Monday, September 26, 2011


(December 1961, U.S.)

If film history has proven one thing, it's proven that just about any historical epic starring Charlton Heston is going a successful, spectacular screen experience. Anthony Mann's story of the life of the Christian Castilian knight Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (played by Heston), called "El Cid", who in the 11th Century fought the North African Almoravides and ultimately contributed to the unification of Spain, is filled with all the widescreen spectacle, action and romance that will please any true film lover.

One of the first things we immediately learn about Rodrigo is that although his intentions always seem noble enough, he is constantly a provoking instigator. In the beginning, while simply on route to see his beloved future bride Doña Jimena (played by the Italian beauty Sophia Loren), he becomes involved in a battle against an army of the Moors. Rodrigo releases several captured Emir prisoners on the condition that they never again attack King Ferdinand of Castile. For this act he's accused of treason against the King by Jimena's father, Count Gormaz. Rodrigo kills Gormaz in defense of his family honor and his true love (temporarily) becomes his true enemy. Not for long, though - she'll love him again. As cliche might expect, when the King dies, his two sons immediately go to war to see who will ultimately claim the rightful throne. In a plot right out of HAMLET, the eldest son King Sancho is king only for a short time until he's assassinated by his younger brother Alfonso's doing (you see - I told you that it's BROTHERS that always seem to want to kill each other!). In a particularly intruiging scene, Rodrigo commits another bold act of defiance when he publicly challanges King Alfonso during the royal coronation to swear on the Holy Books that he had no part in his brother's killing. He does convincingly, but we as the viewer no better and we know that a Prince who has stolen the power needed to become King is, indeed, a dangerous man.

Another sequence I've always found impossible to ignore is the moment before the final battle when we alreay know that Rodrigo is dead. However, in order to give his army the proper inspiration and morale, and to also disuade and push the enemy back into the sea, he is positioned on his horse with his eyes wide open in order to give the appearance that he's alive, strong and ready to do battle. It's a deception that grabs your attention and makes your own eyes open just a little bit wider.

EL CID can sit proudly alongside a line of epic films of history, battle and romance that include the likes of BEN-HUR (1959), SPARTACUS (1960) and even GLADIATOR (2000). When I watch a film like this, even while I'm enjoying it immensely, I still find myself drifting off into a fantasy of having been around back in the day to have been able to see it on the big screen during it's exclusive roadshow engagements. THIS was a period of cinema history that I consider quite underated. It was also the period of cinema history that just started to usher in the beginning of the end for the entire Hollywood studio system of the 1960s. But that's another piece of history.

Favorite line or dialogue:

King Alfonso: "Rodrigo of Vivar, called the Cid, why do you alone refuse me fealty?"
Rodrigo Diaz: "Sire, all those you see here, though none dare say so, harbor the suspicion that you may have counseled your own brother's death. Unless you can prove your innocence, you will have no loyal subjects. Your kingdom will be torn by doubt. Thus, I cannot give you fealty, nor own you as my liege."
Alfonso: "What will satisfy you of my innocence?"
Rodrigo: "Your oath upon the Holy Books!"
Alfonso: "You would ask me to swear?"
Rodrigo: "Sire, I DO ask it!"
Alfonso: "Very well!"
Rodrigo: "Will you swear that you had no part in the ordering of King Sancho's death?"
Alsonso: "I so swear!"
Rodrigo: "Do you swear that you had no part by way of COUNSEL in King Sancho's death?"
Alfonso: "I so swear!"
Rodrigo: "Do you swear that you had no part by way of DESIGN in King Sancho's death?"
Alfonso: "I swear it!"
Rodrigo: "If you are foresworn, may you die such a death as your brother did! Struck from behind by the hand of a traitor! Say, "Amen'!"
Alfonso: "You press me too far, Rodrigo!"
Rodrigo: "Say 'Amen'!"
Alfonso: "Amen."

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