Movie Monday: El Cid (1961)

If you have been following the blog long, you may have noticed that updates have been a little thin on the ground lately. That’s because I’ve been away, at the aforementioned Monstrous Antiquities conference. Basically, I am still screwing the top of my head back on, and am still prone to walking around exclaiming. In short, it was pretty good. I’ll be summing up the things that I learned over the next week, possibly involving some kind of diagram that includes Julie Schwarz, all of modern horror and lots of bits of string, like Jeffrey Combs in Justice League Unlimited. 

But not now, because today is, after all, Movie Monday! and our movie for this week is another billion-hour-long historical epic, Chuck Heston vehicle El Cid!


Now, as you may know, I both love and hate the Hollywood historical epic: love because they are big and beautiful and there are horses thundering across the landscape and castles and stuff, and hate because they are super creepy sexually speaking. I was going to call them “violent porn,” but actually that’s not right, because I believe that people are at least mostly OK with separating porn from reality, and certainly from dating advice, but I do think that portraying this kind of stuff as an idealised relationship is … well.

What double-grinds me about it is that mostly these types of things misuse the history in order to provide some image of a violent, more “natural” world where primal sweaty men lack modern scruples in a way that women are supposed to find attractive, and I just don’t know what to call it.


Ah, thanks, The School of Venus. I knew it was something like that.

So am I going to find this in El Cid? We’ll find out in a moment. But first, a little background.

The legendary hero El Cid was a real person, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar. He wasn’t known during his lifetime as “El Cid,” a term which comes from Arabic sayyid, “lord.” He does seem to have been known as the Campeador, or “Master of the Battlefield,” during his lifetime — he even signed his name with that title — and that sounds pretty hard all by itself. Most of the stories relating to El Cid come from a series of poems and stories written about him in the middle ages. There aren’t a huge number, which is one of the nice things about him. You could read all of the textual sources on a day where you had nothing else to do, or over a week where you had a couple of long train rides. At least one of them, Poem of the Cid, is available in Penguin.

The historical Cid fought in the 11th-century wars of the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain. These are conventionally called the Reconquista, or reconquest, even though that “re” is a bit of a cheek. It’s not like the Visigoths had been in Spain that long when Muslim invaders turfed them out, but “Reconquista” makes it sound like a grim resistance against invaders rather than conquering some kingdoms you had once held for a bit hundreds of years previously. Whatever.

Anyway, the interesting thing about El Cid (or maybe not so interesting) is that he fought for Christian states against Muslim ones, for Christian states against other Christian ones, and even for Muslim rulers. Borders and sides weren’t as clear-cut in the 11th century as you might expect. Anyway, the poems probably aren’t accurate about the historical Cid, but they give you some kind of idea of his badass reputation, and the contemporary sources give an outline of his career. It’ll do. Anyway, the film:

I watched this once before, on a really beat-up VHS copy that came from a public library during a period of unemployment. It was so dark that I didn’t really appreciate the film. In fact, it looks pretty good. It has all the things I like about the 50s-and-60s Hollywood epics, with the sumptuous colours and the big boomity-boom score and the horses and so on. And it’s got a good cast: I mean, say what you like about Heston, and I have, but he can act.

Now, we see the usual thing here, which is that you have the basic outline of the Cid legend: good relationships with Muslims, the enemy within, the marriage to Dona Jimena, working for Sancho but being on the outs with Alfonso. The love-story aspect is way played up, and it’s handled … interestingly. More on that in a minute.

Obviously, it’s a bit heavy-handed. The thing that really gets me is the first scene, where Chuck helps a priest whose church has been burned down and literally carries a cross.


And throughout the film there’s a lot of bravest-of-the-brave, truest-of-the-true stuff about him. And that’s consistent with the Cid stories, but it’s still a bit much. However, the film does portray how being that guy can really mess someone up. When he decides to not just shank his Muslim captives, the movie gives Rodrigo some really confused lines:

I’m not sure it was right … it happened strangely … Suddenly, I thought, why are we killing each other?

It’s a bit half-assed, but it does suggest that he is at least a little confused about what happens when you go against core societal tenets, whereas historical-movie heroes often act like they just travelled back from the 21st century and have never even heard of the society they grew up in.

That same kind of awkward inevitability of violence pervades the love story. So, Heston’s going to marry Sophia Loren, but when he’s accused of treason (for the aforementioned non-shanking) his dad defends him, insulting her dad in the process, and her dad slaps him in the mug, and one thing leads to another and before you know it he’s killed her dad. Paradoxically, this gets him back in the king’s good books, and he even agrees to let him marry her, but she is not having it, getting married to the guy who stabbed her beloved father.

So there’s all this doominess to it: you get the impression she still loves him, but he killed her dad. He doesn’t want to fight her dad, but he won’t apologise. And the dad even says he’d like to apologise to Michael Hordern (Chuck’s dad), but he doesn’t know how to. I mean, it’s pretty basic honour-tragedy stuff, but it’s nice to see some ambiguity about the stabbing.

So when they get married, Heston is just kind of bumbling around trying to make things right but kind of making them worse, Loren runs off to a nunnery, he does the force-kiss thing and she just backs off. It’s kind of great. Whereas in The Vikings and The Conqueror the sweaty leatherface kisses the girl and she initially hates it but then gives on, here she responds (because, you know, she did once love him) and then goes “wait, wait, no, you killed my dad”. Which is quite reasonable. And then he lets her go.

I’m not saying that makes him a great guy, it’s just nice to see a character in this thing acing like a fucked-up and confused human being instead of a leathery dickbot.

The main baddies in the film are the Almoravids, who are portrayed as loonbag religious extremists and contrasted with the moderate, reasonable Andalusian Muslims. That may be a grotesque oversimplification, but it’s always nice to see Herbert Lom in things, so I can’t complain.

The portrayal of the Muslim characters is … I want to say that it’s really good for 1961. By that I mean that they’re portrayed as humans, some good, some bad, and not automatically worthy of murderising. On the other hand, they still look like this:


So you can’t have everything.

The Spanish costumes are a bit more reasonable, although like a lot of films about the 11th century and earlier, they draw on later medieval designs and have a bunch of Hollywood fantasy in them. Some are so outrageous that they have to be authentic:

Hell yeah.
Hell yeah. Castille what.

There is some pretty good use of things like wall painting to help liven up the castles and whatnot:


So, yeah. It’s pretty OK. There are anachronisms, and there’s a lot of fantasy, but a lot of it is genuine medieval fantasy. For instance, one of the Cid poems calls Jimena’s father Gomez de Gormaz, while another calls him Count Diego of Oviedo. Neither is known to history. The movie calls him Gomez of Oviedo, which I think is kind of neat.

At two and a half hours, it really shows its length. Every so often, you wish that Charlton Heston would stop hitting the other guy on the sword and just get it over with. For the most part, though, it keeps the attention — a lot of stuff happens in it, which as you know is something I appreciate.

So yeah. I’m not sure if I rate it so highly because it shows a little bit of interest in the history, because it is as pro-not-having-racial-hatred as a 1961 film can be, because it is less sexually questionable than its predecessors or what, but I quite enjoyed it. When I do Movie Monday I usually have the movie open on one monitor while I work on the other one, and this week I kept finding myself getting caught up in the film and forgetting what I was doing, which is a good sign. Mind you, was also true for Becket, it’s just that that is an easy movie to get all of by just listening.

Tomorrow: ghouls and ghosts and what have you.

Movie Monday: El Cid (1961)

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