DVD: 'El Cid': Old-School Epic Maintains Its Edge

They don't make 'em like they used to.

That, at first glance, is pretty much the point of Tuesday's DVD release of the 1961 classic "El Cid" ($24.95 for the deluxe edition; $39.92 for the limited collector's edition, which includes production stills, a souvenir program and comic book). With such coolly digital cartoons as "Beowulf" and "300" filling the modern multiplex, maybe we need a little reminding of how they USED to do action flicks in the good old days. Starring Charlton Heston as 11th-century Spanish knight Rodrigo de Bivar, this multi-Oscar-nominated film is nothing if not epic.

"This is what it looks like when you really, really build those sets and put folks out there," says film historian Neal M. Rosendorf in one of the DVD's several extras.

He's right, of course, to lament the computer-generated "crutch" relied on by so many contemporary moviemakers. About 30,000 costumes were made for the cast of "El Cid," which included extras from the Spanish army outfitted in leather and armor for the film's climactic battle scene. You know what? You may not be able to see every stitch, but you can feel them up there on screen.

Aside from nostalgia for old-school moviemaking, though, could there be another reason Weinstein Co. decided to make this particular title, at this particular point in time, its first offering in the Miriam Collection? (Named for Bob and Harvey Weinstein's mother, the boutique label will specialize in classics, foreign films and modern favorites.) I think so. Call it the Al-Qaida Effect.

Set in a time of political upheaval, "El Cid" tells the story of a Spain torn by petty rivalries and shifting alliances between kings: European Christians on the one hand and Muslim Moors on the other. After a 3 1/2-minute orchestral overture that would have any modern audience pelting the screen with Raisinets, the film opens on a rabble-rousing speech by the firebrand African emir Ben Yussuf (a wild-eyed, turbaned Herbert Lom) as he marshals his Muslim forces for an invasion of Spain.

"The prophet has commanded us to rule the world!," Ben Yussuf declaims. "Thus, the empire of the one god, the true god Allah will spread! First, across Spain, then across Europe, then the whole world!" Heavy-handed, to be sure, but there's no mistaking who the villain in this piece is ... or his resemblance to Osama bin Laden.

Interestingly, things aren't quite so black and white with our hero. This despite the fact that when Heston enters the frame as Rodrigo, we see little more than his bloody sword, fresh from killing Moors. Dubbed El Cid by his enemies in grudging admiration (after the Arabic term for "lord" or "leader"), he is, it turns out, a complex man for complex times. After sparing the life of two Muslim prisoners, Rodrigo is accused of treason by Count Ordonez (Raf Vallone), an emissary of the Christian King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman).

Where does Rodrigo's allegiance lie? With his Christian brethren or his new Muslim friends? The ambiguity quickly becomes the central theme of the film, which is subtle enough (and, some would say, enough ahead of its time) to acknowledge that not all questions of loyalty and honor can be resolved into Us vs. Them. It's an ambiguity that colors even the relationship between Rodrigo and his fiance, Chimeme (Sophia Loren), a woman who comes to hate Rodrigo after he, justifiably, kills her father in a duel.

Of the two parallel stories, the political one is ultimately more stirring than the personal, hampered by Heston's and Loren's wooden acting. (It doesn't help that the two stars couldn't stand each other, as we learn from a making-of featurette.) In the end, "El Cid" is a triumph of spectacle over emotion, of sensation over sentiment. Which may make it not all that different from the computer-generated fare of today's Hollywood.


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