Saturday, October 29, 2011

Vintage Movies: El Cid

You will soon be a King: you must start to think like one. Any man can kill. Only a King can give life!  

What is heroism?

What place does mercy, let alone Christianity, have in war?

Where can I find a really good movie about people hitting each other with giant swords?

If you find yourself asking any of these questions, chances are that El Cid is just the movie you need to see. Forget BraveheartEl Cid is the knight-in-shining-armour-standing-up-against-tyrants-and-foreign-oppressors movie.

The movie is based on the life of Rodrigo Diaz, a Castilian knight and Spanish folk hero who successfully waged war on the Moors in Spain for many years, although dogged by Spanish infighting and betrayal. Charlton Heston plays Rodrigo, a man devoted to ideals bigger than himself. Convinced that fighting won't settle the disputes between Moors and Spaniards, Rodrigo frees an emir he has taken captive raiding a Christian village. This act wins him the Moor's respect, but lays him open to a charge of treason at the court of King Ferdinand and puts a stop to his wedding to the beautiful Jimena (Sophia Loren). It takes a hard-fought single combat to redeem his name and rise to fame as the King's own champion. But after King Ferdinand's death, Castile becomes the bait in a power struggle between the three unscrupulous heirs while a fresh invasion from Africa threatens to snuff them out altogether. Can Rodrigo fight off the Moors, earn Jimena's forgiveness, and serve a King of dubious morality with honour and loyalty? It might look difficult to anyone else, but for El Cid, integrity, honour, and bravery is all in a day's work.

This remarkable movie has been called the best ever on the subject of knights. It's a grand, sprawling epic with a somewhat episodic plotline, as all stories tend to have which cover an entire life. I wouldn't call it particularly historically accurate—the siege of Valencia, for example, did not play out in the way the movie depicts—and there are a couple of jarring attempts at multiculturalism. But these are not serious flaws and if the movie is mostly fiction, it's fiction that does what fiction does best: makes you love the truth. There are plenty of wonderful moments in this two-and-a-half-hour celebration of genuine heroism, from the feeding of Valencia to the oath in the town square to the wonderful little moment where El Cid defeats fourteen men single-handed and then explains that, if God is on his side, four hundred would not be too many.

A stirring tale of chivalry, love, war, and honour—El Cid is one of our favourite vintage movies and should not be overlooked. By way of parental advisory, I note that there is some medieval-style violence, handled discreetly, which may make the movie unsuitable for very young children.

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