Wednesday, June 3, 2015

El Cid: A Review


There are stories that the stars of the epic El Cid, Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, hated each other during production.  If this is the case, it is used to great effect, as they play antagonistic lovers swept up in the Spanish wars against the invading Moors who sought to conquer Europe for Islam.  El Cid, given current events, is a remarkably insightful film about not just Islamic extremism, but about human compassion and the understanding that not all Muslims are threats. 

Rodrigo de Vivar (Heston) wants nothing more than to marry the beautiful Jimena (Loren), but he finds himself caught up in events out of his control.  On his way to his bride, Vivar becomes involved in a battle against Spanish Moors forced into war by Ben Yousef (Herbert Lom), a fanatical Moslem from Africa who wants to exterminate all infidels.  Vivar captured two Moors, the chief captive is Emir Moutamin (Douglas Wilmer).  The King's operative Count Ordonez (Raf Vallone) demands Vivar send them to be executed, but Vivar refuses, insisting that having them as allies will be better for Spain.  An outraged King threatens to condemn Vivar as a traitor, unleashing the wrath of the King's Champion and Jimena's father.  A family quarrel breaks out, and to defend his father's honor Vivar kills Jimena's father.  Now she swears eternal hatred.

Vivar, however, has found favor with the King when in a single duel, Vivar takes up the challenge to fight for his King for a city, and after his victory Jimena is more enraged.  Vivar, who has earned the honorific name of El Cid (The Leader), pledges loyalty to the royal family, but there is conflict for power among them.  The younger son, Prince Alfonso (John Fraser) bumps off  his brother King Sancho (Gary Raymond) with a little help from his sister Urraca (Genevieve Page).  Vivar, outraged by all the machinations, humiliates the new King by insisting he swear publicly that he had nothing to do with his older brother's death.  In anger, King Alfonso banishes Vivar.  However, Jimena, now realizing Rodrigo's sense of honor and courage, finally acknowledges that she loves him and goes into exile with him.  They dream of slipping away to live quietly, but the Spanish people, Christian and Moor alike, demand Vivar lead them to defend Spain against Ben Yousef, who is on the march.

Vivar goes to Valencia, recently rid of its Moorish monarch, to defend the city and Spain.  Ben Yousef is taking advantage of the war between the Christians, but Vivar will not be persuaded to take the crown himself.  Alfonso, aware of his foolishness, rallies to Valencia, but in a battle El Cid is seriously injured.  He does die, but he begs before his death to lead his men in the next day's battle.  Moutamin and Alfonso, joining forces against a common enemy, dress El Cid's corpse to ride upon his horse, and a stunned Muslim army sees El Cid ride out to them without fear.  This inspires the Spaniards to ride out and defeat the invaders, and Ben Yousef is crushed by El Cid's horse, Yousef terrified that the ghost of El Cid has come back to life.  The victory is assured, and El Cid rides into legend.

El Cid is if nothing else, proof positive that Charlton Heston was the King of Epic Films.  Who else but this larger-than-life actor could fill the larger-than-life role of the legendary Spanish leader, a man unwilling to bend his morals no matter the consequences?  He was willing to defy people of all persuasions to do the right thing as he saw it, no matter how often it went against him.

Heston makes El Cid's moral rectitude believable and true versus insistent and stubborn.  The moral outrage he expresses makes one believe people would follow El Cid through Hell and high water.  Heston also plays his love scenes with Loren with a certain degree of believability.  I say certain degree because it is clear that he and Loren didn't see eye-to-eye, quite literally.  At least on two occasions we see that Heston didn't look into the eyes of what is suppose to be his great love.  Instead, he looks to the sides, as if looking at a remarkably beautiful woman like Loren is too much for him.

Minus that flaw Heston dominates El Cid, being grand and strong while also expressing his loyalty to the monarch.

Loren is more than Heston's equal in playing the conflicted Jimena, who loves her man but who also feels the need to avenge her father.  We believe that conflict within her, one that drives her into painful decisions.  She plays her love scenes with Heston better than he does, because she comes across as a real woman in love.

As a side note, Heston commented that he regretted his antagonism due to all sorts of issues towards Loren, and it looks like in later years they mended their relationship (he presented her with the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award and was present when she received a star on the Walk of Fame).  It's a pity that they didn't make more films because they do make a great pair.

Anthony Mann, not known for epic films, does an absolutely magnificent job in balancing the large-scale battle and fight scenes with the intimate moments of romance and political machinations.  Of particular note is the end, when El Cid, already dead, appears to his troops and the enemies.  The haze enveloping El Cid, the sun making him glow as he exits Valencia with the organ playing is an amazing sight visually.  Mann directed both the scenes and the actors especially well, with perhaps the exception of Frank Thring, who played the corrupt Moorish head of Valencia.  He was a little over-the-top (and the make up was pretty weak).

I'd also say that the dialogue was a little more flowery than perhaps it should have been (fauxetic or faux-poetic if you like).  However, those are about the only real flaws I could find.

Looking at El Cid now, we see that in many ways, the issues El Cid addresses are still relevant today.  Seeing the Muslim hordes landing at Valencia, their black robes and flags flowing freely, brings eerie flashbacks to ISIS.  There is the struggle within Islam: those who use the faith of the Prophet to create art, music, and medicine and are fully part of Europe versus the Muslims who want to purify the land by forcing them to exterminate the infidels.  There is the fear the Christian community has towards the Muslim neighbors, and of one man who sees they too have honor and want nothing to do with the fanaticism of people like Ben Yousef.  I think El Cid is a richer film now than when it premiered, and goes beyond mere epic to an instructive movie about how religious wars can be stopped by men of courage, not physical, but moral.

Chuck and Sophia kiss and make up.


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