Anthony Mann’s El Cid remains the movie most of Charlton Heston’s fans enthusiastically embrace. For good reason: he’s at his most chivalrous. In this present age of misogyny, in this screamingly dysfunctional period of hate as a value, and long before he came to believe he was as important as the historic personages he portrayed, watching his Cid be neither vanquished by nor turn ugly over wife Chimene’s avenging duty is more than reassuring; it’s downright noble and honorable. The movie is also the only epic in which he isn’t more in love with his enemies or horses than with his leading ladies, in this case Italy’s most prized export Sophia Loren. When originally released in 1961, El Cid received some good reviews—even ending up on Time’s and the N.Y. Times’ “Ten Best” lists when lists mattered—but it came nowhere near the domestic box office of Ben-Hur. Adding insult to injury, it also met with unjust comparisons: looking at Ben-Hur today, there’s such fraudulence in sets and set-ups that it becomes a hoot. Restored in 1993 by a team that Martin Scorsese supervised, El Cid is re-wrapped in authenticity: its sets are huge but admirably decorative with 11th Century scale and detail and smashingly effective are the King’s Court; the rotunda wherein Heston and Loren perform the greatest nonkiss in widescreen movie history; the quarters of the King’s Champion; Sophia’s bed chamber; the spiral staircase leading to it; the tent of Sancho; the barn in which the two icons first make love; the Arabic interiors of the Valencia castle. The restoration gives us the chance to ooh and aah at not just the tapestries, murals, flags and other regalia but also the real leathers and chain mail used for the costumes: they’re so rich we can practically reach out and touch the textures and metal. (Only King Ferdinand’s crown and cape of arms, looking like badly stitched together car decays, are truly awful.) The use of Spain’s real castles and landscapes add immeasurable weight—underlining the flimsiness of Ben-Hur. For those who have seen only the pre-restored El Cid on TV or tape or cheap DVD, there must be disappointment because not only is the color washed out, and no overture or exit music, they miss entirely the sweep, the grandeur and a lot of interesting tidbits: like watching troops build seige towers, or catching facial reactions of the ladies-in-waiting, or getting to giggle at nellie Frank Thring’s earrings or at Ben Yussuf’s armies capped in turbans that in succession look like mushrooms, those candied jujubes, peanut shells and the Elephant Man’s head, or getting a good look at Vallone’s blooded-up chest with its skin peeled back, or Heston’s facial scar and the arrow that’s embedded in his chest. El Cid’s refurbishment also reaffirms that no American actor was born to play historic figures more than Heston—likely the eternal monarch of spectacles. The epic genre has continued on its loony, chaotic way without him, but as its center, he gave it legitimacy; somehow his mid-Western intonational Voice of All Ages and the handsome physical stature imposingly fused, having the odd power of penetrating our modern cynicism and redeeming the phony formal lingo of historical spectaculars. And little quarrel that his shadow eclipsed those in Hollywood epics who came before him, like the unnerving Robert Taylor, who always seemed to be waiting to break for a cigarette in Quo Vadis or Knights of the Round Table. Helping is Heston’s ability to look weathered and flawed and yet he’s not oversized, like the stockyard beefiness of misfit Victor Mature; there’s something reassuring about how Heston’s masculinity remains intact despite the furs, flowing capes and silks he’s required to wear. (Because we’ll never know what the men of history he’s played will sound like, Heston’s legacy could be that we would expect them to come close to matching him; he certainly thought so.) The Cid’s other highly attractive virtue is his righteousness. For example, it’s presumed fact that when he recaptured Valenica from the Emirs, he didn’t accept the city’s crown as his followers demanded, but instead, in order to unite Spain against the invaders, took it in the name of King Alfonso, who had previously exiled him because he publicly humiliated the King into swearing that he had no part in the (real) assassination of his brother Sancho. The myth of the Cid as incorruptible in all likelihood isn’t true: he was a soldier of fortune-opportunist who fought on the sides of both Christians and Moslems and was well-rewarded. Only when the North African Emirs threatened to overtake Spain did he see his duty in uniting Spain. Though the movie emblematizes the oft-repeated fairytale of Rodrigo—that he fell as a result of a battle-inflicted wound and rode off into history strapped, dead but open-eyed, on a white horse—historians believe he died four years after defeating the Emirs in Valenica; they write that his death at 49 was said to have been brought on by grief and shame over the huge numbers of casualties it took to do so. (He’s buried at the cathedral in Burgos.) Sophia seems equally at home in antiquity; her stressed, emphatic English befits the fakespeak of epics. Like Heston, it’s her size—emitting a celluloid authority. And only on the big screen can we appreciate her swaying hips as she struts through the King’s Court. The well-known friction between Sophia and Heston on set—she tardy but pampered, he eternal mannerist of the rules—works to their advantage; perhaps calculated, she sparks the edge for chemistry. British author Derek Elley in The Epic Film writes of El Cid, “Script, acting, images and music all act in perfect harmony.” Not quite; the script’s clichés aren’t fully saved by the cast’s efforts because too often the clichés are central to the movie’s insistence on conventionality. (There’s a lot of Ivanhoe lurking about.) Action scenes can defy the audience’s common sense: when Chimene’s father, the King’s Champion, and the Cid engage in a sword match, that duel to the death takes place right beneath Chimene’s bedroom door. Wouldn’t she hear the clashing swords and wonder what the hell is going on? The audience is wondering about something else too—how her over-the-hill fatass daddy managed to remain a champion. And sometimes the acting isn’t as large-scale as it is anxious, overwrought, re the not so subterranean theme of incest. Miklós Rózsa’s orgasmic score was originally written to cover most of the film, but Mann discovered in Verna Fields (who’d do the film editing for Bonnie and Clyde and Jaws) a gifted sound technician: her matchless ear for a slap with a glove, for dueling swords, galloping horses, etc., convinced Mann to eliminate over one hour of music. Excluding script, the movie’s most troublesome element was in the actual sound recordings: as much as seventy percent of the audio soundtrack had to be redone, “something to do with inconsistent Spanish current,” said Heston. What’s surprising is that, in spite the lack of integrity which often happens from looping, the results aren’t harmful, in the way they definitely are in Barabbas, probably because of the decision as camouflage to noisy up the soundtrack with blasts of music and sound effects. Film editor Robert Lawrence has one remarkable task: during the joust for Calahorra, he not only has to avoid showing the double used when a sword is swinging away at the Cid’s saddle, he also has to splice in Sophia’s reaction shots, which were filmed weeks before. (You can tell: the studio lighting & fan-powered wind in the King’s grand stand don’t quite match the outdoor shots.) The binding used to wrap it all up is Robert Krasker’s painstaking photography, some of which could pass for high-priced prints, with glorious moments like the Cid, underneath the spiral staircase, bracing himself against the very sword he used to kill Chimene’s father; Chimene sitting in her bed chamber waiting to be plucked on her wedding night; the opening shot in the barn; the night scenes of Yussuf’’s men riding their horses towards Valenica and his infantry banging its drums. Not a single shot in Ben-Hur that equals them. There’s also prescience in the opening sequence when Herbert Lom’s menacing Yussuf sets the religious-political stakes: “The Prophet has commanded us to rule the world. Where in all your land of Spain is the glory of Allah? When men speak of you they speak of poets, music makers, doctors, scientists. Where are your warriors? You dare to call yourselves sons of the Prophet? You have become women! Burn your books! Make warriors of your poets! Let your doctors invent new poisons for our arrows. Let your scientists invent new war machines. And then, 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!”
Oscar nominations for best color art direction, song (something called “The Falcon and the Dove”), musical score for dramatic or comedy picture. DGA nomination for Mann. Earned best cinematography from the British Society of Cinematographers; won best sound editing from the Motion Picture Editors, USA. Roadshows were in 70mm SUPER-TECHNIRAMA prints. (Opened 12/21/1961 at Cinestage, running 22 weeks.).
The critics gave the renewed lease on life for El Cid mostly high marks, though audience response was disappointing, primarily because its re-release was marred by insufficient funds for advertising and by the decision of many theatres and chains to decline showing the spectacle, or keep it around long enough for the interested to get a chance to see it. Then came the idiot contractual obligation to issue a Best Film & Video Corp version of the restoration in full screen, without overture, entr’acte and exit music. A 1996 Criterion Collection laserdisc roadshow edition was made available, but by that time laser was on life support, having penetrated only about 2% of the American consumer market. Legal issues with the Samuel Bronston estate and the many holders of distribution licenses of various versions further complicated American rights of the movie in DVD format. Consequently foreign distributors, from China and Spain in particular, filled in the void with minimally acceptable widescreen versions still absent of the hardticket accoutrements. Excepting the French release, the DVDs were washed out, had bad sound synchronization and came loaded with a lot of player/format irritations, even if one can unlock regional restrictions by keying in codes through remotes. Taking almost fifteen years to finally get an American DVD release, El Cid, under Scorsese’s continued guidance, arrived and worth the wait. The first thing noticed is the return of the overture and the sometimes deafening sound and accompanying effects; the second is the re-tooled-by-necessity subdued color spectrum showcasing the production designs of Veniero Colasanti and John Moore and the Maciek Piotrowski murals, which in previous tapes and DVDs were faded and had nearly disappeared into the stone walls. The rehabilitation enriches Robert Krasker’s lighting as well as deepening the rich rivalry in the fabrics of the costumes. The intermission is inserted at the right point, though because of non-compressed space considerations the entr’acte is played at the end of disc one instead of the beginning of disc two, which opens directly into the second part. As exit music, we hear what we haven’t heard in God knows how many years (and may wish not to hear again for many more)—a vocal chorus version of the love theme. The nagging problem that has always been apparent—the “old fashion” conventionality of the obligatory and clunky pageantry interspersed within the plot dramatics—may now seem to be slightly less intrusive than Miklós Rózsa’s often heavy-handed score. In supplemental material on disc two, we’re reminded that Rózsa was very upset that a hefty amount of his music had been cut without his knowledge; today you wish Mann and sound editor Verna Fields had sliced away even more. Released under the imprimatur of the Weinstein Company’s Miriam Collection, this DVD also confirms that Fields was using background sounds more inclusively, especially with the extras, whose overlapping voices are clearer now. The Limited Edition release supplies both an unnecessary reproduction of the Dell comic book of the story and the original souvenir booklet, which contains 90 color pictures. The program’s photo credits of the cast excludes everyone’s favorite roadshow sissy Frank Thring; why this omission no one seems to know, but he and his lispiness provide this otherwise humorless spectacle its precious few laughs. And I’d be remiss in not mentioning that the hardcore technocrats and aficionados of movie restorations, especially Robert A. Harris, have carped that the 35mm print used for the refurb is of disappointing quality. Remembering exactly how Technicolor popped out in 1961, their biggest complaint seems to be “soft colors and off-color” hues and what should have been done to prevent the discolorization. (I like very much that the DVD doesn’t bray Technicolor’s gaudiness.) Some claim that the original camera negative remains in a London vault, but no confirmation. Perhaps Harris is still miffed because he wasn’t offered the chance to do the restoration. Arguably, he isn’t an objective critic of movies; you only have to read his comments about The Alamo and My Fair Lady over at in70mm.com to gather that while he’s deserving of respect as a technical refurbisher, he’s often a movie star fawner. Should be noted that he restored Spartacus and MFL twice: the first times, in the 90s, were downright lousy and the second, just a few years ago and using updated technology, big improvements, so he could still be called upon to restore El Cid for the inevitable American Blu-ray edition. With the usual region prohibitions, Blu-rays from Germany, Italy, Sweden and Japan are currently available.
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 4/2018) All Rights Reserved.