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El Cid

Miriam Collection/Genius Products

By Michael S. Gant

Thanks to producer Samuel Bronston's creative financing schemes and marriage of convenience with Franco's government, the 1961 epic El Cid boasts the legendary "cast of thousands." Calling on the Spanish military, director Anthony Mann could marshal vast troops of costumed soldiers for his set pieces. At its best, this tale of the legendary medieval general (Charlton Heston) uniting the Christian and "good Moor" princedoms of Spain against the "bad African Moors," offers tableau spectacle in 70 mm Technirama. Long lines of shield-bearers pose against rocky vistas overseen by Romanesque castles; one impressive background sprouts weird spindly, branchless trees. The siege of Valencia peaks with a splendid tracking shot past legions massing along the curving coast of the Mediterranean; it puts 300 to shame, because it's all real, not CGI. Unfortunately, the film suffers from a kind of historical bloat that renders it surprisingly static. El Cid's path into legend begins with an offscreen battle; he stabs the father of his bride, Jimena (Sophia Loren), out of sight behind a staircase; a perilous escape from the king's dungeon is elided by a jump-cut to freedom; the comic-villain Moors (led by Herbert Lom in dark pancake makeup) keep threatening to invade but take years to actually show up. The print is gorgeous, and the special features are particularly strong: insightful documentaries on Bronston, Mann, Golden Age composer Miklos Rozsa and the restoration process. Third screenwriter Ben Barzman's wife, Norma, provides some hilarious anecdotes—Heston and Loren couldn't stand each other, which explains why their clinches appear so stiff; in the barn scene, Heston refused to even look at Loren. I recommend the Collector's Edition, which comes with an El Cid comic book, postcard-size stills and, best of all, a reproduction of the original souvenir program book, handed out back in the days when movies were events and not multiplex fodder. (Michael S. Gant)

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