One of the strengths of El Cid is its structure—the way it builds in theme and intensity, first to the intermission; then, quickly, to the final mammoth conflict between the forces of evil versus good; of intolerance versus light.
Part of the narrative’s appeal is Rodrigo’s insistence on thinking beyond the narrow limits of his fellow Christians. He understands that they need to join forces with moderate Muslims, if they’re ever to unite the peninsula.
Rodrigo bucks the system throughout, at high cost—culminating in his forced exile. He’s joined in that exile by his estranged wife, Chimene, which brings the personal, emotional part of the drama to a peak. Anthony Mann’s handling of this is masterful—the couple’s encounter with each other on a snowy night: a mystical moment when viewed on a giant movie screen. The elements are so much part of the scene, intimations of destiny and fate, we’re given a subliminal glimpse of the spiritual, which will be evoked again at the very end of the film. Rodrigo’s journey as “the purest knight” is physical, part of the political conflicts of his day, but also spiritual, as he allows himself to be utilized by a force greater than himself: the Christian God.
After they spend a night together in a barn, Rodrigo and Chimene realize they’ve been joined by a small army of followers willing to share their banishment. This army rides off, to thrilling Miklos Rozsa music, and the intermission begins. The first act is as exciting as any movie ever made—exciting dramatically, visually, and emotionally. yet much more remains. The conflict with Ben Yussef, prepared for from the film’s first moments, will now move into higher gear—and Rodrigo’s life will reach its final purpose and end, as the movie achieves final unity.
The lines of narrative—physical, personal, political, spiritual—move in unison, toward interim climaxes in the first act, then toward the larger climax of a final, Armageddon-like battle, through which Rodrigo, “The Cid,” achieves apotheosis as hero.
The movie is greater than others not solely in its surface elements of cinematography and sound (including the score), but also in its superstructure of narrative, and through narrative, theme.
The film’s larger meaning is civilizational. El Cid is a story of the battle of Western civilization—the creation of the world we still live in. That struggle to hang on to our glorious heritage goes on.