In the 11th century Spain stands divided as separate kingdoms of Christians and Moors. On the way to his wedding, Spanish knight Rodrigo de Vivar (Charlton Heston) rides along to rescue a Castilian village from Moorish invaders roused by fanatical Jihadist Ben Yussuf. Though the people bay for the blood of captive emirs Moutamin (Douglas Wilmer) and El Kadir (Frank Thring), Rodrigo sees no sense in prolonging hatred between Christians and Muslims. He sets them free. In doing so he ends up accused of treason by Don Martin (Christopher Rhodes) who is not only the King of Spain's champion but also father of Rodrigo's beloved Jimena (Sophia Loren). Despite Rodrigo's pleas, Don Martin refuses to retract an insult to his father (Michael Hordern), forcing him into a duel in which the latter is slain though not before he makes Jimena swear she will take revenge. A contrite Rodrigo defends Castille in battle. He becomes the king's new champion but struggles to regain Jimena's love whilst embroiled in a power struggle between dishonourable Castilian princes Sancho (Gary Raymond), Alfonso (John Fraser) and manipulative Princess Urraca (Genevieve Page) and valourously defending Spain from the invaders.
Chivalry is a concept that today people either consider outdated or else so romantic it probably never existed in the first place. No story evokes the ideals of chivalry more beautifully than the legend of El Cid, whose heroism proved instrumental in the unification of Spain, brought to the screen in this colossal Samuel Bronston production directed by Anthony Mann. Bronston was the last producer still clinging on to the old-fashioned historical epic right up till his final production, French foreign legion adventure Fort Saganne (1984). Yet unlike the creaky Victorian values that define the epics of Cecil B. DeMille, Bronston's films have compelling political dimensions to go along with their chisel-jawed heroism and widescreen-filling spectacle. In addition Mann brings the same rigorous moral intelligence found in his many fantastic psychological westerns with James Stewart.
Screenwriters Philip Yordan (a regular Bronston collaborator), Ben Barzman and Frederic M. Frank (a favourite of De Mille's, this was his last film) pose the question: how can chivalry exist in an era defined by religious hatred, brutality, paranoia and Machiavellian politics. They find the answer in the actions of El Cid, a Moorish moniker bestowed on Rodrigo in recognition of his gallantry. As played by Charlton Heston, at his most stirringly monolithic, Rodrigo lets reason, conscience and simple human decency dictate his actions. This is how the filmmakers redefine chivalry as an ideal relevant to a modern secular audience. Though full of bombastic action set-pieces El Cid is far from a simplistic "kill all Arabs" tract. The film derides prejudice among Christians and Muslims alike. Portrayed in imposing fashion by a masked Herbert Lom, Ben Yusuf delivers the rallying cry echoed by subsequent generations of Jihadists. Never mind centuries of Islamic achievements in science, medicine and the arts, let's give all that up for endless war. Yet the Christian kings prove no more admirable with their blatant bickering and treachery. Although the filmmakers' sympathies lie foremost with the Christian cause, the plot follows the lead of hits hero. Sensing the futility in blind hatred that can end only in mutual destruction, Rodrigo looks to forge some common ground, forging treaties and turning enemies into allies ("We have so much to give each other").
Shot in sweeping Super 70mm film this sees Mann fill the screen with grandiose pageantry and action staged by the legendary Yakima Canutt. The stunt-work is incredible (look out for the scene with a stuntman knocked flat by a charging horse) and the sword-fights more visceral than those found in swashbucklers with Errol Flynn or Burt Lancaster from a few years before. You feel the blunt force trauma from every blow, pointing the way towards the unflinching violence of modern Medieval epics by Ridley Scott. Yet interwoven with all this thrilling Boy's Own stuff the complex script delves into the murky business of Medieval politics. Motivated by a lust for power and glory, Sancho and Alfonso compete and conspire against each other, in one instance sharing a knife fight right in front of their late father's funeral! Through it all Rodrigo remains miraculously pure thanks to his abiding love for Jimena, albeit conflicted by his loyalty to the crown - no matter who wears it. By turn he tries to mould Sancho then Alfonso into a noble king who will govern fairly and wisely. His attempts to lead by example see him let down time and again yet his chivalry inspires enemies to become better men, whether the initially devious Count Ordonez (Raf Vallone) or indeed Alfonso, so compellingly played by John Fraser. In many ways this is as much his story as the story of El Cid given the plot charts his gradual realization of what it means to be chivalrous.
An outstanding cast invest the admittedly florid dialogue with utmost conviction and characterizations that can genuinely move viewers to tears. Fresh off an Oscar win for Two Women (1961), a ravishing Sophia Loren goes at her role full-throttle. She runs the gamut from girlish glee to vengeful harpy and eventually devoted wife instrumental in enacting the scenario that makes El Cid a legend. Some feel the romance stifles the action. It comes down to personal taste but the fact is the heartfelt love story counterbalances the machismo with some human warmth. What is more, one can consider Jimena the allegorical embodiment of Spain herself with whom Rodrigo shares an equally tempestuous relationship before winning her over to his side. Mann paints in broad strokes for sure but the depth, passion, poetry and scope of the story is no less sincere nor impressive. El Cid is a film of operatic, affecting moments: the royal assassination ("I was almost a king, wasn't I?"); Rodrigo humbling Alfonso at his own coronation in front of thousands when he slams his hand on the Holy Bible, then later insisting "my king does not kneel" before a visibly contrite and moved monarch; embracing Moutamin as their armies cheer on either side of the river; the siege of Valencia won without bloodshed but bombarding the starving citizens with bread; his gallant refusal of the crown that he sends to Alfonso even though the king holds his family hostage. And of course that unforgettable finale. This is a textbook example of an intelligent, provocative, romantic, above all exciting costume adventure epic.