El Cid

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 18, 2015

History is an infinitely complicated and contradictory thing. Historians, and maybe even more the layfolk that consult them, sometimes seek simple answers to historical questions. We want the essence, the meaning, the victor. And it can be true that clear conclusions are justifiably drawn from all of history’s actual back and forth. The Depression really was a big deal, and it flavoured most everything, for most everybody. WWII had some justice to it, which is to say that it needed to be fought. On the other hand they said the same about WWI, at the time and for a long time after. That is almost certainly not true.

Movies aren’t as important as the world, of course, but they reflect and sometimes inflect what’s going on in the world. They’re also sometimes subject to, subjected to our desires for simple accounts of what happened and what it means. Sometimes that simplicity corresponds to actuality. Fred and Ginger and Shirley Temple films were very closely bound up with the events of the Depression, especially in the US.

On the other hand, sometimes our desires for the straightforward cause us to get things wrong. For example:

For all the honours bestowed upon 1959’s film version of Ben Hur, we may perceive that at about this time wide-screen, cast-of-thousands period pictures were about to, were already going into decline. That’s partly valid. The 1953 introduction of the Cinemascope process, together with a number of other widescreen gages and formats, had really transformed the film experience for audiences all over the world. But like any technological development, any spiking and then running-its-course genre, large scale and epic productions were no longer as fresh and appealing as they once had been.

Charlton Heston’s reputation has taken a hit of late. There are reasons, and some of them have been visited upon the large-scale film productions with which he is quite properly associated.

Those two things have nothing to do with El Cid, and it is a shame that they might cause us to avoid or devalue it. Widescreen extravaganzas may be heading for a fall, and there are numerous examples of unfortunate-to-disastrous international film co-productions following each other off the cliffs at about this time. But Mann’s masterpiece—that’s what I said—is a whole other thing besides: a marvel of ambition and intelligence, its awesome expanse grounded in a fine sensitivity to dynastic and psychological subtlety.

Do you associate Heston with his emphatic to the point of ill-timed and strident defenses of the 2nd amendment of the US Constitution? (Though maybe it’s precisely for that that you love him…) Do you only know Mann because you heard that he got kicked off of Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus production, which the now more famous and favoured Stanley Kubrick then took over? Part of the record. Doesn’t matter—look at the evidence! Mann in particular was a director of enormous distinction, and in three very distinct genres. Exemplary films noir gave way to some of the finest Westerns in the history of the medium. Then, at the end, Mann indeed produced work on a very large scale. And with the same sharp discipline and intelligent clarity that attended what had gone before. (Save for an inadequate and unavoidable matter of casting, the same is absolutely true of Mann’s last epic film production, the remarkable, really underrated The Fall of the Roman Empire.)

The tale of the Cid is a combination of historical fact/s and mythological accretion. It is nuanced and outsized, at the same time. It’s noted, unbelievable conclusion could either be the height of ridiculousness, or the most moving kind of dutiful, sacrificial, noble. Mann and his film are on the right side of all of this. You might not have heard of it. Or, if you have, you might not have heard the right things. You oughta see it, I think.