Friday, February 8, 2008

EL CID (Samuel Bronston 1961) The Weinstein Company

With its impressive scope, mammouth production values, incredible assemblage of extras and magnificent orchestral score by Miklos Rosza, Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961) is one of the finest screen achievements ever realized; the rich amalgam of blended talents in front of and behind the camera that sadly, are as much of that bygone era in film-making as the fabled fortress walls of Moorish Spain. In size and spectacle, this is an epic that easily puts most others to shame.

There was little in producer Samuel Bronston’s past to suggest he would become the purveyor of such spectacular entertainment. Part loveable con artist/part beguiling showman, Bronston’s great gift to the entertainment world lay in the art of his persuasion. With financial investment from the DuPont Corporation and the full cooperation of the Spanish government (unprecedented access to its legion or extras and army reserves), Bronston’s movie empire achieved a level of independence and sophistication that must have generated sizable envy even from MGM.

The original idea for the film came from Bronston who, after two prior successes shot in Spain, felt the time had come to ground one of his projects with a uniquely Spanish story. While Bronston agreed upon the Cid as his topic, reportedly the original script by Frederic M. Frank was so bad that Sophia Loren refused to accept the assignment.

Asked to revise, writers Ben Barzman and Philip Yordan instead began anew and from scratch a scant four days before principle photography was set to commence. Whether the stress of this insurmountable deadline had anything to do with the brilliance of their final draft is difficult to say. As the pair wrote in a frenzy, a private messenger was delivering script pages daily to the set.

The story of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar – a.k.a. El Cid - had already been immortalized by French playwright, Pierre Comeille. In truth, Barzman and Yordan pilfered their entire first act for the film from Comeille. However, whereas the rest of Comeille’s work is prone to fanciful speculation, the final script is more faithful to the chronology of actual events.

Rodrigo (Charlton Heston) is a Castilian nobleman in the military service of King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman). After his political conquest of Valencia, Roderigo is deified by the people as a god-like warrior. But his victory is sullied when Ferdinand dies and one of his heirs, Prince Sancho (Gary Raymond) is murdered by accomplices loyal to his scheming sister, Princess Urraca (Genevieve Page). The surviving heir, Prince Alfonso (John Fraser) publicly releases Rodrigo of any wrong doing. However, Count Gormaz (Andrew Cruickshank) defiles Rodrigo’s reputation with a charge of high treason.

Rodrigo’s undoing materializes in the form of a woman, the sultry Lady Jimena Chimene (Sophia Loren) who is tormented by conflicting loyalties and her emotions for the Cid after the Cid murders her father - Gormaz in a tragic duel. To avenge Gormaz’s death, Jimena accepts a crude plan of murder/revenge by the enterprising Count Ordonez (Raf Vallone) who rightfully perceives the purity in Rodrigo’s motives as dangerous to his own scheme against the monarchy. In service to the murder plot, Don Martin of Aragon (Christopher Rhodes) challenges Rodrigo to a duel – actually a fixed bout – that fortunately does not end in Don’s favor.

Meanwhile, another of Urraca’s assassins, Dolfos (Fausto Tozzi) goes about the business of dismantling Rodrigo’s loyalty to Prince Alfonso. After refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the crown unless Alfonso publicly declares that he had no part in his brother’s death, Rodrigo is exiled from the kingdom. Humiliated, though not defeated, Rodrigo becomes a mercenary for other rulers around the world of both the Christian and Muslim faiths. He is successful beyond all ambition and is given the title ‘El Cid’ (loosely translated to ‘lord’). Jimena, realizing the error of her ways, reverts to her true love for Rodrigo and joins him in exile.

The climax of the film is bizarre yet fitting. Declaring war against Alfonso, Rodrigo is mortally wounded in battle but orders his guards to conceal the severity of his condition from all except his immediate council. They prepare for the siege on Valencia the following day. However, that night with Jimena at his side Rodrigo expires. His body is bolted into his armor and strapped onto his saddle the next morning; his corpse leading the valiant charge against the Moors with an ever-loyal following of armed forces riding proudly at his side.

Reportedly, Heston and Loren did not get on during the shoot. Known for being particularly rough on his leading ladies, Heston’s immediate displeasure with his co-star is rumored to have stemmed from a costume change that made Loren late to the set on the first day. It is also speculated that Loren’s formidable $1 million dollar salary – that dwarfed Heston’s payment for the film – also became a bone of contention between the two as filming progressed. Whatever the reasons, the tension behind the scenes added depth and spark to the tragic romantic sparring on film.

Over the years, due in large part to revolving rights issues, this Bronston classic – along with his three others (55 Days In Peking 1963, The Fall of the Roman Empire 1964, Circus World 1964) has remained largely hidden from public view. It is such a blessing for film lovers everywhere to have this engrossing masterwork has at long last make its debut on DVD.

The first release from The Miriam Collection; El Cid sparkles majestically in its anamorphic widescreen splendor. Colors are slightly dated, but for the most part spectacularly realized. The image overall is bright and crisp with a slight smattering of film grain. Edge effects are rare but present. Contrast levels have been superbly rendered. Flesh tones are more naturally realized than ever before. A stunning amount of fine detail is visible for a thoroughly satisfying image. The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Though dialogue sounds slightly strident, the formidable orchestral score by Miklos Rosza has been regally reproduced.

It is rare that a DVD’s extra features equal the filmic content. El Cid’s extras are an exception to the rule. A thoroughly engrossing audio commentary is just the beginning. On disc 2 we get a poignant 50 min. biography on producer Samuel Bronston, an equally moving 35 min. biography on Miklos Rosza, an 18 tribute to director Anthony Mann and a rather convoluted and confusing 7½ minute featurette on the film’s restoration. There’s also two theatrical trailers for El Cid, another for The Fall of the Roman Empire (presumably the next film to be released to DVD shortly) and two more trailers.

It should be pointed out that regardless of whether you purchase the 2-disc Edition or Limited Collector’s Edition the extra features included on both are identical. The Limited Collector’s Edition adds handsome beige and gold ‘box’ packaging, plus a beautifully reproduced original full color program, five lobby cards and the serialized comic of the film from Dell Publications. Bottom line: El Cid is a filmic experience like no other. In any language it is a masterpiece. This DVD comes highly recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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