El Cid (1961)

17 08 2008

So for some strange reason, Anthony Mann transitioned from being the single best Western director of the 1950s to a maker of extravagant epic period-pieces such as this film in the 1960s. The “Mann sensibility” is still undeniably present here; in spite of the formalistic attitudes of many characters, the film is just as gritty and sweaty as Mann’s best work. The main problem here doesn’t even lie in the over-the-top performance of Charlton Heston, or anyone else, but just in the film’s overall pacing. Oddly enough, the story breezes by rather quickly for the first two and a half hours, but the last thirty minutes seem painfully drawn out. The way in which the film drags to its finale is all the more disappointing since it is coming from Anthony Mann, perhaps the single most “no-bullshit” director of all-time.

The title character, El Cid, is the central focus and we are introduced to him while he is in the middle of capturing two prisoners. While the government expects the death of these prisoners, Cid, being the compassionate person he is, lets them go. Once the Kingdom gets word of this, Cid is put on trial for treason. In the middle of this mix-up, he ends up murdering Gomez, the father of his lover, Chimene. To compensate for the loss of Gomez, Cid volunteers to be the King’s fighter. He is victorious in the following duel, but Chimene is still angry and she hatches a plot to kill Cid, which fails. The result is that Cid marries Chimene.

While it is easy to get tied up and distracted by all the surface-level appearance of El Cid, Mann manages to work his way around the “epic-ness” of the picture and make it come off fairly straightforward and intimately. The film’s scope covers a long period of time but it, for lack of a better description, makes sense in the long run. Cid’s relationship with Chimene is initially confusing, what with all the extreme changes in attitudes, but it begins to make sense once the audience begins to realize the repetitious nature of their loving and hating patterns. Unfortunately, that’s not to say that there is some deep character study brewing underneath the story (like there is in Mann’s westerns) but the relationships and the characters are well drawn for what they are. This is quite a lot, though, especially considering how prestigious and “serious” such content is intended to be.

On the more positive side, Mann’s visual eye is at its best here, with some of the most gorgeous compositions in his entire career on display. While one can argue that it is difficult not to make such a large-scale production look beautiful, Mann still does it in his usual intimate and greasy way. His attention to textures is always a wonderful thing to watch unfold, especially when said textures are captured as gorgeously as they are here. There are plenty of things wrong with this movie, but it is worthwhile experience to just sit back and appreciate on a purely visual level.

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