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With or without the sex, a wonderful tale of love and destiny, told well by a master storyteller —Marty Mapes (review...)

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In a written introduction in the DVD’s booklet, Martin Scorsese says “El Cid... marks the passing of an era... from Hollywood-based to international production, from studio era decorum to a greater frankness....”

What he doesn’t say is which side of that divide El Cid is on. He seems to imply it’s on the more modern side, but you could also say that El Cid is the last of its kind, that it was born too late.

In any case, you can now see for yourself. This 1961 epic is now available for the first time on DVD. The Weinstein company is releasing it under their “Miriam Collection” label in a fat little box with lots of goodies inside.

Culture Clash

Old-fashioned notions and styles date the movie
Old-fashioned notions and styles date the movie

On the way to his wedding Rodrigo (Charlton Heston) captures some Moorish emirs. Instead of hanging them, as is the practice in the 11th century, he lets them go if they promise not to attack Spain. One of the pardoned emirs thanks Rodrigo and christens him “El Cid.” The other becomes the movie’s villain.

Rodrigo fights with his fiancé’s father, the king’s champion, over the emir incident. He ends up killing his would-be father-in-law; and his fiancé Jimena (Sophia Loren) turns against him. Meanwhile, Rodrigo gets sucked into court politics. Having killed the king’s champion, he himself must take up the sword as a leader against the barbarian invaders.

Rodrigo keeps fighting, for his woman and for his king, until he becomes mythic. At one time, the ending gesture of El Cid might have been on a dramatic par with the fortification scene from Beau Geste. In this day, though, El Cid’s dramatic gesture seems a little corny.

Another Time and Place

El Cid is unquestionably epic. With Spanish vistas and armies of extras, the movie looks wonderful. It is beautifully restored; it shows a level of detail you just don’t get — and I predict you’ll never get — from CGI. The film was shot in Spain on 70mm film with real people in real costumes.

The best scene in the movie is actually much smaller. Surprisingly, it is a wordless montage that is part of the movie’s romance. Rodrigo has married Jimena, in spite of her spite. They’ve just had a miserable dinner together, but there is a spark of passion deeply buried. Now they’re apart in the big, empty castle, thinking about each other. The music, acting, and editing mesh perfectly, making us feel the tension of their love/hate relationship. (The acting may have been helped by the chilly off-screen relationship between Heston and Loren; look for more on that in the DVD’s extra features. )

El Cid is also an action movie, and it shows how far modern action scenes have come. Being a fan of martial arts movies has spoiled me. The first swordfight, between Rodrigo and his would-be father in law is embarrassing. The audio commentators would disagree, but it looked to me as though the actors were aiming their swords at each other’s swords as they danced around the set. Some of the later scenes are more thrilling, like a deadly joust that turns into a desperate duel. But those raised on modern action fare might find this area of El Cid lacking.

In many ways, El Cid looks like the last film of a previous era. The makeup and lighting are too perfect. The acting is overblown and stagey, at least in the quiet interior scenes. The music, as good as it is, is incessant and intrusive. But fashions change, so it’s slightly unfair to criticize El Cid for being a product of its time. Then again, Lawrence of Arabia was released only 3 years later, and I can’t imagine calling any part of that film “corny.”

What really dates El Cid, though, is a moral judgment. This movie is based on a thousand-year-old Spanish legend, and its values seem antiquated too. The film ends on a monumental dramatic gesture that sums up Rodrigo’s life. The sentiment it reveres is noblesse-oblige, the notion of privilege and responsibility among the leadership class: those in power have a duty to protect the peasants, and the peasants have the duty to submit to the authority of those in power. However, since the Enlightenment, philosophers have been questioning political authority, rather than blindly submitting to it. Those of us in the West are better off for it. The worst places in the world are those places where authority — be it religious, as in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia; or political, as in the Congo or North Korea — is absolute. So although the film is dramatic, its underlying message has no resonance. If anything, it rings hollow — that we peasants should cheer our leaders, and that we are hopelessly lost without them. (Read our user comments on The Lion King (IMAX) if you want to argue this point endlessly.)

DVD Extras

There's neat stuff in this fat little box
There’s neat stuff in this fat little box

The first extra feature you’ll notice is the packaging. El Cid comes in a big box with postcards, a comic book and a reproduction of a souvenir program. It’s all neat stuff; you get a lot in your box.

There are mini documentaries on many of the key filmmakers: director Anthony Mann, Producer Samuel Bronston, composer Miklos Rozsa, and curator/preservationist Gerry Byrne. There is also an audio commentary with the son of producer Bronston, and a biographer of Bronston.

My first impression of El Cid was that it was very superficial, with no interesting subtext. The biographer, Neal M. Rosendorf, was able to fill in some of the gaps. For example, he assures us that Rodrigo is a definite symbol of Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator at the time El Cid was filmed. The crew were able to shoot in Spain only by close cooperation with the Spanish government, so Spain, as Rosendorf points out, had an agenda that shows up in the film. But then Bill Bronston jumps in and assures us that his father wasn’t a subtle man, and that we shouldn’t look too hard for a subtext. Their commentary is interesting for about 30 minutes, and then they both get engrossed in the film. Bill starts gushing about how brilliant the sets and shadows are, almost narrating the action and the scenery. I didn’t stick around to see if it got any better.

The documentaries are generally very good. They are mostly talking-heads interviews — often boring, granted — but the subjects are all good storytellers. The documentary on Bronston is a little long, but it’s frank. It paints a sometimes-awkward picture of a man who was very good at talking people out of their money.

The best documentaries are on composer Miklós Rózsa and curator Gerry Byrne. In both cases, the talking heads are experts, and they don’t feel obligated to dumb things down. In other words, you’ll appreciate the Rózsa documentary more if you have a little musical background. And Byrne uses terms that might go over your head if you don’t know a little about film.

Too often, the documentaries on DVDs feel like they are carefully vetted by marketing agencies. It’s rare to find experts talking freely. Kudos to the Weinsteins and their new Miriam Collection for not making everything on the DVD a sales opportunity.

Picture and Sound

The picture quality is amazing. The film was shot on 70mm, and it’s been well maintained and carefully restored. I imagine that I can tell it’s 70mm film, particularly in crowd scenes when hundreds of extras dressed as medieval soldiers storm a castle. The bigness of the sound comes from Rózsa’s score, and not subwoofer-y sound effects like a modern action film might have.

How to Use This DVD

If you’re daunted by the running time or aren’t into studio movies from the ’50s and ’60s, maybe El Cid isn’t for you. If you haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia yet, try that instead; it’s better and still holds up very well.

If you do get the box set, skim the comic book for a day before you watch the movie, just to see what you’re getting in to. Then watch the movie.

On another night, watch some of the featurettes. The best is on composer Rózsa, particularly if you have a musical background. The next best is on producer Bronston, if only because he was such a character. Turn it off halfway through or whenever you get bored. The other featurettes can be skipped.

If you prefer audio commentary, watch the first 30 minutes or so. When the commentators start losing interest, it’s time to turn it off and put this handsome box on your shelf.