The American Society of Cinematographers

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Iron Man
Post Focus
DVD Playback
El Cid
The Ice Storm
The Last Emperor
ASC Close-Up
El Cid (1961)
Limited Collector’s Edition
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
The Weinstein Co., $39.95

In 11th-century Spain, a Castilian warrior named Rodrigo Daz de Vivar became a hero to his people by uniting Christian and Muslim warriors to fight a common enemy, and in the process went from being a disgraced exile to a legendary martyr. This story served as the basis for one of the most beloved films of its time, producer Samuel Bronston’s mammoth epic El Cid. Although Bronston and stars Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren were the public faces of the film, it was the influence of director Anthony Mann that distinguished it from other historical epics.

At the time he began work on El Cid, Mann had a lot to prove. In spite of a distinguished career that demonstrated a mastery of numerous genres, the director had been humiliated when he was replaced by Stanley Kubrick as the director of Spartacus. El Cid was his chance to redeem himself and to merge his expertise at character psychology — evident in his many Westerns with James Stewart — with a broad physical canvas.

Mann could hardly have chosen a better collaborator for this endeavor than cinematographer Robert Krasker, BSC, who had crafted stunning images in the 1956 epic Alexander the Great, yet whose Oscar-winning work on The Third Man proved him to be equally adept at mastering relationship-driven cinema. Shooting in Super Technirama 70, Krasker gave El Cid the widescreen grandeur that its epic subject required, composing images that are rich in detail, in both width and depth. Throughout the film, Krasker and Mann pack the frame with information and often add to Heston’s mythic power by bringing him close to the camera while keeping the masses of extras in the background in focus, an effect that stresses the enormity of El Cid’s struggle and makes him look larger than life. The scenes of spectacle are given added resonance and power by Krasker’s delicate handling of the more intimate scenes between them: His delicate lighting of Heston and Loren beautifully conveys the characters’ love (and hides the fact that in real life the actors hated each other).

Mann and Krasker’s background in film noir is evident in the textured lighting of the love scenes and the ominous scenes of political maneuvering, and Mann’s experience with the Western genre can be felt in the vast landscapes and large-scale battle scenes. The diversity of the imagery is well preserved on the film’s American DVD debut, which contains a transfer that is nearly flawless. The vibrant Technicolor palette is stunning, and the rich 5.1 soundtrack showcases both Mikls Rzsa’s Oscar-nominated score and the thundering effects of the fight sequences (though there are occasional scratches on the source material, they are intermittent and negligible). The 188-minute film is divided between two discs, cleanly split at the intermission, and both DVDs contain valuable extras. The first disc includes 15 minutes of vintage radio interviews with Heston, Loren and Lydia Heston, who joins her husband to comment on his work and its intersection with his personal life.

Also featured on disc one are production and publicity stills, a selection of filmographies for several cast and crew members, and the first part of a running commentary track by Samuel Bronston biographer Neal M. Rosendorf and Bill Bronston, the producer’s son. As one might expect, the audio narration is heavily weighted toward discussions of Samuel Bronston’s role in mounting the logistically complex international co-production, but the three-hour running time gives Rosendorf and the younger Bronston plenty of time to address other aesthetic and historical issues as well. The commentators devote a lot of attention to Mann and Krasker’s visual design and are quite astute at pointing out key compositional and lighting motifs in the film.

Their tone is casual yet instructive, a winning combination that characterizes the other superb supplements on the second DVD. First up is “Hollywood Conquers Spain: The Making of El Cid,” a 24-minute overview of the production that contains engaging interviews with surviving members of the production team as well as Rosendorf and other film scholars. The most extensive documentary on the DVD is “Samuel Bronston: The Epic Journey of a Dreamer,” which, at nearly an hour long, presents a touching and fascinating tribute to the legendary producer.

Unfortunately, the featurette devoted to El Cid’s director is nowhere near as extensive: At 17 minutes, “Behind the Camera: Anthony Mann and El Cid” is an entertaining introduction to Mann’s work but barely scratches the surface of his career. “Mikls Rzsa: Maestro of the Movies,” on the other hand, manages to pack a surprising amount of detail into its half-hour, which is devoted to El Cid’s legendary composer. Finally, a 10-minute conversation with film restorer Gerry Byrne, in which he discusses the importance of film preservation, completes the second disc’s supplementary section. It’s a testament to the film and to the producers of this DVD that even with five documentaries and a 188-minute commentary track, there is very little repetition among El Cid’s extra features. A limited-edition gift set contains even more extras in the way of printed material, including an introduction by Martin Scorsese, reproductions of the program book and El Cid comic book from the time of the movie’s initial release and a packet of six production stills in color.

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