El Cid - The Film

El Cid
Main title of the film
The film El Cid was one of the greatest spectacles of the cycle of epic films made from 1953-1965. It has both great admirers and bitter detractors. It has been called one of only two examples of films of the epic hero (the other being Alexander Nevsky. Others find it stodgy and lacking in character development. One viewpoint does not necessary contradict the other for a film that was portraying a medieval code of behavior and ethics. The film certainly has greater resonance today than when it was released, from the very first frame, which opens with the fundamentalist Yucef addressing the defeated Moors of Spain:
The Prophet has commanded us to rule the world. Where in all your land of Spain is the glory of Allah? When men speak of you the speak of poets, music-makers, doctors, scientists… Where are your warriors? You dare call yourselves sons of the Prophet? You have become - women!

Burn your books - make warriors of your poets - let your doctors invent new poisons for our arrows - let your scientists invent new war-machines. And then - Kill! Burn! Infidels live on your frontiers - encourage them to kill each other.

And when they are weak and torn - I will sweep up from Africa - and the empire of the One God - the True God - Allah - (Allah is the Master) - will spread - first across Spain - then across Europe - then - the whole World!

From then on, the drama is largely generated as a product of this jihad.

The Story

After the Yucef introduction and credits, the film opens with the Cid on the way to his wedding with Ximena. In a destroyed village he encounters prisoners captured in a recent battle between the Moors and Christians. Among these are Moutamin and Yahia, the Emirs of Saragossa and Valencia. He frees the Emirs based on their word to no longer wage war against King Fernando. They agree, and give him the honorific El Cid (My Lord) in recognition of his generosity. Garcia Ordonez (Ralf Valone) rides up during this exchange, and challenges the right of the Cid to make such a decision without the King of Castile's approval. Ordonez returns to stir up trouble at the court, while the Cid proceeds on to Ximena. But instead of a marriage, he finds himself on trial for treason for his release of the Emirs. In the ensuing brouhaha, the Cid's father is insulted by Ximena's father, Count Gormaz.

Gormaz is the greatest knight in Castile, the King's champion. The Cid ends up fighting Gormaz over the insult to his father, and kills him. A royal court is assembled to sort out the matter. King Ferdinand, his sons Sancho and Alfonso, and daughter Urraca, sit in judgment. Ximena pleads for a knight to revenge her father's death "…for as a woman, I am unable to do so myself…"

Before anyone can respond, King Ramiro of Aragon gallops into the throne room and challenges Ferdinand over possession of the city of Calahorra. It is agreed that a champion for each side will fight in single combat to determine the matter. The Cid asks to be Castile's champion - and the result of the joust will determine how God has judged his guilt in the matter of the Emirs and the death of Count Gormaz. Following some complex politicking between the two princes and Urraca, the Cid is selected as the champion.

The bout, an enormous spectacle staged by ace stuntman Yakim Cannutt and witnessed by a cast of thousands in medieval costume before the glorious castle of Belmonte, results in the Cid's victory. Afterwards Ordonez confesses his love to Ximena and vows to kill the Cid despite the outcome of the bout.

The Cid survives an ambush by Ordonez' henchmen, and discovers that it was plotted by Ximena and Ordonez. He still wants to go ahead with the marriage, and it is so ordered by Ferdinand. However on her wedding night Ximena tells the Cid that her revenge will be that the marriage will never be consummated.

The death of King Ferdinand results in byzantine strife between Sancho, Alfonso, and Urraca over the succession to the throne. Yucef sends an Islamist recruit on a suicide mission disguised as a Christian to assassinate Sancho and place the blame on Alfonso. This results in the Cid humbling King Alfonso at his coronation by forcing him to swear that he had nothing to do with the assassination of Sancho. As a result, King Alfonso exiles the Cid. Before his departure, Ximena is reconciled with the Cid, and he impregnates here before leaving her at a convent for safekeeping.

The Cid, together with other disaffected knights from Alfonso's realm, begins a career as a freebooter, at the same time maintaining good relations with the Muslim Emirs. Meanwhile Yucef has assembled a battle force and is challenging Alfonso's kingdom. He requests the Cid's assistance, but the Cid refuses when Alfonso rejects the use of the Emirs as allies against Yucef.

The Cid visits Ximena at the convent for the first time in years, and finds he has twin daughters. He tells her his next objective is to seize Valencia. In this manner he will have a place where they can live in peace. After the Cid's departure, Alfonso, in retreat from Yucef, discovers Ximena. He wishes to hold her and her daughters as hostages, but Ximena appeals to Ordonez. Out of his old love for her he arranges her secret release and takes her to the Cid.

The Cid takes Valencia after a bloody battle. But then he accepts the crown of the city not for himself, but for King Alfonso. This act results in reconciliation with the King.

Yucef's hordes regroup for a counterattack on the city. In the ensuing battle, the Cid is shot in the chest by an arrow. He returns, mortally wounded, to his palace within the besieged city's walls. In order to keep up morale for the next day's battle, he breaks off the arrow's shaft and shows himself to his soldiers and the people to dispel rumors that he has been wounded. He barely makes it back inside, collapses, and makes Ximena promise that dead, or alive, he will lead his knights in battle the next morning.

The Cid dies, and later that night Alfonso arrives with a relief force. The Cid's body is strapped to his horse, and led by Alfonso to the head of the combined Muslim and Christian forces. They sally out from the walls of Valencia, and with the Cid believed to be at their head, drive the Islamist forces, and Yucef, into the sea.

The Production

As is the case with most independent films, Bronston's productions were shambolic affairs - but on a suitably epic scale. He had to piece together funding from different sources. Funding usually dried up at some point during production when a backer didn't come through. Constraints might be imposed by a backer's conditions, resulting in the use of inappropriate actors or working locations. Bronston would put his people up in the most expensive accommodations one day, only to announce he was broke the next. Nevertheless he managed to recruit the best talent available both in front of and behind the cameras.

For El Cid Bronston recruited American-born director Anthony Mann. This choice has been controversial over the years. Mann's genre was the spectacular outdoor western (Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, The Man from the West). Some reviewers found his sensibility ideally suited to the film - a kind of Western in armor. Others, including star Charlton Heston, blamed El Cid's shortcomings primarily on the director:

It's an enormously impressive film, a beautiful film. I don't think El Cid is a great movie… if David Lean or William Wyler had directed it, it would have been a great movie… in visual terms, it's a beautiful film.. I bitterly regret the fact that it fell so short of its potential… one of the problems of that film, as with any epic film, is that they tend to be rather thin in their character development. They have so many characters to introduce, such a complexity of historical events to get through, that you tend to skim over or eliminate entirely the kind of scene that fills out the character. This is certainly one of the major faults of El Cid.
In 1959 the hottest Hollywood composer for the epic film was Hungarian-born Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa had just won the Academy Award for the monumental score for Ben Hur. He was under contract to MGM, but Bronston somehow convinced the management to release Rozsa to Bronston to score both King of Kings and El Cid.

The world's greatest expert on the Cid and medieval Spain, 92-year old Don Ramon Menendez Pidal, was consulted by the script writers, the composer, and the art directors. Pidal provided everything available on 11th Century music to Rozsa to assist him in composition of the score. The scholar gave the composer full access to his 10,000-book personal library. Pidal knew where every book was - only he had to ask his 70-year-old son to climb the ladders to fetch them. Rozsa's source materials included the 12th-Century Cantigas de Santa Maria and Spanish folk songs collected by Pedrell in the first years of the 20th Century. Bronston put Rozsa and his family up in a house in Madrid for the summer of 1960, and Rozsa, after soaking up the source materials and the lively, unique ambience of Spain, began composing.

All was not rosy from the composer's point of view. He was well into the score when Bronston informed him, that to fulfill funding requirements from the Italian government which was funding part of the picture, he would have to record the music in Rome. Not only that, but on the Italian print he would have to share composing credit with an Italian who had nothing to do with the score. Then MGM called and wanted Rozsa back to work on Mutiny on the Bounty. Rozsa went to Rome to record about half of the score, directing an orchestra drawn from four Italian symphony orchestras, a group which he found undisciplined and difficult to control. Recording the first hour of music for the film took ten days of struggle.

Later Rozsa clashed with the sound engineers during dubbing of the film at Shepperton Studios in Britain. They wanted to turn down or even eliminate his gorgeous score to emphasize the clash of swords and armor in the battle scenes. Rozsa was so infuriated at the result that he stalked out of the premiere and refused to do publicity for the film. Nevertheless, he later looked back at El Cid as his last great film score.

The Technirama photography was by Australian-born Robert Krasker, who also had extensive experience in the continental European milieu as well as filming in difficult conditions. He had worked as a camera operator on some of the Korda brother's elaborate color spectacles (such as The Four Feathers, filmed in Sudan in the 1930's!) and The Thief of Baghdad). He was co-cinematographer of Olivier's wartime epic Henry V. More to the point, he had rare prior experience in Spain, having photographed Alexander the Great there in 1955.

The preparations for El Cid would only be topped by Bronston's The Fall of the Roman Empire. In the battle of Valencia alone, 1,700 troops of the Spanish Army, 500 riders from Madrid's Municipal Honor Guard, and 3500 men from the province portrayed the clashing armies. 35 boats were modified to portray the Moorish fleet. No miniatures were used at any time in the film. Ten thousand costumes were prepared, and 7,000 extras were armed with medieval weapons. $40,000 went for jewelry for the nobility, and $150,000 was spent to reproduce medieval art objects that adorned the apartments. Finding the Cathedral of Burgos unsuitable due to later modifications, Bronston built his own full-size set of 11th Century Burgos, its Cathedral, and the palaces of the royalty.

For the intense, grueling joust for Calahorra, Heston underwent the most intense training of his life. In the mornings, he and the other cast members were directed by European fencing master Enzo Musemeci Greco in two hours of training in use of medieval weapons. This was followed by horseback training, an afternoon one-hour workout in the gym, and finally an aerobic walking program that gradually worked up to 8 kilometers a day. By the time filming had started, Heston had lost 5 kg and was "in the best shape of my entire career". The Calahorra sequence itself took five exhausting days to shoot.

The battle scenes at Valencia were choreographed by master Hollywood stuntman Yakima Canutt. These were filmed with the picturesque fortified city of Peniscola standing in for medieval Valencia.

El Cid (1961)


Texts via the Gutenberg Project
Commentary © Mark Wade, 2006.
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