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El Cid

Year: 1961
Production Co: Samuel Bronston Productions
Director: Anthony Mann
Writer: Fredric M Frank/Philip Yordan/Ben Barzman
Cast: Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Frank Thring

If you want to figure out what Hollywood's aesthetic mood was in a certain period, this movie – along with other epics like Cleopatra – takes the temperature of the industry and public tastes perfectly.

The next few years were the last gasp of old Hollywood before the young, hip, New Wave-inspired directors took over, paving the way for the USC Movie Brat era. But before that, this is what Hollywood was all about, and two images from the film perfectly encapsulate everything Anthony Mann (and the aspirations of many a Hollywood studio project at the time) were going for.

One is the rugged, iron jawed Charlton Heston and the exotic Mediterranean beauty of a young Sophia Loren, clasped in throes of passionate ecstasy, their eyes closed orgasmically even though their lips barely touch (however much that has to do with the fact that they reportedly got off on the wrong foot and hated each other throughout production is probably lost to history).

The other is the combined forces of Ibn Yusuf massed on the beach, ready to attack the fort city of Valencia. In the pre-digital era it would have taken the marshalling forces of an army to set up so many battalions, batteries, horses and soldiers, all in period dress, dragging giant trebuchets and carrying heavy armour and weapons.

It's intimacy and spectacle, the heartbreak of lovers divided and war swallowing up a country all in the same three hour epic complete with a musical prelude and an intermission.

All of which makes it sounds like a fantastic watch, but while it's certainly interesting for your continuing film education about styles and eras, you'll appreciate it more for the art direction, costuming and performance style than the story, however romantic and swashbuckling. It's also another historical example of casting that'd never fly today, of an American and an Italian playing Spanish nobles.

It's the (probably somewhat stylised) story of Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (Heston), who we meet on his way to marry Ximena (Loren), but is sidetracked when a town he's travelling through is attacked by armies of the North African Muslim leadership, which plans to dominate the world one step at a time and has all of Spain in its initial sights.

When he defeats the invaders but shows mercy on the Emirs in charge by letting them go instead of killing them, they swear allegiance to his wisdom and kindness and give him the moniker of the title (The Lord). But the Spanish King back home is convinced to brand Rodrigo a traitor for not executing the prisoners.

It leads to an escalating flow of cause and effect where he has to defend his honour by duelling his accuser, who happens to be Ximena's father, killing him and causing Ximena to renounce him. He finds himself in and out of favour with the crown after the benevolent king dies and leaves the throne to his squabbling, power-hungry and barely equipped children, all of whom cast Rodrigo to the winds of fate. He's exiled, bought back form exile, pressed into service in battle and back again, all while professing to still love Ximena and trying to convince her she really loves him too.

It'd be interesting to read an accurate biography of his life and times and compare it to the movie – undoubtedly credited writers Philip Yordan, Fredric M Frank and Ben Barzman filtered it all through the necessary gloss of a Hollywood studio movie.

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