Constructed specifically for an auditorium, the historical epic is an event of prolonged pleasure, an extravagance bedecked in ornate period costume and wide-shot cinematography, set against the broad backdrop of monarchical politics and star-crossed sensuality. Its narrative sprawl is met with literal mass, as a sea of extras quarrel in the theater of war, each panorama of choreographed bloodshed captured in resplendent Technicolor and blown up to 70MM. The excesses in length and vision can be intimidating, but the ceremony of the cinematic experience, complete with relics of refinement like musical overture and intermission, puts art before convenience, transforming the motion picture into cultural event instead of mundane triviality.
Anthony Mann’s El Cid marries the potent imagery and scope of the medieval epic with a modern sociological preoccupation, putting man’s lust for power under the microscope and exposing religion as a tool of the belligerent and manipulative. Placing his primary combatants on opposing sides of the moral landscape, Mann and his screenwriting team discard ambiguity in favor of a clear-cut ideology, realizing that unwavering support of the hero benefits the gung-ho energy of the battle sequences and tone of Charlton Heston’s gallant performance.
Playing Rodrigo with chin tilted towards the sky, Heston places honor before strength in his portrayal of the iconic military general, constructing a quixotic character so virtuous and noble that he’d spare water for a leper and liberate his prisoners of war in the name of clemency. Logic may wrestle with the idea of an infallible warrior, but a rousing orchestral score and grandiose cinematography sell the fantasy, casting our hero in warm, ocean-tinted sunlight, representing his rise in rank and subsequent martyrdom as secular passion play.
Complexity is woven into the narrative through Rodrigo’s relationship with Jimena (Sophia Loren), a countess that forsakes her feelings for the misunderstood knight following charges of treason and his unwitting execution of her arrogant patriarch. Poetic exchanges between the conflicted couple are cursed by the ghosts of their pasts and the honest words omitted, each disdainful remark spoken by Loren uttered beneath clenched lips, concealing sincerity and passion. The camera and set design act as accomplices to her discordance, shielding Loren’s face with drapery and tilted window shutters, visually personifying the tempestuous nature trapped within.
The cramped interiors and gloom of Jimena’s quarters are contrasted by the exterior majesty, captured in tracking shots that pivot to reveal an ever-expanding wealth of space and sumptuous uniform design. The peach skies and rolling hills of provincial Spain act as the perfect canvas for the pastels of religious and political iconography, the red and yellow of the Spanish coat of arms juxtaposed atop the onyx black thobes of Ben Yusuf’s (Herbert Lom) Islamic legion, the splashes of color acting as unification of Rodrigo’s multicultural army.
Mann composes these visual setpieces with the utmost elegance, jutting swords and limbs into the frame to give the impression of action occurring out of sight, heightening tension through evocative pans and naturalistic swordplay. Swift edits and crisp foley work represent the brutality of war far better than bloodshed, the thumping of hooves and fluid camera motion adding viscera to the thrust of a blade as it penetrates armor. Sparse lighting and wide shots add to the intimacy of single combat scenes, the stripped down sound design and distance realistically mirroring the voyeurism of violence as sport.
The closing siege is an offensive worthy of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, its wooden palisades, breaching towers and litany of archers channeling that film’s magnitude. Harnessing cameras to catapults and the necks of stampeding horses, Robert Krasker and his team of photographers improve upon Griffith’s artistic feats, imparting realism by simulating the motion of charging soldiers and surging war machines.
Their artistic sleight-of-hand is enrapturing, but El Cid’s greatest feat lies in its guilelessness, not its craft. Never once does the film condescend to its story, a forthright disposition that mounts a production of staggering size without abandoning its message of human allegiance in the face of religious fundamentalism. Sincerity may be a product of a bygone era, but its representation of the errancy of man is more important today than ever, as the lines between faith and fact are blurred and passion steadily morphs into ironic indifference.
El Cid (Allied Artists Pictures, 1961)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Fredric M. Frank (story/screenplay), Philip Yordan (screenplay) and Ben Barzman (screenplay)
Photographed by Robert Krasker