American literature is screwed up because our criticism is screwed up. Today's critics are unable to distinguish good art from bad art. They mistake artiness for art. The best art should have a foundation in life: roots in the fundamentals of human experience. You know-- out-of-fashion motifs like truth, honor, heroism, friendship, love, loyalty, conflict, and beauty.
In the 1961 film "El Cid," which I saw on a movie screen in New York City in July, a champion knight throws a gauntlet loudly onto a castle floor. In the same way, I here throw down a gauntlet and claim that "El Cid," as a movie, as film, as art, is better than all but a handful of motion pictures ever made.
An absurdity? An impossible case to make?
Most classic movies today are viewed on some form of video, which skews the artistic experience. The artwork is thrown out of balance. A movie is intended to be larger-than-life, with images blown-up on a large screen. The compositions, proportions, sound, acting, even the texture of film, are thrown off when the film isn't viewed as film, as a movie. This is one reason I can think of for the faulty judgement of film critics-- unless something else is going on. A movie has to be viewed as a movie-- with an understanding of what a movie is; the nature of the art. (At its most basic, the conjunction of photography and sound.)
CRITICISM IS PROPAGANDA
"El Cid" played for one day, two showings, at New York City's Film Forum. Meanwhile, "Breathless," another classic, has been shown for seven weeks. This is because, as with literary stories, there's a built-in brainwashed audience. For fifty years "Breathless" has been hailed by film critics and in universities as a great work of movie art. Which it may well be-- but "El Cid" is better, as a movie, as a viewing experience, as art. In addition, it's a more intelligent film, with more for an intelligent person to think about. Given our post 9/11 world, there is much in "El Cid" to think about. It's more relevant today, by far, than when it came out.
More important is the viewing impact, which is tremendous, and can be fully sensed only if the 70mm epic is viewed on a movie screen.
There's a scene toward the end, briefly showing the torture of a major character, when members of the audience audibly gasped. A standard "movie" moment which can be experienced only when the film is viewed as a movie. A better example is right before the end, when the Cid on his steed rides out of the Valencia gates in a blaze of sunlight. This is one of the most beautiful single shots in movie history-- no way would it have the same impact if not experienced properly; and so without seeing it properly, the overall film wouldn't be assessed properly. That one shot alone, for a film buff, is worth the price of admission. It's a strikingly beautiful moment within a strikingly beautiful movie.
"El Cid" is set in medieval Spain-- yet with the first scene the audience is as much in our own 2010 world. The setting is at the shore of North Africa. A black-robed religious fanatic is lecturing an array of Spanish emirs-- moderate Muslims-- on the true nature of their faith. Within minutes we're plunged into an ideological argument of a kind that may be taking place in some quarters of the world, or even our own country, today. The fanatic is named Ben Yussuf-- yet might as well be named Bin Something-Else. The next scene is of smoking rubble; a gutted structure. I viewed the movie mere blocks from the World Trade Center. This is the beginning of the story.
The main character, Rodrigo, quickly gets into trouble with his fellow Christian Spaniards for following a path of moderation. Soon enough he's in exile. Spain's moderates, Christian and Moor, are caught between the vise of unwavering fanaticism on one side, unyielding stubbornness on the other. Rodrigo-- "the Cid"-- pursues a middle path. Is this the path to take today regarding the so-called "clash of civilizations"? We are at war this very moment over the same question ya know. This is why "El Cid" right now is a very relevant movie that should be widely viewed. Not solely because it's a stupendously exciting movie-- but because its questions are our questions.
STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS
"Can a man live without honor?"
This is a question without meaning to our nation's intellectual class, to whom all is conditional, and their only eternal truth is that there are no eternal truths.
Yet it's a question which obsesses "El Cid"'s hero, Rodrigo, played by Charlton Heston. Moderate though he is, he's no less a warrior, no less imbued with the knight's code, than the two Spanish champions he kills. The first, his lover Chimene's father, is a rigid ideologue. The second, Don Martin, is a professional killer. Neither is capable of a strategic vision of Spain. They are the two strongest men in Christian Spain, yet are inadequate to face the threat of Ben Yussuf.
The young king, Alfonso, has neither vision nor strength. There are three main storylines to "El Cid." One is the battle for Spain between Christians and Moors. The second is the love story of Rodrigo and Chimene, which isn't much about love when all is said and done, but something more. The third storyline is the education of a king, who begins the movie as a weak and neurotic prince, but by the end is able to credibly speak the film's final powerful sentence.
Setting the storylines into action is Ben Yussuf, who is fully Bin Laden's "strong horse"; for whom all questions of strength and weakness have been resolved. He holds Spanish Moors in more contempt than he does the barbaric Christians he's come to conquer. An example of the movie's use of strong contrasts is when Ben Yussuf barges into the sybaritic salon of the soft Moorish prince who holds Valencia. Yussuf's eyes express all.
Underlying all the action in the film is the contrast of strength and weakness. The ultimate attraction between Rodrigo and Chimene is because they're the two strongest individuals within Christian Spain. As much as Chimene hates him, he's the only man who can live up to her image of her uber-strong father. Other men-- especially Alfonso-- she holds in contempt.
Which brings us to the film's love story. . . .
THE LOVE STORY
Chimene (Sophia Loren) spends much of the movie trying to get Rodrigo (Charlton Heston) killed. He explains to her that his killing of her father in a sword fight was a question of honor. She tells him that her avenging her father's death is also a question of honor. They're fully serious, and completely understand each other.
And so, at the big joust at which Rodrigo seeks to clear his name, Chimene asks his opponent to wear her color, which is "deepest black" for her state of mourning. After Rodrigo wins, handing her scarf back covered in blood, she then plots with a nobleman in love with her to ambush the new King's Champion. This plan fails when Rodrigo is rescued by his Moorish ally.
Chess move answering chess move, Rodrigo forces Chimene to marry him, using the legal pretext that he owes her his protection, having killed her father! She complies-- but denies him sex after the wedding; the only way she has left to get back at him.
Both individuals are locked into their code. Thwarting each other only serves to increase their mutual respect. They're equals, and know it-- are each other's perfect mate. When "The Cid" is banished into exile by the young king, Chimene, as Rodrigo's wife, decides to join him in his ignominy. The marriage, at long last, is consummated-- yet she quickly realizes this is temporary. As "the purest knight" he's forced to follow his code and rescue Spain from its opponents.
Honor is all. I think theirs is the deepest kind of love, because it's survived so many obstacles. At the end of the movie, when he's seriously wounded in battle, he has her promise that he'll lead the army, dead or alive, in the morning. The request has enormous poignancy because of all that's gone before. SHE is the one person he can count on-- the one person who understands why it's important he be there. She understands because she knows his code-- because it's been her code. They'd proven to each other in their cruel fights that they each know it. Honor is what the fights were about. It's a brutally harsh kind of love they share, which adds to the emotion of the film. I should add that for this relationship, for these two characters, Heston and Loren with their accompanying personas are perfectly cast.
Great art has resonance beyond itself. A great movie stays with you afterward for hours, even days. Maybe forever.
The experience of "El Cid" is rapturous because of its overwhelming sound and images, accompanied by a magnificent Miklos Rozsa score. Beyond this, the movie is unsettling in ways I can't fully describe.
In part it's Ben Yussef's sweeping screen-filling army with its thunderous drums. In part, the realistic one-on-one combats. In part, Ben Yussuf displaying the Spanish traitor he's about to insert into the Christians' midst. In part, without question, the strange bond of love-hate between Rodrigo and Chimene. Or maybe it's because the film portrays a world where there is no peace and there can be no peace; that in this tale of knights there is no Star Wars fairy-tale outcome. The strange, melancholy ending, better seen than described, is haunting.
Chimene (Sophia Loren) is the centerpiece of the Spanish camp. All the major men characters focus on her. (As does Alfonso's snarky sister, who appears both jealous and in awe of Chimene.)Note that both her father and her husband, at the moment of their deaths, cry out for Chimene. Both plead for her to follow their wishes afterward. After losing a battle to Ben Yussuf, it's to Chimene that King Alfonso flees. It's to her that he seeks to prove his courage. ("It takes more to be a king than courage," she tells him.) Alfonso imprisons her, holding her and her children as hostage to get the Cid to do his bidding. Rodrigo is about to abandon the siege of Valencia to go after her-- until she's freed by the Raf Vallone character, Ordonez, who lives only for her. She is the dominating personality of the narrative.
At the outset of the story, Alfonso is the weakest of the two princes, dominated by his sister Uracca (ably played by Genevieve Page). As the movie progresses he struggles to match the model Rodrigo sets for him. Rodrigo and Chimene have what seems to us absurd self-discipline-- which the weak king seeks to adopt. They are his antagonists but at the same time his role models. At the end he overcomes his preening self-involvment to join the Cid for the final battle. He's able to step into the Cid's spot.
THE RELIGIOUS CONFLICT
"El Cid" gives the viewer a great deal to consider: namely, the nature of the two great faiths whose clash is at the heart of the story. From the desert comes the primal Islamic faith in its purest version, or so Ben Yussuf assures us. Contrasted with this is the historic Islam known for its great intellectual and cultural accomplishments. Which is the genuine Islam? The pampered emirs appear unable to challenge Yussuf's voice of authority.
On the other side, remember that European Christianity was always a pagan-Christian hybrid. The Spanish knights have adopted the trappings of the religion, but remain in their behavior thoroughly Visigoths. Rodrigo's break with them comes when he begins behaving like a Christian, to the extent of forgiving his enemies after defeating them. He's not sure himself why he does so-- it happens after he encounters a burned-down church. Those he ends up forgiving include the Moor Moutamain; Ordonez; and Alfonso himself-- all who eventually come to his side. Rodrigo of course is the strongest knight, but also the farthest-seeing and most honorable.
I hope I've shown that this is a complex movie-- deeper in its themes than most films have been, yet the themes are well-blended to be inseparable from the artistry of sound and image and the momentum of the narrative. The Big Questions are addressed, including fate and destiny, how to live, life and death. Yet wait-- there's more to talk about.