Monday 29 June 2020

Movie Review: El Cid (1961)

A historical epic about a legendary Spanish leader, El Cid is a grand spectacle but leans towards quantity over quality.

It's early in the 11th Century, and Spain is experiencing political divisions. The nation's Muslim Moor tribes are being agitated into rebellion by Ben Yusuf (Herbert Lom), a militaristic Moor leader based in North Africa and intent on conquering Spain in the name of Islam. 

Castilian leader Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston) seeks to unite Christian and Moor tribes in Spain under the banner of King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman). Don Rodrigo earns the title El Cid for his prowess in battle, a strong moral code, and a dedication to justice and Spain's national interest. But he loses the love of Doña Ximena (Sophia Loren) when he kills her father to defend family honour.

After Ferdinand's death El Cid attempts to avoid the fracturing of Spain in a power struggle between the King's sons Sancho (Gary Raymond) and Alfonso (John Fraser). A period of exile allows a reconciliation with Ximena before the Ben Yusuf threat re-emerges and a showdown looms in Valencia.

Produced by Samuel Bronston, directed by Anthony Mann and clocking in at a grandiose three hours, El Cid is a weighty exercise in epic filmmaking. Loosely based on what is known about the El Cid legend, numerous characters and thousand of extras bring to life multiple story lines featuring palace intrigue, religious conflict, personal plotting, political infighting and shifting loyalties over decades, tracing Don Rodrigo's influence on Spain's history. While enough is always going on to maintain a base level of interest, the film is also often slow and lumberous, and rarely emotionally stirring.

El Cid's greatness is portrayed as stemming from unyielding loyalty to the King combined with an unwavering commitment to a vision of a cohesive Spain where Moors and Christians set religious differences aside and unite to build a strong and just nation. Charlton Heston carries the grit and intensity to convey the character's strength, but the surrounding material is not as cogent.

The script by Philip Yordan, Fredric M. Frank, and Ben Barzman is an uneven effort, and appears intent on prolonging running time at the expense of narrative thrust. Scenes of pomp and circumstance and marching armies occupy an inordinate amount of time, and the sappy, unhappy personal drama between El Cid and Ximena sucks the momentum out of the first two hours. Stars Heston and Loren did not get along, and the lack of chemistry is obvious on the screen, Loren in particular confined to a single stone-faced expression.

When it's time to capture either skirmishes or epic battles, the action is surprisingly incoherent. Skipping past both strategic and tactical considerations, Mann appears content to allow extras to charge at each other and then film the logjam. The outcome is a mechanical exercise in many men swinging many swords and falling off many horses.

The final hour set in Valencia finds better focus, El Cid earning his legend with a mythical determination to inspire no matter the personal consequences.

The supporting cast members mostly make up the numbers, the acting fluctuating between adequate and stiff. Geneviève Page as the sister of Alfonso and Sancho shows the most spirit and should have been provided with more to do. Raf Vallone and Michael Hordern (as El Cid's father) appear in relatively small roles.

A test of endurance, El Cid offers a few moments of fulfillment amidst excessive equestrian cavalcades.

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