers pose against rocky vistas overseen by Romanesque castles; one impressive background sprouts weird spindly, branchless trees. The siege of Valencia peaks with a splendid tracking shot past legions massing along the curving coast of the Mediterranean; it puts 300 to shame, because it’s all real, not CGI. Unfortunately, the film suffers from a kind of historical bloat that renders it surprisingly static.
- Michael S. Gant, Metroactive
About the DVD
First things first. El Cid (1961) is a movie that demands to be seen projected on as big a screen as possible. One of director Anthony Mann’s greatest achievements, it’s a huge epic, filmed in 70mm Super Technirama, and it uses every inch of the wide canvas to tell its story. That said, and taking into account that the movie is very rarely revived theatrically (or even on television) in the United States, El Cid‘s Region 1 DVD debut is a smashing success.
One of the simple-yet-brilliant aspects of El Cid‘s screenplay (by Philip Yordan, Fredric M. Franc and uncredited Ben Barzman) is that its battle scenes start small and build up, avoiding the problems of, say, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which have an overload of enormous battles in each film. Over its 188-minute running time, El Cid has five major fight scenes (with a few others tossed in) expanding in size and scope along the way. The picture begins, however, with the aftermath of a major skirmish. The ruined village tells us something about the scale of the battle, thereby smartly and instantly establishing the epic nature of the movie overall, but the first fight we actually see is an indoor swordfight between two men. It’s amazingly choreographed and composed; the weight of the broadswords is easily sensed, and the clanging of the metal is heightened powerfully.
The second battle is a joust: still two people, in other words, but outdoors and on a bigger scale. It’s one of the most thrilling scenes in the movie and took five weeks to shoot despite its 10-minute length. The third battle is a short clash between El Cid’s small party of men and a group of Moorish soldiers. The fourth is an awesomely-staged fight between El Cid and 13 men, and the fifth is the epic battle of Valencia with thousands of soldiers, which climaxes the film. One interesting aspect of this final battle is the skillful way in which the screenwriters and director manage to draw out its epic buildup; they give us the huge spectacle of armored soldiers and horses and wooden machinery approaching the battleground, but when they arrive, there’s quite a long dramatic standoff, as well as rebellion inside the fortified city, before the final battle itself begins.
While the action scenes are expertly staged by Mann, the quieter scenes have just as much impact. Mann was as fine a director of actors as he was of action – not just in terms of the actors delivering good performances and dialogue, but in terms of photographing them so that their composition in the frame tells story. One of Mann’s trademarks was his mastery of creating tension by using the extreme foreground and background of the frame simultaneously, or in the same shot. For example, at the end of one long-shot pan of El Cid’s men riding their horses through a rocky pass, Mann shows the arm of a hidden bad guy holding a sword in the extreme foreground. This jolts the audience, creating an apprehension which matches the tone of the scene. Mann also uses sound viscerally, is in the aforementioned metallic clanging, or just in allowing us a moment to hear the sound of wind entering a chapel.
The collector’s edition comes with six lobby card reproductions, a reprint of a 1961 comic book version of the movie, and a reproduction of the original souvenir program. This is filled with great photos from the film, which together with captions tell its story from beginning to end. Mixed in are longer articles about the production and cast and crew, with backstories on the castles used, historical research conducted, and sets built. (1700 Spanish Army troops and 500 Madrid Municipal Honor Guard riders were used as extras.)
Additionally, both the limited and collector’s editions contain the following extras:
There’s an audio commentary track from Samuel Bronston’s son Bill, and Bronston biographer Neal M. Rosendorf. They generally cover the historical content more than the film’s nuts-and-bolts craft (i.e. the writing and direction), and unsurprisingly deal much more with Bronston than with Mann. Also included are five well-edited and -produced documentary featurettes. The ones on the making of El Cid (24 minutes) and on Anthony Mann (17 minutes) feature various historians including Rosendorf and Jeanine Basinger (who wrote the only book-length study of Mann), Barzman’s widow Norma, Mann’s daughter Nina, and archival interviews with Philip Yordan, Charlton Heston and Mann himself. (Alas, no Sophia Loren.) The making-of featurette even includes brief interviews with El Cid‘s film editor, production manager, script supervisor and key grip!
Editor Robert Lawrence points out, “If you look, you’ll see very few medium shots. They’re either big wide shots or big close-ups.” Yordan says El Cid was the only worthwhile thing he and Mann ever made. He’s crazy – the pair also collaborated on Reign of Terror (1949), The Man From Laramie (1955) and Men in War (1957) among others. Mann talks about why actors are more truthful on location than in a studio, and about violence in his films.
Kudos to the Weinstein Company for unearthing these fascinating interview snippets. Mann is a filmmaker beloved by serious film students and historians, and his movies stand the test of time. The documentary reveals him to have humble origins and a childhood lacking in much education. Nonetheless, he rose to great heights in his profession by starting small, directing tiny-budgeted films, and moving up through modestly-priced films noirs, A-list westerns and action films, and finally to enormous spectacles, generally building on his own techniques all the while. He figured out in the cheapie films how to find moments he could make pictorially interesting; as he was given better scripts and budgets, he was able to apply his visual sense to more and more of the movie, eventually turning out perfectly realized films like The Naked Spur (1953) and Men in War. Mann’s later westerns, like The Man From Laramie and The Last Frontier (1955), possessed a somewhat epic quality, and it was only natural that true epics would follow. (Mann’s eye for widescreen photography was as good as anyone’s in the business.) After a rocky experience on Spartacus (1960) marked by a falling-out with star-producer Kirk Douglas and a replacement by Stanley Kubrick, he was offered El Cid and made the most of it.
- Jeremy Arnold, Turner Classic Movies
El Cid appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 5:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I found a lot to like in this fine transfer. Sharpness rarely faltered. While the occasional wide shot showed a smidgen of softness, those examples remained negligible. Instead, the majority of the flick demonstrated solid accuracy and delineation. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering materialized, and I also noticed no edge enhancement. Source flaws were modest but still became the main reason the DVD fell below “A”-level for its visuals. Throughout the film, I saw the occasional speck or marks. Again, these stayed minor, but I found a few too many for the film to get into that “A” range. On the other hand, colors excelled. With all sorts of regal garb and lively settings, the hues got the chance to shine, and they did so on a consistent basis. The tones appeared vivid and rich throughout the movie. Blacks also seemed deep and dense, while shadows were clear and smooth. A few “day for night” shots looked a bit thick, but the rest of the low-light scenes were fine. Though not quite up to “A”-level standards, the transfer of El Cid really satisfied.
In addition, I thought the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of El Cid seemed quite good, especially for a 47-year-old movie. Granted, the soundfield stayed moderately restricted, but it opened up matters in a satisfying manner. In the front, the action spread well across the channels and meshed together smoothly. The various elements demonstrated accurate placement and fit together well. Music also boasted strong stereo imaging. As for the surrounds, they played a small role in the proceedings. They really did little more than echo some of the material in the front. For example, a battle scene boasted the clanging of swords from the rear speakers, and a larger war scene presented shouting and related noise from the back. None of this meant a whole lot, but it added some scope to the package.
Given the age of the material, audio quality seemed very positive. Speech was a little reedy at times, but the lines were always intelligible and usually appeared pretty natural. Music could’ve packed a little more punch, but the score showed acceptable range and clarity. Effects were clean and accurate enough to make them good representations of the information. This wasn’t a dazzling soundtrack, but it did well for itself, especially when I considered its vintage.
A decent mix of supplements fills out this “Limited Collector’s Edition” package. Across both discs, we find an audio commentary with producer’s son Bill Bronston and historian/biographer Neal M. Rosendorf. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific chat. They tell us about producer Samuel Bronston, shooting in Spain, story, interpretation and political context, set design and related production elements, cast and crew, stunts and fight scenes, and a few other issues.
At times, the pair manage to produce some decent notes about El Cid. However, way too much of the commentary simply lavishes praise upon the flick. We’re frequently told how big and real everything was, as the grandeur of the production receives undue notice. I wouldn’t call this a bad commentary, but it fails to deliver enough real content about the flick to make it a winner, and it tends to be a bit boring.
A collection of 1961 radio promotional interviews fill a total of 14 minutes and 21 seconds. The segments present “Charlton Heston” (3:35), “Sophia Loren” (2:26), “Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston” (4:46) and “Charlton Heston and Lydia Heston” (3:33). These are radio station pieces that leave blank spaces for the hosts to “ask” the questions to the participants. We hear a little about the movie’s characters and some experiences during the shoot. Nothing substantial appears here, though I like Lydia’s comments about having to deal with Charlton’s crazy schedule.
DVD One also includes some Filmographies. We get listings for producer Samuel Bronston, director Anthony Mann, writer Ben Barzman, composer Miklos Rozsa, and actors Heston, Loren, John Fraser, Gary Raymond, Genevieve Page, Raf Vallone, Douglas Wilmer and Herbert Lom.
Finally, DVD One provides some Still Galleries. These split into “Behind the Scenes” (95 shots) and “Promotional Materials” (11). Some good images appear here, though the absence of any captions for the photos makes them confusing. It’d be nice to know who we’re seeing in those snaps.
Over on DVD Two, we open with Hollywood Conquers Spain: The Making of El Cid. This 23-minute and 57-second program offers the standard mix of movie clips, archival materials and interviews. We hear from Rosendorf, film historian Jeanine Basinger, The Magnificent Showman author Mel Martin, writer/Ben Barzman’s wife Norma Barzman, screenwriter Philip Yordan, and actor Charlton Heston. “Conquers” looks at why Bronston chose to make a flick about El Cid, the script and research, the choice of director and his work, cast and their interactions, sets and logistical challenges, and the movie’s reception.
After all the praise from the commentary, I worried that “Conquers” would be more of the same. Though we do get positive remarks about the film, we find much more good content here, and it doesn’t feel neutered. We learn about a few different controversies and hear some interesting stories. “Conquers” doesn’t provide a full take on the production, but it gives us useful material.
Next comes the 52-minute and 20-second Samuel Bronston: The Epic Journey of a Dreamer. It features notes from Bill Bronston, Rosendorf, Martin, Barzman, Yordan, daughter Irene Bronston, production manager CO “Doc” Erickson, Vice President of Bronston Productions Leon Patlach, and biographer Paul G. Nagle. “Dreamer” follows the life and career of Samuel Bronston, with an appropriate emphasis on the latter.
And that side of things helps make “Dreamer” a surprisingly winning documentary. I feared that it’d be little more than a laudatory puff piece, but instead it takes a frank look at Bronston’s strengths and weaknesses. It covers his failures as well as his triumphs and his eventual collapse as a film producer. This becomes a concise, involving program.
Behind the Camera: Anthony Mann and El Cid goes for 17 minutes, 24 seconds and includes Yordan, Rosendorf, Basinger, Nagle, Erickson, Heston, Barzman, key grip Fred Russel, director’s daughter Nina Mann, script supervisor Pat Miller, and editor Robert Lawrence. We also find a little archival interview footage of director Mann himself. “Camera” looks at the life and work of Mann, with a bit of an emphasis on his El Cid work. It proves informative and enjoyable.
After this we locate Miklos Rozsa: Maestro of the Movie, a 30-minute and 11-second piece. It presents statements from Remembering Miklos Rozsa author Jeffrey Dane, daughter Juliet Rosza, conductor John Mauceri, and son Nicholas Rosza. We also get some archival comments from Miklos Rosza himself. As with the Mann piece, this one looks at Rozsa’s life and work, with an emphasis on his music for El Cid. It becomes another good view of its subject.
For the final program, Preserving Our Legacy: Gerry Byrne on Film fills seven minutes, 37 seconds with remarks from film consultant Byrne. He discusses the preservation and the restoration of El Cid. Byrne proves likable and charming as he offers good insights into the subject.
DVD Two concludes with a Trailer Gallery. In it we find two ads for El Cid; one comes from the original 1961 theatrical exhibition, while the other supports a 1993 re-release. We also locate clips for The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cinema Paradiso and Control.
Some very nice paper materials flesh out this deluxe set. A 40-page booklet reproduces the movie’s original program. It provides plenty of notes about the flick and its creators, and it becomes a cool memento of the production.
If you want to check out another take on El Cid, look toward the comic book adaptation. It gives us a four-color rendition of the tale and is fun to see. A brief Introduction from Martin Scorsese appears in a four-page booklet. This gives us a quick appreciation of the film. Finally, six lobby cards finish off the classy package.
El Cid aspires to the greatness of flicks such as Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia. It doesn’t reach those heights, but at least it proves more effective than flawed offerings such as The Greatest Story Ever Told. Competent and professional, the film holds out attention but rarely excels. At least its DVD release proves very satisfying. Both picture and audio seem quite good, and we also find a generally solid collection of supplements. I think this is a very nice release for a moderately involving movie.
Note that two versions of El Cid appear on the market. Fans can pursue either this “Limited Collector’s Edition” or a two-DVD release. Some of the non-disc-based materials offer the only differences. Both packages present the same two DVDs and the Scorsese introduction booklet, but the LCE adds the program, the comic book and the lobby cards. For that, the LCE retails for $39.95, while the two-DVD set on its own goes for $24.95. I like this LCE, but the standard two-DVD version is definitely the better bargain.
- Colin Jacobson, DVD Movie Guide
About Charlton Heston
Charlton Heston El Cid tribute page
About Sophia Loren
About Anthony Mann
David Boxwell, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio
Quotes from They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? profile page on Mann:
“Anthony Mann (not to be confused with dreary Daniel and Delbert) directed action movies with a kind of tough-guy authority that never found favor among the more cultivated critics of the medium…His Westerns are distinguished by some of the most brilliant photography of exteriors in the history of the American cinema, and yet it is impossible to detect a consistent thematic pattern in his work.” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“Though he incidentally directed films in various genres (the musical, the war movie, the spy drama), Anthony Mann’s career falls into three clearly marked phases: the early period of low-budget, B-feature films noir; the central, most celebrated period of westerns, mostly with James Stewart; and his involvement in the epic (with Samuel Bronston as producer). All three periods produced distinguished work, but it is the body of work from the middle period in which Mann’s achievement is most consistent and on which his reputation largely depends.” – Robin Wood (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
“After making a number of tense, claustrophobic noir thrillers in the 40s, Mann embarked on a series of Westerns notable for their symbolic, expressive use of the rugged American landscape and their psychological complexity…Built around honour, betrayal and vengeance, Mann’s films (notably The Man from Laramie and Man of the West) often featured oppressive father-figures; scenes of violence might resonate with Freudian overtones of patricide, castration and humiliation. ” – Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)
“Primarily known for his Westerns, Mann portrayed a world of violence against some of the most striking natural vistas in cinema history. His crime films are gritty and real, and all his work reflects an exploration of the complex psychology of the human soul.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
About William Bronston
Glenn Abel, DVD Spin Doctor interviews Samuel Bronston’s son William about the making of the DVD:
William Bronston: My family has no holdings on any of the properties. My dad lost everything in the (late 1960s) bankruptcy. … What really shocked me was there was there was no DVD of (“El Cid”).
In 1993, Harvey Weinstein bought the rights for the four last movies that my dad did: “El Cid,” “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” “55 Days in Peking” and “Circus World.” Weinstein was going to bring them back to market then but … (shrugs).
So it has now been a decade since Martin Scorsese did the laserdisc — which was a very beautiful piece of work, but it was not meaningfully able to reach the market (in that format). … It turns out that this is one of the leading movies that the market wants on DVD.
Glenn Abel: Right, it’s always been listed in DVD aficionado polls as the No. 1, 2 or 3 most-wanted discs.
Were you happy with the portrait of your dad that came out on the DVD?
WB: Very much. It was beautifully edited.
He was a mystery to me. And there’s a real yearning to get to know where we’re from and what is our patrimony. And to know who that was. And to have strangers tell us who he was. It’s extremely powerful to have a stranger who knew him talk to me about him. …
It’s just a beautiful job that they did (on the DVD profiles). It’s very personal (with children of the producer, director and composer participating as witnesses). I thought the commentaries were very special, particularly Paul Nagle’s. He’s been studying my dad for a dozen years.
GA: Were the older clips of your sister from the laserdisc extras?
WB: Yes. What was happening was my sister was dying of cancer this past year. And I wanted very much to have the job done and contribute that work of hers before she died. She died Christmas Eve.
On the 22nd of December I talked to (project publicist) Tawna Boucher and I said listen, my sister’s really at the end. If you have a copy, please, please FedEx it to her. She FedEx’d it that day.
My sister sat up in bed with a smile and watched that one-hour special feature. And was just enchanted. And told her husband how wonderful it was. 36 hours later she died.
GA: You learned a lot from this DVD, it seems.
WB: My dad was an extraordinarily original man. When you’re a kid you just take that for granted. He did things that were brilliant. I never gave him credit for that.
When my dad and I started to finally get together (as adults), he was losing his mind from Alzheimer’s already. … I didn’t understand the commitment he made, the integrity he brought, the showmanship and the originality. To see the stuff in the movie and to have the story told is sweet beyond words. I’m so proud of him. He lived a great creative life that was not without suffering.
About Robert Krasker
Krasker’s color cinematography for Mann’s El Cid was remarkable not only for its fluid long takes, but also for pushing the barriers of color photography to their limits. He shot at dusk and dawn and achieved remarkable results. The most striking shot was the resplendent white image of the dead Cid whose armored brilliance cinematically transports him from history to legend as he emerges from the gates of the city.
—Thomas L. Erskine, Film Reference.com