BACK-STORY: “El Cid” is an historical epic about the legendary Spanish medieval hero Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known as El Cid. It was released in 1961 and was directed by Anthony Mann. It is in the same genre as “Ben Hur” and similarly stars Charleton Heston. His co-star Sophia Loren had a $200/week hairdresser allowance. The film was shot mostly in Spain. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Art Direction, Original Music Score, and Best Song. The movie was a box office hit and was well received by critics.
OPENING: The setting is Spain in 1080. The narrator explains that the Iberian Peninsula is divided between Christians and Moors. The evil Emir Ben Yusuf (Herbert Lom) scolds his fellow Muslims for being wimps and vows to conquer Spain, Europe, and then the world! We first meet El Cid as he rescues a cross from a burning church. How Christ-like of him, but not surprising from the most loyal, chivalric, and talented knight of medieval Spain.
SUMMARY: On his way to his wedding, Don Rodrigo captures two Moorish emirs in battle, then refuses to turn them over to the king’s representative. Instead, he sets them free with their promise not to take up arms against the king. One of them, Al-Mutamin, later saves Rodrigo’s life and becomes his friend. When he reaches the court, Rodrigo is charged with treason. He is reunited with his fiancé Jimena (Sophia Loren) and we get the corny romantic interlude typical of movies like this. He gets into a duel with Jimenez’ father and kills him in one of the best duels in filmdom. Lots of clanging. Jimenez is a hot-blooded Spanish senorita who naturally now hates Rodrigo and wants him dead.
|ready for the joust|
When Ferdinand dies, he is succeeded by his oldest son Sancho. Younger brother Alfonso and sister Urraca scheme for the throne. In a ridiculous scene, Sancho is assassinated by a traitor working for Urraca. Rodrigo forces Alfonso to swear he did not have anything to do with the killing, thus earning banishment by the new king. On his way into exile, the Cid helps a leper. What a guy.
Alfonso gets his ass kicked off screen and then holds Jimena hostage to get El Cid to come to him. A previously villainous noble helps Jimenez escape and they join the Cid at Valencia. The impending arrival of Ben Yusuf’s fleet forces Rodrigo to hasten the siege. He catapults bread over the walls to incite a rebellion by the starving populace. They kill the evil Emir Al – Kadir and evict his minions, the Black Guard (this is one of those movies where all the bad guys where black).
Now in control of the city, the Cid decides to sally forth and a huge, well-staged battle ensues. El Cid is wounded by an arrow in the chest.
The next morning, the Cid is tied to his horse and leads his army out the front gate causing panic in the Moorish attackers who believe either it’s a ghost or the live Cid, either way they are toast. It is easily the best acting of Heston’s career. If he were still alive, the Cid would have killed Ben Yusuf in single combat, but since he’s dead it’s left to his corpse-laden horse to trample Ben Yusuf to death. In Hollywood-think, that’s the next best thing. El Cid goes riding off into the sunset and into the mists of legend.
Action - 8
Acting - 7
Accuracy - 6
Realism - 6
Plot - 8
Overall - 8
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Of course. It’s a romance with two superstars. The interiors are breath-taking and so are the costumes. El Cid is a chivalric dream. The perfect man. The action is nongraphic. Plus, it’s not really a war movie, so sell it as an historical romance.
ACCURACY: The problem is that although Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is a real person, El Cid is a legendary figure. The movie is definitely based more on the legend than the person. The historical consultant was Spanish historian Ramon Menendez Pidal who relied on the Poema de Milo Cid which is a medieval chansons de geste that has dubious historical value. The movie alters and simplifies the story. This is acceptable because the real Don Rodrigo was a complex individual. He probably was more chivalric than most knights, but he basically was a soldier-for-hire. In fact, he often served Moorish masters against Christians.
Spain was divided along the lines presented in the movie. Ben Yusuf was a powerful emir from North Africa who invaded Spain. There is no evidence that Don Rodrigo paroled two emirs to earn the enmity of Ferdinand, but he did fight a trial by combat similar to the movie’s. He did not kill Jimena’s father. The whole dysfunctional marriage was Hollywood. In fact, Jimena was a niece of King Alfonso and it was apparently a political marriage.
There was a power struggle between the siblings and the assassination was similar to that depicted in the film. El Cid did force Alfonso to swear innocence, but his banishment was more likely the result of his having been loyal to Sancho and resentment of his popularity. It is during this exile that he hires out, mainly for emirs like Al Mutamin. He did lay siege to Valencia and took control of it, but not for the good of Spain. He wanted his own fiefdom. He and Jimena ruled for three years before Ben Yusuf arrived. By that time, El Cid had died of natural causes. Also, the city ended up falling when Alfonso decided it was not worth the trouble.
CRITIQUE: “El Cid” was better than I thought it would be. Although I am a big fan of “Ben Hur”, most of the old-school historical epics seem so outdated and overblown. This movie has some of those characteristics, but it is highly entertaining and accurate enough to pass the sniff test. Its strengths overcome its flaws.
Some of the flaws include a sappy love story and twirl your mustache type villains. Heston and Loren do not have much chemistry and the ups and downs are not realistic. I doubt Herbert Lom’s Ben Yusuf is considered politically correct in today’s Muslim-tolerant atmosphere. However, the movie is surprisingly even-handed in its depiction of the Moors. There is a nice balance of evil and good Christians and Muslims. The main flaw is El Cid is too perfect. He is unbeatable as a warrior, at one point he defeats a dozen knights virtually singlehandedly. He is totally loyal to his lords, even when they are corrupt and trying to kill him. He is the perfect mate, being understanding when his fiancé despises him and tries to have him killed.
The strengths include the wonderful (if too brightly lit) castle interiors and the “Ben Hur” style score that does a great job setting the mood. The 70mm Technicolor is vibrant. The action is crisp and is three for three with the duel, the trial by combat, and the beach battle. The ending is memorable, even though its ridiculous.
CONCLUSION: “El Cid’ is a spectacle in the grandest sense of the word. It is epic in its scale. It is old-school Hollywood at its best, not its worst. It is not firmly in the war movie genre, but that makes it more appealing to a broader audience. Its placement at #63 seems about right. It is certainly better than most of the movies behind it and I suspect it will be superior to many of the movies ahead. One thing is for sure, it will be the only one where a dead hero wins a battle.