Tagged: historical romance

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.

BIFF 2013 #12: Mughal-e-Azam (India 1960)

BIFF19logoThe second of Bradford’s presentation of some of the landmark films of Indian cinema, Mughal-e-Azam, is a little easier to write about than Kalpana, but only because it conforms to aspects of Hindi popular cinema. As a production it is out on its own. The print we watched on Pictureville Cinema’s big screen was the 195 minutes print held by the BFI and last screened widely during the BFI’s Imagine Asia season in 2002. The print was in pretty good condition and appeared to be colour stock. The mainly black and white image thus had that grey-blue appearance. There are two key sequences in the film in colour, one just before the Interval (which therefore had a colour title) and the other at the end of the film.

Mughal-e-Azam is perhaps best described as an epic ‘historical romance’. The gigantic production is reputed to have taken ten years or more to bring to the screen – so long in fact that Indian cinema had already begun its conversion to CinemaScope and Technicolor by the time it finally reached cinemas (this explains the black and white Academy ratio format with colour inserts). It was for a long time the most expensively produced in India and the money is certainly there on the screen. I’ve never seen studio sets quite as lavish as these. The story is set in the court of the third great Mughal Emperor, Akbar who ruled most of India from 1556 to 1605 (the empire would be at its most extensive under Araungzeb in the later 17th century). Many commentators have noted that this was roughly the same period as Elizabeth I in England and there is certainly an Elizabethan drama feel to the film’s narrative which deals with the Emperor’s unruly son Salim who is sent away to war at age 14 as a cure for his indolent lifestyle. On his return as a warrior he defies his father over his love for a ‘maid’ – a dancing girl in the court troupe. He refuses to give her up, claiming that his love is greater than his need for power or glory. But eventually he goes to war against his powerful father with all the consequences of family feuds amongst the powerful. The Emperor is played by the magnificent patriarch Prithviraj Kapoor, the father of Raj Kapoor. Dilip Kumar is Salim and the girl, re-named by the Emperor as Arkanali (‘pomegranate-blossom’) by the beautiful Madhubala. Salim’s mother the Rani (Queen) is played by Durga Khote.

The black & white Academy frame – avoiding 'colourisation' in the DVD.

The black & white Academy frame – avoiding ‘colourisation’ in the DVD.

It’s not difficult to see why the story – or at least the context since the film narrative is myth rather than historical fact – is so important in terms of Indian national identity. The film actually starts and ends with a map of India hovering over a model layout of an Indian landscape (strangely clunky in a film where set design is otherwise fantastic). The map seems to speak as ‘Hindustan’ about its history. Not only did Akbar reign successfully for so long but he also promoted at least the sense of religious tolerance. His marriage to a Rajput princess and the inclusion of Rajput warriors as his close advisers and guards allows the film to portray both Islamic and Hindu ceremonials and rituals. (The Rajputs were the great warrior caste of Hindu India and provided the majority of rulers of the ‘princely states’ in Northern India.)

In many ways this is the kind of narrative – and the kind of film – that were it a British or American film, I would probably avoid at all costs. Why then was I held for over three hours? I think it is a mixture of the exotic (no matter how global in outlook you wish to be, the exotic always has an allure), the spectacular (the sets in colour and with the myriad of reflecting mirrors are superior to anything else I’ve seen and many sets match the almost expressionist qualities of Kalpana), the beautiful dialogue (even in translation the Urdu poetry works), the history and the star performances. But above these, perhaps, is the music and the dancing. I think there are around a dozen songs – more than in contemporary Hindi cinema. By the end of the film I think I was hypnotised by Lata Mangeshkar’s singing and Madhubala’s dancing.