Sunday, February 24, 2008

El Cid! Finally available (1961). Alliance Films, Tuesday the 26th. (********8/10)

There were certain roles in the history of movies that could be played only by Charlton Heston. Moses, Ben-Hur, Michaelangelo, and El Cid. Heston was never much of an actor when it came to emoting. He was quite the actor, however, when it came to puffing out his chest and speechifying. He was also very adept at looking heroic, twisting his face into furious and righteous anger, and talking justice with his deep, powerful voice and square, stoic chin. Very good stuff, these Heston epics. I'm going to go ahead and assume that everyone has seen The Ten Commandments, because it's all over TV at Easter time. I will also assume that everyone is aware of Ben-Hur, because it is one of those all-time classics that is on TV so often that it is difficult to miss. Perhaps the same goes for The Agony And The Ecstasy. And I will further make the assumption that virtually no one has seen El Cid, since I have never come across this epic on television or in the video store. The reason it hasn't been in the video store is that it was not available on DVD. Until this coming Tuesday. El Cid is being released by Alliance Films on DVD in a glorious three-disc set this coming Tuesday. And it is a must-have for any epic film buff.

This is one of those sets that comes with everything. A booklet detailing the massive preparations for shooting this massive epic. A comic book from the 60s that takes us through the entire El Cid movie, such that we don't even have to watch the film if we would rather take ten minutes to flip through a comic book. And it also has a written introduction to the film by Martin Scorcese, and a bunch of postcard-sized movie posters that nerds like me enjoy putting up on their walls. The El Cid posters are now up beside the similar ones I got in the special editions of The Good The Bad and The Ugly and To Kill A Mockingbird. The three-disc set includes some very cool special features - interviews, behind the scenes stuff, and an endurance-testing feature-length commentary. El Cid is more than three hours long, which means the commentary involves talking for more than three hours straight. That must have been tough.

El Cid is the true story of a Spanish hero named Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, who managed to unite Christian Spain with the Muslim Moors in order to repel an attack against Spain by an evil warlord, Ben Yussef (played wonderfully by Herbert Lom). It is the sort of role Heston was born to play, and the supporting cast is good as well. Watching a young Sophia Loren in the role of Heston's wife, as they go through a love-hate relationship, certainly lends credence to the idea that she really didn't start getting really hot until she hit her forties. Sure, she's attractive in this movie, but the Sophia Loren I think of is far better looking, and also far older. I could go through the rest of the excellent cast too, but there are way too many to mention. In the 60s, you see, there was no CGI, and therefore when you see a crowd of thousands of people, or a battle involving thousands of soldiers, it is actually thousands of actors and extras, and not computer-generated! And that really makes a difference, much as some technophiles would have us believe it does not. The musical score is terrific, and the panoramic battle scenes must be seen in HD or at the very least on a large television in widescreen.

El Cid is not quite the cinematic achievement that are some of Heston's other best works. It does not quite reach the heights of Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments. Director Anthony Mann, while he was a very capable director, never really lived up to his promise, and this may be his best film. (Also excellent were The Bend In The River and Winchester '73.) But really, El Cid bears the imprint of Saumel Bronston, the producer, as much if not more as it does the talents of Anthony Mann. Bronston followed up the massive production of El Cid with a few great films, such as King of Kings and The Fall of the Roman Empire, and for a few years was the king of the sweeping cinematic epic. Heston will always be the number one star of the biblical epic and this kind of gigantic film, but Mann will never be considered among the greats of the genre. That title could well go to David Lean, the man behind Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. (This run of three consecutive movies is likely unparallelled in the history of cinema. Perhaps only Francis Ford Coppola comes close, with The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather Part II.)

El Cid is not an all-time classic, but it certainly bears watching. And this three-disc set would be a fantastic addition to the collection of any true movie fanatic. Don't miss out - it gets released by Alliance Films on Tuesday.

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