April 26, 2008 -- As a special tribute to the late Charleton Heston, my colleague, Patrick Ivers, and I are reviewing a couple of Heston's older films, the 1961 heroic epic, El Cid, and the 1958 film noir classic, Touch of Evil. El Cid perfectly captures the notion suggested by Professor Stanley Fish that Heston is a character actor in a leading man's body. He looks every part the epic hero, but seems uncomfortable in a role that others have thrust upon him. He is the perfect man to play to play this conflicted hero, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (El Cid).
El Cid was a real man (born 1040 A.D. in Vivar, died July 10, 1099 in Valencia) but this story of El Cid in this movie is made up largely of invention and legend. It is a wonderful story, just the same, written by Fredrick Frank (“The Ten Commandments”), Philip Yordin (“King of Kings”) and Ben Barzman (“The Martyr”). This film is rich in religious symbolism. In one scene, El Cid (which means “The Lord”) carries a large Catholic cross bearing a carving of Christ. In another scene, he gives water to a leper in front of three full-sized crosses on a hill. The leper addresses him as El Cid and when El Cid asks how the leper knew his name, the leper replies “Who else would defy a king, yet share his water with a leper?”
In this film El Cid (Heston) is portrayed as a Christian knight of unwavering faith, unshakable courage and unerring honor. It is as if Christ himself became a warrior and diplomat. In an early scene, he frees five Moorish emirs who he had taken prisoner. In return, the emirs swear allegiance to him and to King Ferdinand. He reasoned that Christians had been killing Moors and vice versa in Spain for many years, with no good result, so why not try something new? The king had ordered the emirs executed and El Cid's actions were viewed as traitorous. El Cid's father takes exception to the charge of traitor against his son brought by the king's champion. This argument leads to a duel scheduled between the two, which would surely lead to the death of El Cid's father. El Cid challenges the king's champion to a duel and defeats and kills him. This death, however earns the hatred of El Cid's fiancée Jimena (Sophia Loren) who just happens to be the daughter of the king's champion.
To restore the good name of his family, El Cid offers to fight (in place of the king's champion) for King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman) in a battle to determine the fate of an entire city. El Cid says if he wins the battle, it will show God is on his side and the charges against him are false. This elaborately staged duel to the death involves jousting, followed by hand to hand combat with swords and other weapons. El Cid becomes the new king's champion when he wins the battle. He then embarks on a dangerous journey to collect tribute for the king. He asks the king to order Jimena to marry him should he return safely. Jimena plots to have El Cid killed to avenge her father's death. El Cid foils the plan and marries her anyway, hoping to earn her forgiveness in the future.
After the death of King Ferdinand a war breaks out among his sons for control of the kingdom, which is now split. El Cid gets caught in the middle of this struggle and is exiled, only to raise an army of his own and become a new power in Spain. El Cid is shown as a man of courage, but also compassion, even to his enemies. He finds a unique, and relatively bloodless way to conquer the great walled city of Valencia (filmed at Peñíscola, Spain) by showing kindness to the city's population, instead of the usual savagery. The film depicts El Cid as a man of faith in his Christian beliefs and who is also loyal to Spain and its king. In the film, El Cid is true to God and God is always on the side of El Cid. He defeats 13 men singlehandedly, telling them “though you be 13 times 13” he would still defeat them with God as his ally. Yet he also allied himself with the Muslim Moors and he coexisted with them at times.
In the film, El Cid is a man whose destiny is to fight, but is a man of peace at heart. He would just as soon live at peace with his wife and family, but destiny demands that he be a warrior. He becomes a conqueror by necessity. He is a most unusual man. In real life, El Cid was even more remarkable than the man shown in the film. He adopted a collaborative decision-making style, even brainstorming, as a means of planning military strategy, nearly a thousand years before it became an accepted practice. El Cid would accept suggestions from the lowliest soldier. It seems that El Cid did not have a big ego, unlike some leaders who go with their own instincts because they don't trust anyone else. The El Cid in the film may not have much in common with the real El Cid, but what a magnificent man he was!
The acting in the film is somewhat stagey and stiff, as was the style in those days. The movie comes off a lot like the films made in the 1950s. The spectacle is grand, a cast of thousands, a cost of millions, they used to say. This film was made at a time when thousands of extras could be hired to make those authentic-looking big battle scenes. Nowadays, most of these kinds of scenes are doctored with digital effects to make it seem there are thousands of warriors. This film was made when huge, elaborate outdoor sets were constructed, instead of creating digital backgrounds. You can still tell the difference. This is a big, romantic action film on a grand scale. The Christians are the good guys and the Muslims aren't necessarily the bad guys. You could never get away with this kind of film now. So much of it is politically incorrect, like caucasians wearing blackface to impersonate Moors. But what a spectacle, and that's just Sophia Loren! Holy moly! They don't make 'em like that anymore. She's not the only thing larger than life in this film. Charleton Heston is the perfect mythic conflicted hero. He has passed into legend and already he is missed. This film rates a B.
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