"El Cid": The Argument II

The problem with intellectuals is that their minds are constrained by their schooling. The longer and more intense the education, the more they're limited by the indoctrinated boundaries. For instance, they view literature-- or even a film like "El Cid"-- through the prism of theory. When the auteur theory was proposed by French intellectuals in the 1950s it was recognized as a flawed idea. In the decades since, however, it's been taught in academies, so it now has the presence of law. It's become an accepted fact. The same for postmodern mumbo-jumbo, which combines a grain of insight with layers of linguistic trash.

Because of theory, status quo intellectuals are unable to view art with fresh eyes and an open mind.

The original "Star Wars" created excitement when it was released in 1977 because it recaptured the magic of classic movies, of which "El Cid" is the fullest and purest example. George Lucas understood the nature of movie art-- the movie-as-a-movie-- and so was able to use every movie attribute. Lucas knew that the wide screen is a canvas and also a stage, and used it accordingly. "Star Wars" uses sets, costumes, stances, gestures, entrances, speeches, amid the conflict of good and evil, in order to lend drama to the happenings. The large screen is completely utilized, from the movement of fighter jets and colorful explosions, yet also set piece scenes with his characters. Sound is crucially important, from the squawking of Chewbacca to the humming sound of the laser weapons used in the final duel, to the rousing John Williams score. Lucas knew how to make a movie, exploiting that which film does well, which makes it unique as an art. The characters are weak, the themes silly, but it's a great experience from start to finish.

An underlying theme of the film "El Cid" is the idea of Politics as Theater. The character Ben Yussuf (Herbert Lom) is the consummate stage actor. His every appearance and speech is dramatic. His costume is foreboding. His eyes flash. His arm points while his voice reverberates over the sands. His power comes from his acting ability.

(It's difficult to watch this character, his costume, the way he speaks and enters a scene, and not see him as a direct influence on George Lucas's Darth Vader. Lucas transported "El Cid"'s knights and conflicts to a new setting, sanitized them a bit to make them ahistorical and harmless, but it's the same kind of movie.)
Ben Yussuf's understanding of the nature of theater is shown when he unwraps a new actor-- the Spanish traitor he's about to insert into his enemies' midst. The scene is disturbing because it reminds us that politics and history can be stage-managed.
As Ben Yussuf plots, the knight Rodrigo adopts the role history and legend have ordained for him: The Cid. His career is made through public display. Like Yussuf, Rodrigo always seems to be declaiming before an audience, which by the end of the movie reaches the size of a large army. The strength of the Cid and his force comes from the part he plays.

(Charlton Heston, who plays Rodrigo, was always a tad theatrical, as if when he jumped to films early in his career he was unable to leave the stage behind. The huge 70mm screen was an appropriate venue for him. He's an able match for Lom's Ben Yussuf.)

The joust-- a tremendously thrilling sequence-- is Rodrigo's first major performance. He revels in it, shown by his dramatic words to the head of the rival Spanish camp afterward.

In due time, Rodrigo becomes the role. There's no escape from it.

The theater of politics is best shown at the end of the film.

With art, sometimes we're most affected by what we're not allowed to see.

The Cid is dying. Chimene, the King, and the Cid's lieutenants are in the room with him. Has he expired?

The camera turns off. The next shot is of his army in the morning, waiting silently at the gate for its leader.

What we're not shown is what's happened in the interim. Chimene and the others have had only a few hours before daylight to get the play ready-- to get the Cid clothed in his armor and placed atop his horse. As with a stage play, we don't see what took place backstage: the frantic activity of preparation. Our minds fill the gap.

The army waits-- then we're given a quick glimpse backstage, the costumers and dressers putting the finishing touches on the star performer.

He's led to the front, on his snorting, clip-clopping horse. King Alfonso, after kissing a cross, draws his sword and shouts encouragement to the other players. The gates open. (The curtain rises.) In a blaze of light: the Cid. On stage. One final appearance. He's seemingly overcome death itself.

Powerful, powerful, powerful.

Ben Yussuf is beaten by a better actor, or at least, by a better prop.

The supporting cast of the movie “El Cid” is uniformly excellent. The producers drew particularly on talented British actors who knew how to say lines with meaning, and project personas in an epic setting and story.

One example is Christopher Rhodes in the small but crucial role of Don Martin, the champion knight who faces Rodrigo/Heston in a joust. Rhodes has a limited number of words to establish himself as a fitting, believable opponent for the hero. The Don Martin character has killed 27 men in one-on-one combat. The actor needs to reflect that. Rhodes does. He looks rugged, tough, yet intelligent, like a champion, and says his few lines with authority. He projects, through his bearing and expression, confidence bordering on arrogance. He’s believable as a sociopath, without for an instant appearing cartoonish—not an easy trick to pull off. Unlike, say, Alfonso or his brother Sancho, there’s no trace of neurosis; not a molecule of self-doubt about who he is and what he does. Rhodes is the embodiment of the Spanish Christian warrior, the type later known as the conquistadore. More important for the film: that he appears formidable builds anticipation for the conflict against Heston’s larger-than-life persona.

Action sequences in today’s movies are emotionally ineffective because there’s nothing realistic about them. They’re like video games—movement that dulls the senses more than engages them. More is less.

For instance, the combat between Achilles and Hector in “Troy” isn’t remotely believable. There’s a lot of jumping around that’d be more in place in a Chinese kung fu movie. Too many fight scenes show the influence of video games, cartoons, and pro wrestling.

The joust between Rodrigo and Don Martin in “El Cid” by comparison is utterly involving and exciting. Great pageantry sets up the fight. Once it begins there’s not a wasted second—both combatants fight with complete urgency. Nothing looks easy. Swinging around heavy broadswords wasn’t easy! The viewer senses their weight. The large screen puts you into the contest. You feel like one of the participants. The result is a thrilling movie experience.