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Review: El Cid

To say that El Cid is the most intelligent of the elephantine epics of the early ‘60s is to damn it with faint praise.

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El Cid
Photo: Allied Artists Pictures

To say that El Cid is the most intelligent of the elephantine epics of the early ‘60s is to damn it with faint praise; more useful to see it in conjunction with Man of the West as Anthony Mann’s summarization of the fierce sense of primeval bravery and morality which haunted the director’s great westerns. Mann’s medieval Spain is mythical where his American frontier is visceral, yet in both settings the protagonists find themselves dragged reluctantly into heroism. When Spanish knight Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (played by Charlton Heston at his most muscular) displays compassion during dark times and spares the lives of Moorish prisoners, the act both earns him the reverent title “El Cid” and brands him as a traitor. It is also the first step toward his ascension into legend, a journey of personal fate melding into national destiny that encompasses banishment, warring rulers, the clash between Christian and Moorish cultures, and the emotions of his beloved Jimena (Sophia Loren). While veterans like William Wyler and George Stevens let swollen pageantry swamp authorial vision in their own epic productions, Mann’s rigorous control keeps El Cid ruthlessly lean despite the vast landscapes and masses of people filling the widescreen: Interiors are composed like sprawling murals while battle sequences are shot through with austere clarity, both infused with the director’s astonishing moral intensity. If the picture lacks the stark weight of Man of the West, it’s because the narrative gives the main character less room for conflict; Heston’s El Cid is given a scar across his face, yet his unwavering nobleness pales next to the disturbing incipient brutality of Gary Cooper’s Link in the 1958 western. Nevertheless, there’s no denying El Cid’s lucid grandeur as it reaches its famous climax, a simultaneously triumphant and tragic portrait of the warrior as corpse that, like the best of Mann’s work, never neglects the human toll of heroism.

Cast: Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Raf Vallone, Geneviève Page, John Fraser, Gary Raymond, Hurd Hatfield, Massimo Serato, Frank Thring, Michael Hordern, Herbert Lom Director: Anthony Mann Screenwriter: Fredric M. Frank, Philip Yordan Distributor: Allied Artists Pictures Running Time: 188 min Rating: NR Year: 1961 Buy: Video

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