The ‘International Epic’: El Cid (US-Italy 1961)

El Cid is currently available on BBC iPlayer (in a cropped form). I’m not sure why it’s there. I had assumed that it was an Easter offering like King of Kings (US 1961) and Barabbas (US-Italy 1961) but that’s not the case and it is available for a year according to iPlayer. I watched the film again for the first time in decades and I realised that it is a good representative example of international cinema at a particular moment in film history – and therefore an important title for this blog. It is classifiable as an ‘epic’ for two reasons, first as a sprawling action adventure and romance set in mediaeval Europe and secondly as an example of a film using 1950s technologies of widescreen and stereophonic sound to combat TV. Added to this, El Cid is not a ‘studio film’ and more precisely it fits into the cycle of independently-produced films made in Europe by Hollywood creatives in the 1950s and 1960s.

Charlton Heston as El Cid with Douglas Wilmer (right) as Emir Moutamin his Moorish ally

There is a great deal of information available on the Wikipedia page for the film so I’ll try not to repeat too much of it here. In 1960 Variety reported that the independent producer Samuel Bronston planned to make three ‘epic’ productions in Spain. These would become King of Kings, El Cid and 55 Days at Peking (1963). A fourth Spanish-based epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) would eventually bankrupt the producer. Across these four productions, Bronston hired many of the same personnel on more than one film. El Cid was arguably the most successful of the four in commercial and critical terms and it has some particularly interesting aspects as a production. In one sense there was nothing ‘new’ about the production of El Cid. Historical epics were first popularised in Italy with the spectacular film Cabiria in 1914. Producers associated with Hollywood had been making such films overseas since the 1920s but the 1950 production of Quo Vadis by MGM took over Cinecittà in Rome, one of the largest European studios, to create an English-language film. Succeeding American productions at the studio in the 1950s and early 1960s led to the description of ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ and more prosaically the use of the term ‘Runaway productions’. The aim was for Hollywood to make large scale productions for lower costs than in California, though eventually costs would escalate considerably. The studios were generally making fewer but ‘bigger’ films as audiences declined. These epics led to more ‘Roadshow releases’ with higher seat prices, for a more theatre-like experience.

Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren as Jimena

Bronston made two significant decisions. He based the production in Spain with only some interiors shot in Italy, but he co-produced the film with Dear Films of Italy which ultimately released its own Italian language version. He raised the rest of the budget himself and then sold distribution rights separately to Allied Artists in the US and the Rank Organisation in the UK and some parts of Europe. Allied Artists was the successor to Monogram in the US and it wasn’t a Hollywood studio (i.e. not part of the MPAA). The film was intended for roadshow exhibition in 70mm (in a 2.20:1 ratio) with stereo or a standard ‘Scope 2.35:1 and mono option. The capture format was Super Technirama and Eastmancolor/Technicolor. Bronston’s strategy included recognised Hollywood creatives in the form of Anthony Mann as director, Miklos Rosza for music, Robert Krasker for cinematography and Robert Lawrence as editor. Bronston himself had been born in the Russian Empire, Rosza in Austria-Hungary, Krasker in Australia and Lawrence in Canada. Only Mann was American-born. Yakima Canutt was Second Unit director (following his similar work on Ben Hur and Spartacus). The writers included Philip Yordan working on Fredric M. Frank’s script and later Ben Barzman. Barzman had been blacklisted in the McCarthy years and Yordan was often seen as a front for blacklisted writers. Bronston himself was a nephew of Leon Trotsky and it does seem odd that he and the writers were willing to work on a production shooting in Franco’s Spain.

Sphia Loren as Jimena and Raf Vallone as Count Ordóñez

The creative team was multinational and so were the cast. Sophia Loren and Raf Vallone were the two major Italian stars in the film. Genevieve Page was the French star and Charlton Heston as the ‘Cid’ with Hurd Hatfield in a minor role were the Americans. Most of the other main speaking roles went to British actors, including Herbert Lom, John Fraser, Gary Redmond, Douglas Wilmer, Ralph Truman and Andrew Cruikshank. The spectacle of the film was created by shooting in Spanish landscapes with an array of castles and literally ‘armies’ of extras from the Spanish military. Sets were dressed and costumes made with great attention to detail.

John Fraser as King Alfonso and Genevieve Page as his sister Princess Urraca

El Cid is the story of the eleventh century nobleman Rodrigo de Vivar from the Burgos district who became an heroic figure. He ignored the animosity of Christian kings and Moorish emirs in Spain and forged an alliance to prevent a new invasion from North Africa led by Ben Yussuf (Herbert Lom). This placed him in a difficult position re the court intrigues of the Kingdom of the Asturias, Léon and Castile and subsequently a difficult  romance and marriage to Jimena (Sophia Loren), the daughter of King Ferdinand’s champion knight. Rodrigo as ‘El Cid’ became a mythical hero in Spanish literature and song and the film narrative is accurate in most aspects of historical detail, though not the famous and memorable narrative conclusion. Made primarily for American and British audiences, most of whom who would know little of the history of mediaeval Spain, the narrative does not attempt to explain the historical background. The impression is given that El Cid helped to “drive the Moors from Spain” as some contributors to IMDb suggest. The so-called ‘Reconquista’, the ‘recovery’ of Spain as a Christian country in fact took several centuries from the eight to the fifteenth when the final Moorish emirate of Granada was taken in 1492, three hundred years after El Cid died. I was pleased to see that the set decoration for the walled city of Valencia (filmed at the 13th century castle of Peñíscola) shows the beautiful arches of Moorish architecture which in my eyes were to become despoiled by Christian ‘reconquerors’. The film is not so much about driving the Moors from Spain but more about trying to achieve peace and tolerance. However, this 1961 film betrays its Hollywood ideological roots by casting white British actors with brown make-up as the Moorish leaders, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Douglas Wilmer is very good as Moutamin the emir who becomes El Cid’s most loyal supporter. But Herbert Lom as Ben Yussef is so heavily typed as the evil invader with his black-clad army that he becomes almost cartoonish (a terrible fate for such an excellent actor and stalwart of British cinema since he arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1939).

Herbert Lom as the North African invader Ben Yussef

The world premiere of El Cid was held at the Metropole in Victoria outside London’s West End in December 1961. This was an old cinema acquired by Rank which was used to launch roadshow films and the film ran successfully for over a year, while it also rolled out to major cities and seaside resorts (which often played roadshows for several weeks in the summer). I think I saw it in the Summer of 1962 in a cinema which closed soon after El Cid‘s run. There seems to be some confusion over the length of the film. IMDb suggests ‘lost footage’ was restored in the 1993 work on the print. Monthly Film Bulletin suggests that the UK print from Rank was a 180 minutes and most records suggest that this was the length in Europe. The BBC version runs for 172 minutes which with a PAL speed-up equates to roughly 180 minutes. This version is, however, cropped to 16:9 (1.78:1) resulting in some odd compositions. I presume the TV version goes back to the early 2000s when cropping was still standard practice. I note that there are several, mainly European Blu-ray discs on offer and the running times seem to vary from 172 minutes to 182 or 188. This might explain the ‘lost 16 minutes’. All the discs use the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

El Cid’s army of Christians and Moors enters the Moorish city of Valencia behind the crucifix

The MFB review of the film is rather mean I think, arguing that El Cid is only marginally better than all the other epics. How does it look now. I’ve already indicated the now outdated practice of casting Europeans in dark make-up to represent Moors. I think the narrative is too loose and rambling to justify three hours and the romance element doesn’t really work. On the other hand Heston is undeniably ‘heroic’ and Loren is very beautiful. Reports suggest that she was paid $1 million for her limited days of filming. As far as I can see Bronston gambled correctly and she was the star in Europe, including in the UK where she was listed ahead of Heston and in news stories promoting the film. The triumph of the film is Krasker’s cinematography with its use of Spanish locations, including several real castles, and the action sequences involving the thousands of extras. On this score the film is more successful than the modern blockbusters relying on CGI. The critics of the time praised Rosza’s score but a TV set is not the place to judge and I didn’t really notice it. The one trick that is missed is the opportunity to  show that Islamic Al-Andalus (at its greatest extent covering most of present day Spain and Portugal) had been the centre of European civilisation up to the 10th century with Cordoba as the great centre of learning in the second largest city of Europe. I recommend a visit to the city now to see what the Christian kings did to the great mosque of Cordoba.

One comment

  1. keith1942

    I like the title and I usually enjoy Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren and Herbert Lom. But cropped? This means that over a third of the film is missing in this transfer! What is the point?

    Like

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