El Cid (1961)
Release Date: December 14th, 1961 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Anthony Mann Actors: Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Raf Vallone, Genevieve Page, John Fraser, Gary Raymond, Hurd Hatfield, Frank Thring, Herbert Lom
rom the introductory overture (by Miklos Rozsa), it’s evident that “El Cid” is going to be epic. And it doesn’t disappoint. With distinguished knights-in-shining-armor, tense swordfights, illustrious battles, damsels in distress, evil kings, calculating queens, and soaring music, “El Cid” encompasses everything audiences could hope for in a rousing historical biography.
In 1080 A.D., Rodrigo Diaz (Charlton Heston) lives by an honor that outweighs convenient principles, which leads him to set free a group of five enemy Moors on his way to Spain. The invading Moors are forever indebted to his mercy and justice and he is dubbed “El Cid” (the lord), but the King’s champion, Count Gormaz (Andrew Cruickshank), declares Rodrigo a traitor. When Rodrigo’s father stands up for him in court, his name is shamed, forcing Rodrigo to kill the Count in an attempt to preserve his reputation. Gormaz, however, is the father of Rodrigo’s true love Chimene (Sophia Loren), who now makes it her duty to see the Cid die. Distraught at the loss of his love, Diaz asks King Ferdinand to allow him to fight the neighboring king for the fate of the city of Calahorra. After besting the knight Don Martin (Christopher Rhodes), El Cid is granted the hand of Chimene in marriage, but her stubborn hatred causes her to leave him for a convent.
When Ferdinand dies, he leaves his kingdom to his three children, who all greedily scheme to rule the whole of Spain. Sancho (Gary Raymond) attempts to imprison Alfonso (John Fraser), who is later freed by El Cid, and Princess Urraca (Genevieve Page) eventually becomes a puppetmaster, distempering the court and orchestrating the assassination of Sancho so that Alfonso can claim the throne for himself. El Cid finds himself banned from the realm when he attempts to uproot the subversive assassination plot. Only after he has lost everything does Chimene realize that her life is not complete without Rodrigo, and opts to accompany him in exile.
The African warlord Ben Yussuf (Herbert Lom) takes advantage of the feuding leaders of Spain to begin his conquest of the land, first by attacking Valencia. Recruited once again by a huge army of faithful followers, El Cid must use all of his legendary bravery, courage, and war strategies to defeat the mighty Yussuf, all without the aid of King Alfonso, who condemns Cid for his use of unified Moorish leaders (who all find a common enemy in Yussuf).
Rodrigo is driven by a sense of honor that is perhaps indefinable when it crosses paths with happiness. Like Sir Thomas More in “A Man For All Seasons,” Cid is compelled to act according to righteousness and duty, even when those he assists plainly condemn his reasoning or could suffer from his actions. His integrity pressures him to cross the wrong people, often repeatedly, but luck, God, or a combination of both see that he serves as a deity to his own advocates. More unbelievable and yet cinematically beautiful is his relationship with Chimene, which, based on a similar sense of obligation, compels her to pursue his death, even though she is torn by love. But most fascinating of all is her eventual change of heart and their reuniting, after El Cid is banished from Spain due to a simple act of prideful virtue. All that he originally worked for to free his name from calumnies has vanished; but with Chimene by his side, he is left with the only thing that truly matters.
There are no wasted moments in “El Cid” – it starts right into the action from the opening scene and, despite its three-hour running time, keeps up interest and suspense with sequences of sweeping romance, gallant jousting, cliff-hanging sieges, and large-scale infantry skirmishes. Whirling flails, zinging arrows, treacherous assassins, and clanging swords are comparably regular visuals. While it is not a flawless film, “El Cid” captures the grandiose feel of other historical giants, deservedly taking its place alongside such award-winners as “Ben-Hur” and “Spartacus.”
– Mike Massie