Epic but plodding 'El Cid' is brought back to life, and it's still dead


There's a touch of Shelley's "Ozymandias" to the restore version of "El Cid," the gigantic 1961 epic with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren that opens with a thunder of drums and bombast today at the Charles. To see it alone in that theater, its gigaThere's a touch of Shelley's "Ozymandias" to the restored version of "El Cid," the gigantic 1961 epic with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren that opens with a thunder of drums and bombast today at the Charles. To see it alone in that theater, its gigantic crowd and battle scenes playing over a sea of empty seats, is to recall Ozymandias' proud boast on a scrap of ruined marble in a desert: "Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and Despair."

Today, the historical epic is as dead as Ozymandias' vanity and ambition. But once it was the mighty engine that drove Hollywood, the high-end, entirely respectable re-creation of ancient days and times with (usually) a trickle of liberal thought dribbling through it like a gruel of 10W-40 to keep it running.

In the case of "El Cid" that pipsqueak of humane sentiment, all but lost, is a cry for religious tolerance among men of good will, particularly in the face of threat from fundamentalist outsiders. Heston, noble of brow and cheekbone, sinewy of frame, plays the Spanish nobleman who, way back in the 11th century and in spite of opposition from the bigots of his time and place (including the king), forged an alliance with Moorish princes in order to fight off the invasion of an African-based Muslim fundamentalist sect led by one Ben Yussof, who turns out to be nobody less than Herbert Lom in mascara.

The movie checks in at 3 hours long, complete to overture and intermission, but that's OK because it feels longer. No epic was particularly light on its feet ("Spartacus" probably come closest), but even by the standards of its age "El Cid" was a slowpoke. Curiously enough, the director, Anthony Mann, was much better known for psychological realism than for this kind of thing. He started in film noir ("T-Men" is his masterpiece) and then had a distinguished career in a series of intense and neurotically vivid westerns with James Stewart, such as "The Man From Laramie."

Thus it's no surprise that when it's at its hugest, "El Cid" is most ridiculous. It's the processional movie of all time, with endless shots of columns of men on horses ranging across the rugged Spanish landscape or crowding into some ceremonial space to observe some portentous ritual or other. It's also a big message movie, in the sense that it's full of men riding up on horses, climbing down, and delivering a message like "The king is coming!" or "Pork barbecue for dinner!", then climbing on and riding off. Happens time after time after time.

Under the big political-historical story, there's a much more vivid personal one. "El Cid" -- Chuck's nickname, derived from the Arabic word for "studmuffin" -- has had to kill Sophia Loren's father. She is thus enjoined by the iron-clad code of medieval Hollywood plot necessity to hate him and seek his death. He still loves her, she still loves him. It's almost a film noir situation: a description of a dead-end, existentially doomed love, and it leads to some crackling emotional scenes between the two, as well as the movie's single best sustained sequence. This is a mano-a-mano to the death between Heston and another king's champion with lances, mace-and-chains, broadswords and finally those great, double-handed blades called claymores. Presumably, the fight was directed by second-unit director Yakima Canutt, one of the legendary stunt men of all times who became a great second-unit director.

Chaste and stately, "El Cid" hails from a time when the past was seen as essentially a storybook time -- no hint of dirt or squalor or the terrible nature of medieval battle wounds or disease, no hint of human waste or mud, pigs, cabbage or sweat. All that would come later, when Tony Richardson almost single-handedly re-invented the past in "Tom Jones," in 1964.

One kind word about Charlton Heston: Though his engagement in conservative politics and as an NRA spokesman has all but ruined his reputation in urbane culture, it's hard to imagine that these kinds of movies -- from "The Ten Commandments" onward to "The Agony and the Ecstasy" -- could have existed without him. Made to utter the most bogus quasi-medieval dialogue, he always managed to be professional and proficient and never to bump into the furniture. That's a much better epitaph than "Look ye mighty and despair."

"El Cid"

Starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren

Directed by Anthony Mann

Re-released by Miramax



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