by Allan Fish
(USA/Spain 1961 184m) DVD1/2
Out of the gates of history into legend
p Samuel Bronston d Anthony Mann w Frederic M.Frank, Philip Yordan, Ben Barzman ph Robert Krasker ed Robert Lawrence m Miklós Rózsa art/cos Veniero Colosanti, John Moore
Charlton Heston (Roderigo Diaz de Bivar, El Cid), Sophia Loren (Doña Chimene), Geneviève Page (Urraca I of Castile), John Fraser (Alfonso VI of Castile), Herbert Lom (Ben Yussuf), Raf Vallone (Count Ordonez), Gary Raymond (Sancho II of Castile), Hurd Hatfield (Count Arias), Massimo Serrato (Fanez), Andrew Cruickshank (Count Gomez), Michael Hordern (Don Diego), Frank Thring (Al Kadir), Douglas Wilmer (Moutamin), Ralph Truman (Ferdinand I of Castile),
Watching Anthony Mann’s epic for the first time in 1989 was not a particularly memorable experience. This particular sixteen year old wasn’t too impressed at all, but then again, there wasn’t just my meagre age to consider. Consider the quality of print I was viewing, a bastardised, bleached out, panned and scanned travesty of a VHS on the cheap Cinema Club label. All sense of scope, visual splendour, composition, framing and style was totally ruined. It was like looking at the Northern Lights through sunglasses, the mythical grandeur not so much dead as extinct. Nearly two decades on and the film can be seen as it was meant to be seen; with gloriously remastered picture and sound in an impressive Region 1 DVD package showcasing what Martin Scorsese rightly called “one of the greatest epics ever made.”
There can be few who don’t know the story of El Cid, of Rodrigo de Bivar’s wrestle with honour and duty, leading him to kill his potential father-in-law, free Moorish (Moslem) rulers in clemency and take a moral stand against and for successive kings of Castile. It has everything, and yet it’s not your typical Hollywood epic. El Cid marked the turning point from the old-fashioned de Mille style hokum to an altogether more thoughtful style of film, verbosely but intelligently scripted, authentically recreated and conforming to a more European style of film-making. They were, not to put too fine a point on it, revisionist. Now, decades later, the film has slowly but surely come to be seen as jewel in one-time derided producer Bronston’s crown, but a jewel among several such jewels, as all his epics have been reappraised on the back of similar reappraisals for their directors (Nicholas Ray in addition to Mann). On the face of it, Mann’s film may have little in common with the westerns of the fifties he’s more fêted for, and yet it has the same sense of aesthetic grandeur, and a truly tragic sense of destiny.
Just feel the scope of the thing. The cast are hand-picked, with Vallone, Page and Fraser (as quasi-incestuous siblings) and, particularly, Wilmer, offering excellent support to the central lovers. Loren, 26 and at the very zenith of her beauty, never looked better than in her chivalric wardrobe, her awesome figure made for those flowing white and black robes. Heston, meanwhile, has rarely been better; his “finest expression of Arthurian dignity” as David Thomson so aptly put it. To this add the stunning sets of the great Colosanti (influential themselves on John Bryan’s work in Becket), the truly stunning widescreen photography of legendary DP Krasker (who would reunite with Mann for The Fall of the Roman Empire and whose opening sunrises and sunsets are unforgettable on their own), and, especially, the magisterial symphony that is Miklós Rózsa’s peerless score, which captures not only the spirit of the film but the spirit of a nation unerringly. Let us not forget the director, though, and his handling has the true sense of history about it, an appreciation that in evoking the period he can nonetheless make it accessible to the present – especially with a story about Moslem and Christian harmony, ever more prescient half a century on – and his command of mise-en-scène is stunning. (Just think, for example, of Rodrigo’s killing Gomez off-camera after a long and arduous fight, and his then being framed in the dark with his sword like an angel of death in the physical and mental shadows.) As David Thomson also said, “an astonishing departure and a total success.”