El Cid review by Tom Blain
Just one word on the television screen told me right away that I was in for a long evening. One word alone: Overture. That single word appearing as the opening to a feature presentation will seal your fate in a tidy three-hour package before you can say "I AM SPARTACUS!" Not only is it an indicator that you are you going to be watching this movie for the same span of time that you could finish a single German opera, but the screen teases you. It hangs there for a good 5 minutes testing your patience saying, "Are you really ready for this? Its not too late to back out? We are going to play this opening to the score for a good 5 minutes, with just this stupid still and you really think this decision. Do you have what it takes? Do you have the endurance?" I checked the elegant DVD box to El Cid, thinking maybe it was all for show but sure enough it clocks in at 188 minutes. Wow, they sure knew how to make big movies in the early 60s.
But all is forgiven if those 188 minutes are spent in entertainment right? Well thats how the theory goes at least.
El Cid, which is Spanish for The Cid which is Spanglish for The Lord, is based on the 11th century Spanish legend Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston, about as Spanish as he can be in lovely Technirama). As the legend goes, El Cid was the great compassionate Spanish warrior who strove to unite all Spanish people; both Christians and Moors. Yes, RDdV is a great warrior, but he is also a merciful Christian soul (anyone remember Ben Hur). His mercy is on display in opening sequence of the film. Some evil Moors burn a Christian village. He captures them but lets them go when they swear to never attack them again. It is at this point that one the Moors proclaims him to be... EL CID!!!!!!!! When El Cid heads back home, his mercy is treated as treason by King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman). While Rodrigos father defends his son, his future father- in- law doesnt and in doing so disgraces El Cid's father. So El Cid runs him through with his sword (there are better ways to impress the in-laws BTW). This doesnt go over well with future wife Jimena (a wooden and boring Sophia Loren), who wants him dead one moment but loves him the next. Its gotta be that chiselled chin, epic voice, and virtuous soul that the chicks dig.
That sets the scene for heroic, legendary life of El Cid. For the rest of the film (of which there is a lot) he fights to clear his name and becomes the kings top warrior again. Then he tries to recapture the heart of his vengeful and then loving wife Jimena. And finally he becomes the great leader who pulls together Christians and Muslims as he tries to unite Spain and ward off the more evil and sinister Muslims.
Maybe its because this movie is a period epic. Maybe its because the RDdV is played by Charlton Heston. And maybe its because Heston plays the role as if RDdV as if he was the next Spanish prophet but I got the sneaking suspicion about 20 minutes into this movie that I was watching Spanish Ben Hur. The only thing that was missing was a chariot race (substitued by a lessor jousting fight). These movies rarely work for me, although I do seem to remember liking Ben Hur when I saw it years and years ago. Truth be told its been a while since I've seen it and I'm not itching to see it again.
There are a few flaws that seem to be consistent with a large number of these period epic films. First, is that they are always LONG. In the late 50s- early 60s you werent making a serious epic film unless it clocked it at no fewer than three hours. There was some serious epic-envy going on in Hollywood. Like our current economy, film times, set sizes, and numbers of extras ballooned and ballooned until the balloon finally burst (see CLEOPATRA). But with three hours, the director better have a really good story to work with or else the film will cause a lot of audience butt squirming and clock watching. Secondly, I usually get irritated by an epic film's tendency to become a playground for overacting and underacting. Actors like Heston often get caught up in the role and play their character as if he were greater than human. And then inevitably on the flip side, the villains are usually one-dimensional sneering and frowning cartoony bad guys, to the point where they lack any humanity. On the other side of overacting, is lack of acting. In El Cid, I got the feeling that Sophia Loren got so wrapped up in set and costume that she forget to create a character. Its often the case where character and story get lost within all of the expensive frils of the epic: lots of extra's wearing armor, lots of costumes, lots of expensive set pieces, and choreographed fights.
But that also leads me into some of the positives. What I do like about these period epics and that includes El Cid is how they advanced film making technically. The film stock is 70mm, so there is this great wide expanse that the directors are able to show. They tended to expand the theatre screens in ways the old movies never did. With movies like El Cid, with its beautiful wide shots of the Spanish country side, we begin to see why color film was such a good idead in the first place. There are some beautiful shots that show entire armies of men as they prepare and do battle. These moments (mostly in the last hour) are the most fun in the movie and its a shame that there isnt as much enthusiasm in the first two hours.
Im sure there is an audience out there for El Cid, but it probably wont be a young audience. Instead it may consist of old timey Heston fans and people who remember these three-hour extravaganzas with great adoration. For those who are interested there is a great limited edition set available now with two discs, printed introduction by Martin Scorsese, and reproductions of El Cid the comic, Souvenir program and six movie stills.
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