El Cid may have begun as another epic super-production for producer Samuel Bronston, but by the time the film had done the rounds in theatres all over the world, it had earned a fortune, and rewarded some of its key participants with the critical acclaim they either needed, or it was a nice bonus during their peak career years.
Charlton Heston, for example, was smack in the middle of his historical figure fetish, having appeared in the Oscar-winning Ben-Hur (1959) and in a string of period films that included The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), The War Lord (1965), and Khartoum (1966), whereas director Anthony Mann had just been fired from Spartacus by producer/star Kirk Douglas, and was still feeling lousy after the failure of Cimarron (1960), a misstep to critics who felt Mann's prior small-scale, character-based westerns with James Stewart demonstrated his best directorial skills, and his innate knack for contemporizing tired genres with strong visuals and fostering performances that transcended familiar genre archetypes.
To some extent, those who felt Mann was all-wrong for big epics must have been surprised by the elegance of El Cid, which told the story of Spain's 11th century unifier as he ran straight-on into a major Muslim-Christian conflict, became a hardened soldier through subsequent battles, and achieved immortality as a legendary figure who began to convince Moors and Christians to forge the beginnings of a Spanish nation.
Produced during the Cold War era, some have read various political threads within the film – a parable about people banding together against Communist regimes that were gobbling up or encroaching on the freedom of democratic nations – and the film does have strong resonance in a post 9/11 era where the story can be reinterpreted about the mounting conflicts between western cultures and a group of fanatics seeking to eradicate non-believers and infidels by any means necessary.
(Admittedly, the film's chief villain is a nasty Arab stereotype, and there's never any doubt most of the commanding Moors are played by white actors in brownface, with heavily exaggerated black circles under the eyes to ramp up their unpleasantness.)
Even with all that weighty subtext (including plenty of unsubtle Catholic imagery of El Cid being burdened by his faith and the local populace who need his aid, right in his first scene at a burning church) what makes this massive production still intimate and enduring is the love story between a man coming home to his bride, and the ugly events that weaken their trust and devotion until a reconciliation, and an unavoidable destiny beating loudly at the couple's front door soonafter.
Heston gives one of his best performances; he's less preachy than Ben-Hur, and while the character of El Cid isn't well-rounded, he offers plenty of subtle gestures that humanize the near-mythic figure. Loren gives her wan character more emotional depth than likely existed on paper, as Chimene is basically the devoted wife forced to watch from the sidelines as her man saves the world (although even in a black funeral habit, Loren maintains her hottie status).
Knowing Chimene's weak position in the narrative, the screenwriters added a dose of treachery (El Cid has a lethal duel with her father, hence the black habit) and a jilted lover (played by the wonderful Raf Vallone, then a spitting image of Tcheky Karyo) to spice up the first half of Act One, and mitigate a spectacular jousting sequence that forces the once-devoted lovers into marriage while still surrounded by a cloud of seething hatred.
Act Two, much like the second have of Lawrence of Arabia, is half the length of Act One, making it easier to sit through to the end, but the time leap between both halves is very jarring: taking place ten years later, a lot of things have to be assumed fast, and it's to Mann's credit that the scenes which open Act Two are measured in their pacing; it's still takes a few scenes to catch up with the timeline, but the move towards the siege at Valencia that occupies the finale isn't rushed, and it's free of the painfully padded contrivances that mar most of Rudolph Mate's dull 300 Spartans epic (final scene excepted).
El Cid is also one of Martin Scorsese's favourite films (hence the booklet notes and box quote) and when it was restored from withering elements for a spectacular 1993 theatrical release, theatergoers could see why this film, admittedly full of the cliches inherent to historical epics, deserves so many accolades (and really should be seen on the big screen).
Criterion assembled their own superb special edition of the film in 1996 for their final laserdisc release, but it's taken eleven years for El Cid to debut on DVD in North America. The DVD box art is a bit too boastful in proclaiming this to be its digital debut, as El Cid has been available on DVD in Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong for a while.
As is the case with many of Bronston's epics, the rights were pre-sold to various territories, resulting in other films currently available overseas but not in the U.S. and Canada, so this Region 1 debut will hopefully be followed by the remaining titles in the producer's catalogue.
Unlike prior DVD editions, each of El Cid's acts gets its own disc, which ensures a more dynamic picture and sound mix. The heavier extras are archived on Disc 2, whereas Disc 1 contains cast & crew bios, stills, and vintage audio interviews.
As was typical of the era's radio promo kits, a sheet of questions was provided to local radio personalities who would read them before playing related replies from an LP. For the DVD, each track is separately indexed, and the original questions appear as text over a revolving set of stills, followed by familiar, press-friendly responses.
In the first track, Heston discusses his familiarity with the Cid and the historical subject and American equivalent (which he cites as Andrew Jackson); Loren elaborates on the little-known Chimene and discusses aspects of her character; in the joint Heston-Loren interview, the former explains El Cid's name and his responsibility towards Spaniards in playing a beloved historical figure, while Loren furthers comments on Chimene's relationship with the Cid, and aspects of chivalry; and in the Heston husband & wife interview, the topics cover private and career lives, sacrifices, and the ideal wife for an actor (civilian vs. non-career actress wife).
In the Heston-Heston interview, both were recorded together, whereas one can wisely assume, based on the ‘difficult' working relationship between Heston and Loren during filming (plus Loren's record-making $1 million salary which allegedly bristled the older Heston), their replies are from separately conducted interviews edited and alternated on the LP to make it appear both are sitting happily together, quite delighted to chat about their roles.
If one listens to the feature-length commentary track with Bronston's son Bill and historian Neal M. Rosendorf, Ph.D. (currently writing a biography on Samuel Bronston) before delving into the meaty extras on Disc 2, the initial impression is one of a gloss-over. There's so little that's actually critical of the man; it's basically a low-key, amiable conversation that more or less focuses on filming in Franco's Spain; the film's immense promotional value for Franco and Bronston; and the film functioning as a perfect travelogue of ancient Spanish castles and landscapes awaiting rediscovery by the international community.
Rosendorf's familiarity is mostly with Samuel Bronston, so there's little deep insight on the careers of the actors or director Mann; both mention the essentials, but they just don't go deep enough, and it's rather tragic additional comments from select historians weren't edited into a rich 3-hour track, much in the way Criterion often crafts superb, broad narratives.
One highlight, however, has Bill Bronston recounting a simple call he made to A.M.P.A.S. (the Oscar folks), asking if perhaps they might be able to mention his father's recent passing at the next awards ceremony; after some deliberation they agreed, thereby starting an annual trend in paying tribute to recent luminaries and pioneers that have passed away.
“Hollywood Conquers Spain: The Making of El Cid”
The first featurette has Rosendorf, historian Jeanine Basinger, author Mel Martin (author of Magnificent Showman), and Norma Barzman (widow of uncredited co-writer Ben Barzman) giving a concise chronology of the film's shooting in gorgeous Spain where Bronston and Mann had access to 1500 castles of their choice, chunks of the Spanish army, and employed artisans who crafted stunningly detailed costumes, extraordinary sets, and amazing décor and props patterned after historical artifacts, including Heston's sword being forged using the same steel as the Cid's.
“Samuel Bronston: The Epic Journey of a Dreamer”
This is the best extra in the set because it covers a lot of ground in very frank details. Even if Rosendorf applies polite adjectives to describe Bronston's personality flaws and ‘liberal' financial planning, there's no gloss-over done by anyone; it also becomes clear that the DVD's commentary track was merely limited in scope and flawed due to the participants sharing far too many common interests and sympathies.
Covering his early years as a Russian émigré and his decision to establish a production center in Franco's Spain, it's undeniable Bronston was an enigmatic, colourful character whose life was comprised of colouful antics typical of the classic film pioneers of the twenties and thirties.
Bronston began as a hustler to help feed the family, and his knack for approaching unapproachable figures and extract funds came into a refined state during the fifties and sixties when he developed unique revenue systems without full studio backing: Pierre Dupont III was his primary benefactor; secondary monies came from the then-novel use of foreign pre-sales; and most incredibly, the third revenue stream came from reselling oil to Franco's government at a time when the country was considered a pariah by the international community; Bronston used his sales commissions to fund the films, and replenish his Dupont line of credit.
With an apparent working budget of $7.5 million per picture, partially funded by the success of Bronston's King of Kings, the revenues from the preceding productions funded the next, and El Cid's $24 million worth of profits helped finance the construction of what was then the largest film set, built for 55 Days in Peking [M] (the only movie for which we're not shown any film clips). That was soon followed by an even bigger, costlier set for The Fall of the Roman Empire, a film whose budget was estimated to run upwards of $28 million.
In 1963, Paul Lazarus proposed to help solve Bronston's financial woes by suggesting they make some quick exploitation films in Spain, but Bronston was clearly aware any connection with exploitive product would tarnish his image as a producer of family entertainment, and affect the type of refined spectacle associated with his name. Even when shooting El Cid, he allowed tourists to view from the sidelines to boost publicity and create a strong, ongoing buzz, with billboards proclaiming his name much in the way Otto Preminger has his name and the film title's logo (as with The Cardinal) plastered onto production vehicles.
Like Fox' Cleopatra, the monstrous budget of Roman Empire enabled many people to feed from Bronston's large financial trough, but after it ran dry and production had begun on Circus World (excerpted in the doc via a wrongly cropped 1.78:1 ratio), Bronston's chief benefactor, Pierre Dupont, said enough is enough, and pulled the plug.
Two productions announced by Bronston in 1964 were Paris 1900, written by Barzman and to have been directed by Vittorio De Sica; and The Nightrunners of Bengal, with Richard Fleischer as director. According to the DVD interviews, construction on sets for the former had begun, whereas the Criterion laserdisc (which we'll get into shortly) cites Nightrunners as having actually reached preproduction before the plug was pulled, and Paris 1900 being the film that never reaching anything beyond a trade announcement.
In the end, as had happened to many arm's length film investors, Dupont lost his fortune and credibility within the business community and the Dupont family. This fracture and Dupont's bitterness, according to biographer Rosendorf, led to Dupont foiling Bronston's repeated efforts to get back into business, and perhaps the most personal aspect of the doc is son Bill's characterization of his father's limitations outside of filmmaking: when not involved in producing, he was, as a family man and as a social being, a complete loss. Alzheimer's eventually claimed Samuel Bronston's life, and he died virtually penniless.
“Behind the Camera: Anthony Mann and El Cid”
The director tribute uses most of the archival bits, video, and audio materials present in the Criterion laserdisc (plus some rare behind-the-scenes colour footage not showcased separarely on the DVD), and it's a tight portrait of Mann with intro comments from writer Yordan, who met the director while his play, Anna Lucasta, was enjoying a three-year run in NYC.
There's some additional comments from Jeanine Basinger (including newly taped material), new material with Bronston biographer Paul C. Nagle, and great comments from daughter Nina Mann, who echoes the classic plight of having a celebrity or prominent Hollywood filmmaker as a parent: the relationship between child and parent was partial and distant, and Mann's films oddly became an extension of his persona, with which his daughter could reconcile prior misunderstandings as an adult.
Like the Criterion tribute to Mann, it ends rather abruptly with clips from his last interview, done for British TV shortly before his death while filming A Dandy in Aspic, a ‘character' and ‘contemporary realist' film he chose to make after the monstrous spectacle of Fall of the Roman Empire, and the WWII actioner, The Heroes of Telemark.
“Miklos Rozsa: Maestro of the Movies”
The DVD's composer tribute actually improves upon the Criterion version because of the moving personal anecdotes expressed by friends, associates, historians, family, and Rozsa himself.
Jeffrey Dane (author of Remembering Miklos Rozsa) covers the composer's early studies and his intro into film scoring, and there's an archival audio interview with the composer which allows us to hear Rozsa charming, graceful voice as he recalls Jacques Feyder's badgering him into scoring films when the composer had no interest in associating himself with the movies.
Daughter Juliet recounts Rozsa's daily working routine, his curious habit of writing notes on his shirt cuffs, and his dog Mowgli, whereas son Nicholas expands on Rozsa's research on known period Spanish music, and his musicological interests which were never fully exploited so freely after El Cid (although Sodom and Gomorrah kind of counts).
Conductor John Mauceri recalls the edits and mix changes that reduced Rozsa's original 2 hr and 16 mins. score for El Cid by 23 mins., but rather than take a side, he acknowledges that the film perhaps signified the inevitable shift from using wall-to-wall score towards a more precision-based scoring style, with less thematic restatements, and a balance between silence, sound effects, source cues, and traditional score.
As on the laserdisc, the Nicholas Rozsa interview describes how there are no surviving music masters from the original recording sessions except a music and effects mix (which really could and should've been included on this DVD. It was known this was the only surviving source of the score when the film was restored for a 1993 theatrical run, and given music and effects mixes have appeared on DVDs of classic and contemporary films - like Criterion's Short Cuts and Straw Dogs – to at least be able to watch the film with score and effects would've been a boon).
After seeing the finished El Cid, Rozsa wasn't happy with the final mix and cue deletions, but he did allow Bronson one unique favour: because of the film's Italian investors who had a comparatively minor but important $1 million stake in the budget, Rozsa was asked to share composing credit with Mario Nascimbene on all Italian release prints (although Rozsa would receive all royalty payments), which ensured the film's production continued.
The lengthy tribute closes with Mauceri's recollection of a birthday salute to Rozsa at the Hollywood Bowl, and his meeting the ailing Rozsa through Tony Thomas and arranging to have the composer attend a recording session with the Hollywood Bowl at the old MGM recording studios to hear a performance of his Madame Bovary waltz.
"Preserving Our Legacy: Gerry Byrne: on Film Preservation and Restoration”
The last DVD extras is somewhat misleading, and feels like an edit of an improvised interview done by the crew while they were hanging around the Bronston archives. It's a short but helpful tally by leading Bronson archives expert & manager Gerry Byrne on how copies were made from the now (mostly) disused Super Technirama 70 system which, like IMAX, ran the film sideways through the camera. Byrne also elaborates on how he's been frequently called back from retirement to help track down materials whenever prints were required for showings, transfers, or restoration projects.
There's nothing really new in the interview – there's very few film clips, and it's just a talking head shot of Byrne with no additional stills – but he does provide a funny anecdote in tracking down foreign dub tracks in his garage when Technicolor had to expunge the film cans from its space-limited labs and had them forwarded to Byrne's household.
THE CRITERION LASERDISC vs. THE DVD: AUDIO & VIDEO
Prior to DVD, the restored version of El Cid that played theatres was given a typically deluxe release by Criterion in 1996 on their last laserdisc, and collectors should hold onto that set because of some subtle and significant differences.
Transfer-wise, the picture is superior on the DVD, with a gleaming anamorphic transfer with fine, blossoming colours, and while some shots are bit soft, Robert Krasker's cinematography is breathtaking, exploiting the authentic locations, vistas, mountains, magic hour skies, and massive use of extras that sometimes went on for miles.
Every shot begins and ends on a portrait, and when Mann has the camera tracking along, the coordinated movements within the frame maintain perfect compositions. The sets are truly extraordinary in detail and scope, and Mann's use of widescreen is sublime; the most effective moments are often the simplest, including a shot signaling the Cid's duel with Chimene's father, which has Heston's sword appearing as being on fire at the tip. Should the film make to Blu-Ray, this will be a mandatory purchase for anyone wanting to watch perfect widescreen cinematography on their big screen TV.
The sound mix is expansive but oddly lacks some of the bass oomph present in the Criterion transfer (the laser came with a 5.1 AC3 track and 2.0 Surround mix) but Rozsa's score shines throughoutt he film (except for the Exit Music, which features a really dreadful vocal version of the love theme).
THE CRITERION LASERDISC vs. THE DVD: THE EXTRAS
In terms of extras, there's a making-of featurette with interviews that were sampled in the Miriam DVD, but there are some significant tonal edits that were made to soften a few criticisms. Heston's interview, for example, actually begins with the actor saying El Cid could have been “the epic film of all time” had it been directed by William Wyler or David Lean. He doesn't deliberately slight Mann, but feels ‘more could have been wrung from the story.'
The same Heston, Nicholas Rozsa, Philip Yordan, Leon Patluch (Vice-President and Treasurer of Samuel Bronston Productions, Inc.), archival Mann and Bronston interviews were extracted on the DVD, but the laserdisc has some longer segments and additional comments from editor Robert Lawrence (who also references Spartacus), and script supervisor Pat Miller (on Mann's passion as a filmmaker). Missing from the DVD are short comments from key grip Fred Russel, and production manager Leon Chooluck (who didn't see any reason to make the film beyond economic opportunities for the cast & crew).
The laserdisc also gathers comments for a tribute to director Mann, and features the full raw audio interview with writer Philip Yordan, who enjoyed a busy career and long friendship with Bronston, and was paid a handsome $400,000 for every script! Most of his comments were used for the DVD, except for anecdotes on Mann's profanity, his chain smoking, and his post-El Cid divorce which somewhat led to the end of their working relationship.
What's interesting and annoying about both DVD and laserdisc materials is that no one is precise on exactly who wrote the first draft of El Cid which was so disliked by Loren, and was ordered rewritten by Ben Barzmen during filming.
(According to the DVD, Barzman was actually suggested by Loren for the rewrites because she was greatly impressed with his brilliant script for Christ in Concrete, made while he was blacklisted by Hollywood during the Communist witch hunt era. There's no mention if Yordan wrote the first draft, and Yordan doesn't specify his contributions in any interview materials, so from the various comments scattered between the DVD and laserdisc, the assumption is that Yordan seems to have been more of a showrunner for Bronston's company, guiding writers and making executive decisions to shape a screenplay into a formal shooting script.)
Criterion's tribute to composer Miklos Rozsa uses an ongoing narration by Bruce Eder, and the historian examines Rozsa's main themes – for the Cid, the love theme, Gormaz theme, the triumphant march – and he largely repeats the same details regarding the reduction of Rozsa's score, and the two credited composers on the Italian release prints. Also part of the composer tribute is an additional interview clip with Nicholas Rozsa, and a somewhat longer version of the same Miklos Rozsa audio interview.
A lengthy interview with Samuel Bronston's son Bill was recorded (on VHS) exclusively for the laserdisc, and the emphasis is more on how and why the Bronston empire fell apart, with son Bill going over the same details of Bronston's financial association with Pierre Dupont III, although Bill Bronston names a man allegedly hired by Dupont to specifically foil his father's repeated attempts to get a film made.
Eder 's audio commentary over select extras also includes some further info on Bronston's aborted and few realized projects, and Dupont's successful lawsuit for $3.5 million that undoubtedly pushed the former luminous producer into obscurity and poverty.
What's frustrating about the DVD set are the information gaps between Bronston's last credited film as producer – Circus World (1964) - and the last years of his life. Bronston's filmography does contain subsequent productions, but neither Savage Pampas (1966) nor Dr. Coppelius / El Fantástico mundo del doctor Coppelius (1966) are mentioned, nor is Ferdinand and Isabella / Isabella of Spain. (That film was intended to have starred Glenda Jackson and John Phillip Law around 1969-1971. The project was aborted after some preproduction, and is one of the few unrealized projects mentioned by son Bill in his laserdisc interview.)
Also out of sight from the DVD are mentions of The Mysterious House of Dr. C (1976, written by Philip Yordan, with Bronston credited as producer), and Fort Saganne (filmed in 1986, with Bronston credited as co-producer). These omissions, however, might be saved for Miriam's upcoming Roman Empire DVD, since it makes no sense to duplicate the same featurettes and tributes.
The most touching and unique extra on the laserdisc (and one that should be included on the Roman Empire DVD) is a Super-8 sound film called Producers (6:15). Shot in 1981 in Houston, Texas, where Bronston had been living, the short was made by two kids (one being the son of his assistant), and has the two boys seeking advice from the legendary producer. They're shown a sword from El Cid, Bronston's wall of certificates, numerous awards, memorabilia, and the veteran producer outlines what the boys need if they want to make movies, during which the laserdisc's producers (perhaps due to space limitations) overlay stills since most of the 8mm footage is pretty blurry. Bronston elaborates on his type of favourite films, and he tells the boys to come back with a good story, so he can invest in their project.
If more of Bronston's epics are to follow, then this 2-disc edition of El Cid from the Weinstein Company is an excellent intro into the producer's career and the insane world of historical epic film production from an era where producers were ironically trying to establish their own fiefdoms while the big studios were going broke and being gobbled by bigger corporations, and losing the ability to fulfill the needs of a changing marketplace.
The kind of movies Bronston was creating to brand himself were already becoming obsolete by the mid-sixties, and one could argue it was inevitable he was doomed because he chose to tailor his expensive product towards a dwindling demographic, whereas the more savvy Joseph E. Levine, through his Embassy Pictures, knew that to survive, he had to aim high and low (hence the mix of European imports like the el cheapo Hercules knock-offs sold directly to TV, glossy sleaze productions like The Carpetbaggers, art films, audience-pleasers like The Graduate, and the occasional Oscar bait, likeA Bridge Too Far.)
In the end, El Cid really is one of the last good epics, and fans of these monsters won't be disappointed.
This 2-disc edition is also available in a Collector's Edition which packages the 2-disc edition in a fancy-schmancy box with stills, and reproductions of a comic book and the original program souvenir book.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan