EL CID (Anthony Mann 1961)
Where has this flick been my whole life?
Well it just came out on DVD and like many of the forgotten epics of the pre-Lawrence Of Arabia era, I just never got around to it.
But, golly, I'm glad I finally caught up with it,
I mention Lean’s desert epic because in my mind, the depiction of of Lawrence's character is so much more complex then the depiction of other epic heroes (and yet even he in real life was more complex then the film revealed). And since, even though many comic-books have been disguised in epic clothing, yet because they have hundreds of extras and massive battles, some mistake these films for being important (Braveheart) and with no cartoony looking CGI effects (Kingdom Of Heaven). What a relief it was seeing a dude lead his troops into battle without first giving some rousing bullshit rah-rah speech.
I won’t try to explain the plot. I admit to not going in with much knowledge of the Era ('twas a time long ago when so-called Christians were massacring and conquering Moslems and other terrorists, er, what the? I mean protecting them from themselves). So it wasn’t always clear the who and when, to what could be a who’s-who of famous names to any Campeador Era buff.
Director Anthony Mann, who after a string of respectable B-crime flicks and near-noirs gained a filmafile following with his James Stewart ‘modern-hero’ westerns with '50s (The Far Country (1954), The Naked Spur (1953), Winchester '73 (1950) etc.). El Cid was his chance to out-epic Spartacus (1960) which he had just been fired from (replaced by the wonderkid Stanley Kubrick).
Even though I have a lot of admiration for Ben Hur and even more for the much maligned Cleopatra with gossip page darling (and wonderfully talented) Liz Taylor. There’s something about those Hollywood pre- Lawrence historical epics that reeks of phoniness.
Okay some smarty-pants types might question Charlton Heston being cast as an 11th century Spaniard (just years after being grossly miscast as a Mexican in Orson Welle’s otherwise brilliant Touch Of Evil). For me, he's perfect for the the part. Like TE Lawrence there’s an arrogance and self importance in these kinda heroic figures, and no one plays self-importance better then Chuck Heston did.
The Chuck gets a lot of shit from folks, because in recent years he’s gone insane and affectionately names his guns & all that crazy right-wing nutso crap he embraces. I wish Michael Moore (in his otherwise, right-on, Bowling For Columbine (2002)) when interviewing the demented ex-actor, had pointed out that The Chuck wasn’t always a-would-be-fascist. Did you know that The Chuck historically is credited with being the first Hollywood Honky to put his Southern box-office credibility on the line and march with MLK (it was considered risky, both socially and financially), he did this before more celebrated liberals Paul Newman & Marlon Brando jumped on board.
While actors of the era just before The Chuck who carried that stage voiced gravitis like Welles or Lawrence Olivier quickly aged into character actors, no other actor of his era (1950-) had that Shakespearian voiced, matinee idol looks, bigger then life persona to carry off being the savior of the human race (more then once) (okay maybe i’m exaggerating Richard Burton could of had Heston’s career but he was preoccupied) . In El Cid, he’s powerful, but his acting is not out of control. He’s flawed and sometimes weak. His Rodrigo’s nobility is grounded in a realism that the film overall evokes.
What really sets El Cid apart from the epics before it (Quo Vadis (1951), Ivanhoe (1952), The Robe (1953) etc.) is a sort of Euro-realism. The locations do not look like sets built in Southern California. The cinematography, shot by the great Robert Krasker (The Third Man (1949), Trapeze (1956) etc.) is not that CINERAMA bullshit, often seen in that period. The score by Miklos Rozsa (Double Indemnity (1944), Spellbound (1945), Lust For Life (1956) etc) is grand and epic, but there's something ‘off’ about it, as if to suggest yes, HEROIC... but flawed.
Did I mention Sophia? Though, The Chuck ages into some kinda wild haired Unibomber, as his long suffering wife, Sophia Loren, luckily is sparred the wrinkle make-up, Her Jimena never ages over, I guess, decades. And frankly, that’s a good thing. If I may be shallow, Sophia Loren in 1961 is at her apex of beauty, this is a year after her Oscar winning, monumental performance in Vittorio De Sica‘s Two Women (have you seen it? A must. A masterpiece. Loren’s performance an one all time great). And though Jimena starts off as possibly complicated she becomes a one dimensional mourner, but the role aside, I will now declare... Sophia Loren in 1961 is THE BEST LOOKING ACTRESS OF ALL TIME.
And back to The Chuck if I may.... When I was a little kid, he was my favorite (along with Roddy McDowall) based on The Planet Of The Apes (Schaffner 1968). Though by the 1980s his career as a leading man was over, his string of 70s flicks certainly appealed to a five-year-old movie-nerd, Flicks like like The Omega Man (Sagal 1971), Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973), Earthquake (Robson 1974), Airport 1975 (Smight 1974) and The Two-Minute Warning (Peerce 1976).
In the 60s besides the enormous hit El Cid, he went to bat and made / saved Peckinpah’s career with Major Dundee (1965). This less than ten-years after he fought the studios to let Welles direct Touch Of Evil.
So on screen or off, whether fighting for his guns or for his directors, Chuck Heston was bigger then life. El Cid is one of the key films that was big enough to contain the epic size of the guy.
UPDATE: Just watched all the making of supplements on the EL CID DVD. Worth watching.
Most disappointingly I learned The Chuck hated Sopia Loren because she made more then her (what a dork). He was a total dick to her. Man, I woulda been like “hey lets go run lines in my room” etc,. etc ...