El Cid is one of those films which I know was a well-respected success story at the time of its release and one that carries the label of classic, but not one I hear mentioned in the same conversations as Spartacus and Ben-Hur. In giving the film a watch, I felt that there was certainly a lot to admire and wish people would take more notice of; from Heston’s passionate performance to the themes of unification against fanaticism set against a sumptuous production. However, it does have its flaws that keep it from reaching its full potential.
Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston), on the way to his wedding with Doña Ximena (Sophia Loren), rescues a Spanish town from an invading Moorish army. Two of the Emirs, Al-Mu’tamin of Zaragoza (Douglas Wilmer) and Al-Kadir of Valencia (Frank Thring) of Valencia, are captured. After escorting his prisoners to Vivar and seeing that peace will not come from others’ bloodthirsty desire for revenge, Rodrigo releases the Moors on condition that they pledge never again to attack King Ferdinand of Castile’s (Ralph Truman) lands. The Emirs proclaim him “El Cid” (meaning “the lord” and swear allegiance to him. For this act of mercy, Don Rodrigo is accused of treason by Count Ordóñez (Raf Vallone).
When the charge is repeated in court, they are supported by Ximena’s father, Count Gormaz (Andrew Cruickshank), the king’s champion. Rodrigo’s aged father, Don Diego (Michael Hordern), once himself the champion, angrily calls Gormaz a liar. Gormaz strikes Don Diego with a glove, challenging him to a duel. Rodrigo asks Gormaz to come meet privately, begging him several times to “have pity” and instead ask Diego for forgiveness for accusing Rodrigo of treason. Gormaz refuses, and Rodrigo kills him in a duel, to which Ximena swears revenge. Rodrigo wins the approval of King Ferdinand, collecting tribute from Moorish vassals. On the death of Ferdinand, his younger son, Prince Alfonso (John Fraser), tells the elder son Prince Sancho (Gary Raymond), that Ferdinand divided the kingdom: Castile to Sancho, Asturias and León to Alfonso, and Calahorra to their sister, Princess Urraca (Geneviève Page). Sancho refuses to accept anything but an undivided kingdom as his birth right, knowing Ferdinand would have been manipulated by the treacherous Urraca. General Ibn Yusuf (Herbert Lom) takes note of the strife, and plots to push the siblings into war against one another that would allow him to take over all of Spain.
Heston lends himself well to the chivalrous, kind-hearted knight Rodrigo, you really believe in the righteous fury that drives him to keep justice in an unjust realm. Loren is captivating and electrifying as Ximena, having a similar graceful and spirited air of Catherine Zeta Jones in The Mask of Zorro about her. Raymond as Prince Sancho and Fraser as Alfonso both have an air of magisterial entitlement and self-importance, with Fraser showing a wider range with intense fury and moments of humility. Despite appearing for a short time, Truman puts on a fine figure of a king. Page is as manipulative and cold as she is beautiful as Doña Urraca, and her relationship with her brother Alfonso portrayed as rather toxic with hints towards incest. Cruickshank does well as the stubborn, temperamental, short-sighted Count Gormaz, and in contrast to him is Hordern as the proud but kindly old father of Rodrigo. Vallone shows a dynamic turn as a misguided knight with an initially untrustworthy character. Wilmer has gravitas and jovial charisma as Mu’tamin. Thring puts on a good show as a slippery Moorish lord. Lom has a tremendous voice and presence as General Ibn Yusuf, the fury and merciless nature in his eyes make him a fierce presence on screen.
The beautiful Romanesque palace and cathedral sets and real life location shoots are all top notch, capturing that romantic vision of the Middle Ages splendidly. The division of the filming on location in Spain and some studio work in Rome is virtually indistinguishable. The vast array of extras to play peasants, soldiers and knights is very impressive, and the cinematography by Robert Krasker does well to capture the vast Spanish plains and the beautiful city of Valencia. There is a camp and faintly dreamlike quality to the whole production, with its striking colours, its vast ensemble committing to their roles, and how much it commits to its hero as a paragon of virtue and strength. You could not see a film this unabashedly romantic in style and approach. The battle scenes in the latter half are played more for splendour and rousing spectacle, while still depicting the Spanish victory as a hard-won triumph. But what spectacles they are indeed, and the finale packs a definite punch as I effectively seals the legend of The Cid in one’s memory with its closing shot. Anthony Mann pulls of a gorgeous film with many pieces working together, and deserves credit for that.
A lot of effort was put into making the fight scenes engaging and truthful to the ideals of medieval chivalry and medieval war. The duel between Rodrigo and Gormaz has a mesmerizing flow and cadence to it, the lack of music for the first half allows for the clashing of steel to leave a greater impact. The jousting tournament is shot and edited at a face yet still reasonable pace, allowing you to soak in the classic medieval tourney imagery you associate with the era. However, it did lose me when Rodrigo managed to sustain using a saddle for a shield for a good period of time, coming across as unbelievable.
The score by Miklós Rózsa has a lovely Spanish flair to it with romantic guitars and oboes, emotional string quartets and mighty trumpet sections that soar as greatly as those in Ben-Hur, but can at times become a touch melodramatic for its own good when it matches the theatrical emotions of the characters. For the most part it conveys the emotions of the characters and the tension between them very well and is a vital aspect of the storytelling. On a simpler level, the rhythmic five-beat drumming of Ibn Yusuf’s army conveys fear and menace very effectively.
The script excels in building up the moral strength of Rodrigo in his legendary status as “The Cid” and the importance of a knight to be all things a knight can be in order to inspire men and move kings to do great things for their realms. This is similar to the appeal of Moses as a man who could believably inspire thousands of men in The Ten Commandments. However, there is some problems with this; after Rodrigo has killed Gormaz in a duel to the death he still tries to win back Ximena’s affection despite several instances where she’s made her hate for him clear, even to the point of requesting a marriage blessing from th eking. This is where the modern adage of “no means no” doesn’t carry any meaning in either this period or the mind-set with which this was written. There comes a point where you accept the melodrama and values dissonance for what it is, no more. But it is often uneven with the delivery of exposition or repetition of statements, such as Gormaz’s incessant need to remind us that he’s Ximena’s father. Writing flaws like that hold it back from a perfect score.
The Christian aspect of El Cid is prominently displayed in Rodrigo’s honour, sense of justice, and unyielding forgiveness, and holding that all men must be accountable for these aspects of life. Like Judah Ben-Hur and Moses, when he is pushed to his limit he comes close to breaking but the way he is able to recover himself when others are able to act according to their desire to see Spain free, inspired by his example. The portrayal of the Moors and Muslims in this film is somewhat unbalanced, as there are several who are portrayed as out and out bad guys and notable individuals who support Rodrigo’s mission to defend Spain from Ibn Yusuf. The black hosts of Ibn Yusuf are viewed as nothing less than a merciless enemy force bent on destruction. The strangeness of their alliance is pointed out by Mu’tamin as something that both Christians and Moors would call wrong. Ultimately, it’s in this unlikely unity between faiths that prevent fanaticism from laying waste to Spain. While well-intentioned, it’s not especially well fleshed out or developed to the point where you believe in the friendship between Rodrigo and Mu’tamin as much as one should.
The romance between Rodrigo and Ximena experiences many stages of life, from youthful infatuation, to hate-filled bitterness, and finally a sense of hard-won mutual respect and genuine love. For long stretches of their time together, Ximena hates him for the killing of her father, and this feels somewhat more truthful to the medieval world where arranged marriages dominated noble society and the ideal of courtly love was a matter of fantasy or childish play. Only when they are forced to abandon their places in the Castile court do they find freedom and peace, only for the Muslim invasion to shatter that again. It’s this dynamic turn of relationship dynamics and the ways in which the world intercedes that make the romance work and easy to root for.
While the details of historical accuracy in El Cid are highly debatable, there is no doubt that the romantic and chivalric spirit of medieval poetry is strongly distilled in this film. It is something of a unique film for being both a Hollywood epic set in medieval times before CGI would alter the course of historical film making in many ways, and it is worth checking out for its many merits. It might not be the strongest of Heston’s triad of epics, and certainly the least exposed of the bunch, but it does a great job commemorating the epic legend of Spain’s greatest knight.