Now on DVD: "El Cid" (Mann, USA, 1961)

For a fan of Anthony Mann, but no scholar on the auteur, the move of the great American filmmaker from noirs through Westerns to something as utterly massive as El Cid (1961) is a bit hard to believe. Both Mann’s best noirs, like Reign of Terror (1949) and Raw Deal (1948), as well as his amazing revisionist Westerns, many starring James Stewart, like Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953), use expressionism large and small to open up interior states to the outside world. Whether this is in the German-style expressionism of John Alton’s noir photography—expressing paranoia and dislocation—or the more subtle expressionism of landscape that characterized the psychic trauma the director’s Westerns focused on, Mann carefully calibrated his cinematic world to the psychology of his protagonists. No matter the scope of the visuals, Mann made small films tuned to singular people.

Yet here is El Cid, a swords-and-sandals epic typical of the 1950s and early 1960s, when Cinemascope (here actually 70mm Super Technirama), international location shooting, and massive budgets tried to upstage the popular success of television. It is the story of a legendary Spanish knight who kept a splintering Spain together and repelled invading Muslim armies, sacrificing himself for the Christian nation. How could Mann find expression in this framework, swamped by the showmanship of the era? The answer is that he decided to tell not the psychology of his story visually, but rather visually tell the story itself. El Cid could nearly be a silent film. Abhorring the pageantry that so often accompanies such super-productions, Mann’s artistic crew—Robert Krasker’s photography, Veniero Colasanti and John Moore’s production design and costumes, and Maciek Piotrowski’s paintings and murals—create one of the most visually rich, tactile, voluptuous, and three-dimensional period piece ever recorded on film.

El Cid’s surface beauty is insurmountable, one built piece by piece from the actors up, a predecessor to the world-creation efforts of George Lucas and Peter Jackson. It is a style of colossal filmmaking centered on thinking of and then artistically executing every possible detail on screen in order to create a fantasy world that moves less like a plot and more like fate. It is moving from psychology-based storytelling to mythic storytelling, the move of the film not dynamic but an inevitability, calibrated and expressed by the production itself.

This is why Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren are the leads, actors whose cheekbones and sternness say everything about their characters, making their talks together practically superfluous. There are sacrifices to be made in such a style. The lovely Geneviève Page expresses a subtlety of character in her princess (and then queen) of Spain, a mix of motivations, desires, and malice, that the film’s scope cannot possibly focus on. Instead of subtlety, details explode in the beautiful, saturated color. Every detail in this film helps tell the audience the essence of each character, the implication of each action. In such a film humanity is played down for fantastic broad gestures, and the dialog becomes mere dressing to this materialist feast.

Even if motivations, psychology, and events themselves seem unclear—as is often the case in El Cid—who feels what and how we should feel for them is never in any doubt. Anthony Mann has still managed to extrapolate interior states to the exterior, only this time he is working not on the individual, psychological scale, but in the broad strokes of the mythic.

Design speaking for character, the confines of the arch, the pliable grace of the staircase. Sophia Loren, upon hearing her love, Charlton Heston, is a traitor.

Pictorial plot, the weight of the film’s inevitable history. The king, dead.

Moral judgment and historical fate in the darkness. A mission of assassination.

Sharp, insistent acting when necessary. The new king (John Fraser) forced by Heston to swear to God.

Moral weight pushing historical imperatives in one direction, the personal and the familial in the other. Heston, Loren, and their children, each in their own corner.

Splendor and isolation. The new king, alone with his sister (Geneviève Page).

Isolation changes to fruitfulness. The new king, given a new chance by the crown won by Heston.

Baroque production; history and appearance dwarfing the individual. Loren observes Heston’s last reassurance to his troops.

Chiaroscuro and graphic abstraction. The Islamic army at night march.

Gold, red, purple, and flesh. Heston on his deathbed.

Voluptuousness of texture, color, and shadow. Heston embraces the new king, who has been inspired by his example.

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