El Cid (United States, 1961)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"El Cid is one of the greatest epic films ever made. Anthony Mann's sense of composition, his use of space, and his graceful camera movements bring to life an ancient tapestry where the transformation of an ordinary man into a legend become almost a mystical experience." Lavish praise from Martin Scorsese, one of the forces behind the restoration and re-release of El Cid. Pardon me if I am not in wholehearted agreement.

The story of El Cid tells of Rodrigo Diaz (Charlton Heston), a Castilian knight in 1060 Spain who fought to keep his country from the brink of civil war so that it could defend itself against the threat posed by the North African Moors. Diaz, called El Cid by his followers, became a living legend, and this film willingly expands upon every myth associated with the actual historical figure. While El Cid is not an accurate biography, it is a lavish, epic production.

Using similar methods as those used for Lawrence of Arabia, the restorers of El Cid have achieved impressive results. The sound quality on this new print is flawless and, for the most part, the picture is far better than one could reasonably expect from a thirty-two year old film.

Beyond the spectacle and pageantry, El Cid's virtues are limited. The costumes and set design are as imposing as the magnificent backdrops against which the turbulent battles occur, and the effort necessary to orchestrate the realistic clash of thousands of swords is remarkable, but while these things form the grand centerpiece of the film, they cannot entirely camouflage its shortcomings. Acting is by far the biggest problem. Both Charlton Heston and Sofia Loren have imposing screen personalities, but, at least in this picture, neither is capable of projecting real emotion or drawing us into a rapport with their characters. Heston and Loren make a handsome couple, but their performances are wooden.

The plot is high melodrama with few surprises. Diaz is the hero, and he does all the superhuman things expected from a knight "with God on [his] side." El Cid turns more often to the ridiculous than the sublime. Perhaps if the movie didn't take itself so seriously, there wouldn't be opportunities for unintentional laughter, but, from the bombastic dialogue to the stentorian score, El Cid is about as self-important as a motion picture can be. Regardless, there are still moments of breathtaking, almost transcendant splendor, when the film makers attain the grand aspirations they strive for. When recalling great battles in recent films, only a few come to mind (Last of the Mohicans and Glory, for example), none of which have the scope or power of what Anthony Mann achieved in El Cid. And, while I don't share all of Scorsese's views about this movie, there's still much value in his words.

El Cid (United States, 1961)

Director: Anthony Mann
Cast: Charlton Heston, Sofia Loren, John Fraser, Genevieve Page, Herbert Lom
Screenplay: Frederic M. Frank and Philip Yordan
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Music: Miklos Rozsa
U.S. Distributor: Allied Artists
Run Time: 3:04
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1