Release Date(s)1961 (March 2, 2023)
Studio(s)Samuel Bronston Productions/Dear Film (Happinet)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor's Note: This is a Region-Free Japanese Blu-ray import.]
In 1993, I attended what might have been the world re-premiere of El Cid (1961), director Anthony Mann’s great historical epic starring Charlton Heston. The venue was Hollywood’s famous Cinerama Dome Theater, and Heston himself was going to be there, to introduce the film.
Even better, Heston was positioned in the lobby just inside the theater, where he personally greeted each and every audience member, shaking their hands and sincerely thanking them for coming. Moreover, after greeting the iconic star, each ticket-buyer was given a personally autographed 8 x 10 black-and-white photo of Heston as El Cid. How classy was that?
Presented by Martin Scorsese and Miramax Films, large type on the poster billed it as a “fully restored version.” The excitement in the geodesic dome was palpable, but then the film began and my heart sank. It looked and sounded terrible. The image was soft and blotchy, with wildly inconsistent color, poor contrast and, equally bad, the audio, incredibly, was mono. As a film, El Cid is so good many in the audience forgave the egregious technical shortcomings, didn’t notice or care.
I have a lot more to say about the various subsequent home video versions of El Cid, including a newly remastered Japanese Blu-ray “from the original negative,” but first let’s recap the film:
“What a noble subject! If he had only a noble king.”
– Moutamin, on Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, El Cid
One of the best epics to come out of the roadshow era of the 1950s-early 1970s, El Cid is on the short list of big, BIG scale films to show as much intelligence as spectacle, one as intimate is it is grand.
El Cid follows the efforts of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston) to unite a divided 11th century Spain against the threat of fundamentalist Islamic Moors—and intolerant, petty Christian royals who put their personal pride ahead of Mother Spain. His loyalty is continually tested by rulers unworthy of his loyalty, while his bride-to-be, Chimene (Sophia Loren), cannot forgive him after he’s forced to kill her father, the King’s Champion.
Critics today generally acknowledge El Cid as one of the best films of its kind while dismissing Bronston’s other epics as empty-headed spectacle, but it’s really more complicated than that. Looking back on Bronston’s oeuvre now, under conditions that at least approximate their original roadshow presentations one can see that El Cid is generally magnificent but also slightly flawed, and that Bronston’s other epics are (often similarly) flawed but also magnificent. All are far more intelligent than the average Hollywood spectacle of the 1950s; even the John Wayne circus movie, despite some questionable casting (Claudia Cardinale as Wayne’s daughter?) offers impressively rich characterizations, particularly Wayne’s resentment toward his alcoholic ex-wife, played with unnerving authenticity by Rita Hayworth. 55 Days at Peking, like El Cid, grapples with cultural clashes, with an intelligence and subtlety sorely lacking in high concept films today. And like El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire transports viewers to a time and place rarely dramatized in movies, and with (for the time) an incredible level of authenticity and detail.
In his excellent introduction penned for an earlier DVD release, Martin Scorsese makes several good points, citing El Cid as a turning point in the industry’s move away from homegrown epics produced in and around Hollywood to big international productions shot in Europe with actors and locales from all over the continent, which in turn infused these productions with a different look and approach that markedly separated them from the ’50s-style CinemaScope epics produced by Fox and the other majors. (Perhaps only the filmed-in-California The War Lord, also starring Heston, managed to capture that Euro-feel without actually shooting abroad.) When it was new, audiences had never seen a movie about 11th century knights with so much authenticity, with real castles and swordfights where one could feel the full weight of the broadswords. In Hollywood films such weaponry was brandished about like fencing foils.
Like other Bronston admirers, he also points to the advantages of full-scale sets and thousands of extras, and how they carry a weight and texture impossible with CGI technology. It’s one thing to see 500,000 CGI troops storm a castle, and another to see 1/20th as many real costumed extras clambering over real sets.
Finally, he pinpoints Charlton Heston’s contribution to such films, as both a star-collaborator and for his larger-than-life performances. Scorsese writes, “There’s something truly monumental about Heston at his greatest—he doesn’t play it, but embodies it.” That’s exactly it: though classically trained actors on the stage were often called upon to express honor and loyalty, Heston better than anyone else had a remarkable capacity to, with a minimum of dialogue, express such complex emotions on film.
That’s really the heart of El Cid, the story of a just man in unjust times, a truly noble man serving a king not worthy of him. Perhaps the film resonates so strongly because it’s so heartbreaking to watch, to see Rodrigo’s misplaced devotion and the consequences of it, bearing witness to a man mistakenly assuming that his and King Alfonso’s aims—a united Spain—are one and the same. Heston later on would come to specialize in playing cynical antiheroes, the very antithesis of El Cid. He excelled at both kinds of parts, but here his performance is truly splendid. The stupid and selfish decisions of his king utterly confound him yet his devotion to a cause larger than himself remains unabated.
El Cid works best when it explores this paradox, less so with the much more conventional love story with Chimene. What people remember most about the film are outstanding scenes like Rodrigo’s rare act of defiance, forcing Alfonso to publicly swear before God that he had no part in the murder of his brother, not Loren’s Chimene pining away for her husband in exile in a convent.
She’s a much more conventional epic movie character, even unsympathetic in her selfishness in not wanting to share him with the rest of Spain. Over multiple viewings, however, I’ve come to appreciate even this aspect of the film, this notion expressed that, in a completely secular way that never borders on fantasy, El Cid is both mortal and immortal. His nobleness and fealty are almost superhuman, too much for one woman to keep for herself. Her character’s arc then is less about her love than her gradual realization that she must give him up.
Except for Heston and Loren, typical of this trend toward international productions that Scorsese alludes to, the cast is composed of excellent British and Continental actors whose lack of stateside marquee value is more than compensated by their verisimilitude. John Fraser’s Prince Alfonso is written just a bit too sniveling, but Genevieve Page is superb as his sister, the Princess Urraca, with whom he shares a (very vaguely) implied incestuous relationship. Another standout is Douglas Wilmer’s progressive Moor. His scenes with Heston are another highlight; they come to respect one another even as their intolerant leaders, on both sides, recklessly fuel Christian vs. Muslim hatred. Though Herbert Lom’s glowering, Conrad Veidt-esque Ben Yussuf was in 1961 terms little more than a convenient Hollywood villain promising death to all infidels (his forces, dressed in black, spill onto the beach of Valencia like a knocked-over bottle of India ink on an unspoiled blotter), it’s hard to imagine a character like Wilmer’s sympathetic one in this post 9/11 world of ours. When an angry mob demands his immediate execution in the opening scenes while Rodrigo insists upon setting him free, he asks them, “Do you want... to live in fear for the rest of your lives?”
For all the platitudes, El Cid has a few clunky moments. When Rodrigo and Chimene steal away a few hours of lovemaking in a barn, Heston finds a hundred admirers patiently waiting to cheer him on just outside. That neither of them would hear the obvious commotion suggests only that Rodrigo isn’t quite the crack soldier the film suggests he is. When Chimene is carted off to Alfonso’s dungeon, Count Ordonez (Raf Vallone) expresses the same surprise as the audience: “Even all these months in the dungeon haven’t marred your beauty!” Indeed, Loren’s character ages not a day over the course of the story’s 30-year span.
Still, the screenplay, credited to Philip Yordan and Fredric M. Frank, which was apparently completely rewritten by uncredited Blacklist victim Ben Barzman (with polishing by another Blacklistee, Bernie Gordon), continually impresses with its intelligence and taste. Champions of director Anthony Mann’s film noir and later Westerns often argue that his association with Bronston was ruinous to his career, but the film doesn’t bear this out. His widescreen compositions (with director of photography Robert Krasker) are beautifully composed; it’s the kind of film where you can almost select a frame at random, blow it up and hang it on your wall. Mann’s background in dark noirs and psychological Westerns meshes with this psychological portrait of El Cid surprisingly well.
El Cid was photographed in a widescreen process called Super Technirama. Technirama was basically the same as VistaVision: standard 35 mm film running through the camera horizontally, like a still camera, rather than the usual method in which film moves through the camera vertically. This allowed for a much larger amount of real estate on each exposed frame, 38 mm wide by 25.2 mm tall versus standard 35 mm film 22 mm wide by 16 mm tall. Technirama added a 1.5 anamorphic lens which, on 70 mm prints, resulted in a screen shape of 2.35:1. The image was incredibly sharp, bright, and steady. Excellent Blu-rays of Technirama films include Sayonara, The Big Country, The Vikings, Spartacus, and Zulu. Further, most of these original 70 mm prints offered impressive 6-track magnetic stereophonic sound.
El Cid should look and sound as splendid as those films, but the film I saw that evening in 1993 looked worse than an ordinary, mono film in grainy early CinemaScope. Later DVD and Blu-ray releases from Miramax and by other labels in other countries around the world sourced this same, rotten version of the film, though they did remix the film to stereo surround.
One explanation seems to be the complex chain-of-title to El Cid and several others produced by Samuel Bronston, including 55 Days at Peking and Circus World (both also released in Super Technirama) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (filmed in Ultra Panavision 70). The labyrinthine financing, in-fighting, and commercial failures of those later films led to the collapse of Bronston’s company in 1964, and for years all of those films looked pretty awful in TV airings and in all early home video presentations, including LaserDisc, DVD, and Blu-ray.
Those inferior video masters, and the poor quality of the 1993 re-release of El Cid, clearly help shaped popular opinion of those films. As the late Gene Siskel once wisely noted, “You can only see a movie for the first time once.” Even El Cid, which Scorsese rightly called “one of the greatest epic films ever,” received surprisingly mixed reviews, critics calling it “ridiculous,” “something of a chore [to sit through]” and “silly, inflated or crudely flat.”
In recent years, in some markets, genuinely restored versions of 55 Days at Peking and Circus World have turned up and, with high-def projectors and on large home theater screens especially, those unjustly maligned films are completely different films, particularly in terms of their pre-CGI production values. Bronston’s incredible recreation of early 20th century Peking (Beijing) full-scale, built outside Madrid, is positively staggering, the kind of thing that would be impossible to do today.
The honest-to-goodness restored versions of 55 Days and Circus World gave fans of such pictures hope that maybe, just maybe, the same good fortune might be bestowed upon El Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The new Japanese Blu-ray from Happinet, released in the wake of the same version in several European countries, is both a big improvement and disappointment at once. The image is sharper, some, with better and more consistent color and contrast (not completely gone, but less intrusive), but still a far cry from the eye-popping splendor of, say, the restored 55 Days at Peking. My best guess is that “from the original negative” is a bit of cheat; I’m certain the original Technirama camera negative was not the source, but rather the original 35 mm reduction negative. This is most evident in medium-wide shots of grouping of 10-30 people within a single frame; had the horizontal negative been sourced, you’d expect to see far more detail than this Blu-ray delivers. It’s a step up from past home video versions, but not enough. The overture, intermission (and entr’acte, billed as part of the intermission break) and exit music are included. The specific film elements are from a U.K. release by Rank. They include the 1989 copyright renewal notice and have unaltered screenplay credits.
The 1080p image is accompanied by three audio choices, a Dolby TrueHD 4.0 surround remix, a Dolby TrueHD 2.0 stereo mix (both in English), and a mono Japanese dubbed version, also presented in Dolby TrueHD. (Packaging notes this was from a TV Tokyo “Thursday Movie Theatre” broadcast. Audio reverts to English with Japanese subtitles for scenes that were cut for that airing.) All Japanese subtitles are optional, and the disc is Region “A” encoded, and thus playable on U.S. machines.
Extras include two trailers running a total of 4:00, and a new audio commentary with Bill Bronston, son of the producer.
And so, alas, the wait for a definitive El Cid continues, but this at least is not a travesty, and the best home video version of the film to date.
- Stuart Galbraith IV