CHARLTON HESTON stars in the restored version of "El Cid," opening Friday at the Varsity. --------------------------------
Cecil B. DeMille died in 1959. With him went an entire style of grandiose, quaintly campy historical epics aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator.
In their place came a series of movies that were often labeled (in less PC times) as "thinking man's epics." Ambitious, literate, closer to historical truth than DeMille, they expressed a vitality that had been missing from American epics since D.W. Griffith's silent historical dramas.
This golden age didn't last long. Yet in three years, 1959-62, it produced William Wyler's "Ben-Hur," Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus," Otto Preminger's "Exodus," Richard Fleischer's "Barabbas," Darryl F. Zanuck's "The Longest Day," David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" and Anthony Mann's "El Cid."
Aside from his garish swan song, "The Ten Commandments," DeMille's work is rarely celebrated today, and it's disappeared from revival theaters. But the films of his immediate successors remain quite watchable. Several have been restored and theatrically reissued in the 1990s.
The latest to reappear is "El Cid," a visually breathtaking three-hour epic about 11th century Spain that Miramax Pictures is bringing back this week. As with "Lawrence of Arabia," Martin Scorsese worked on the restoration, which involved tracking down the missing magnetic stereo tracks and creating a new internegative from the original yellow, cyanand magenta Technicolor production masters.
Originally released in December 1961, the movie stars Charlton Heston, who acted as something of a bridge between the DeMille and post-DeMille eras, having played Moses in "The Ten Commandments." He won the 1959 best actor Oscar for "Ben-Hur" and followed it up with a performance in "El Cid" that many critics admire more.
"If they could afford to remake `El Cid,' they would have done it," said Heston, 68, speaking by phone from New York. He estimated that the film would cost more than $100 million to recreate today.
"What Miramax and Martin Scorsese have done is quite extraordinary," he added. "They've gone back to the original elements, restored the color and remixed the sound. Digital sound didn't exist when we made it. This is a major effort of archival restoration."
As Rodriguo Diaz de Bivar, a character based on fact and legend, Heston had what is surely the most heroic role of his career. A selfless, compassionate Castilian aristocrat-warrior who could have ruled Spain but remained loyal to his king, Rodrigo was celebrated in a poem that was written in the early 12th Century. Later his life became the subject of a 16th century play, three operas and Corneille's "Le Cid."
Yet the story had never been committed to film until it became the pet project of producer Samuel Bronston, who made several costly epics in Spain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most were colossal flops; the one box-office hit in the group was "El Cid," which Heston spent the summer of 1960 mulling over.
"I was not entirely happy with the script at first," said Heston. "The basic structure and story were there, but they were taken from the poem, which was a permanent element and always an asset. The script was an early draft really. I found myself thinking, `I can't sit here sulking, let's do it.'
"It was the production design that impressed me at the beginning. Anthony Mann (the director) and Robert Krasker (the cinematographer) were already on-board at that point. I knew they would make use of the Spanish landscape and castles."
AWARE OF LEGEND
When he signed up, Heston said he was aware of the legend of the Cid; he'd also read the surviving stanzas of the poem.
"I had an idea of the Cid as a Job figure," he said. "Scorsese feels he's a survivor, a victim, almost a Christ figure. He is exiled, his wife becomes his enemy, yet he remains loyal to the king who banished him. He's the man who endures."
It's this kind of struggle that interests Heston.
As part of his research, Heston conferred with a Spanish historian who confirmed his vision of Rodrigo. He feels it's important to represent historical figures as truthfully as possible.
"With Ben-Hur, who's a fictional character in a historical setting, I felt perfectly free to use `me' in First Century Judea," he said. "With the Cid, I had to be more careful, although very little is known historically or about his physical features. We do know that he took Valencia, then gave it to the king. A certain kind of guy does that."
Heston has often said that "El Cid" would have been a better film if William Wyler had directed it. But seeing this restored version, he's more impressed with what Mann accomplished.
"Willy was unquestionably the best director of performances, a relentless searcher of the perfect," he said. "I think some things Willy might have made better, but Tony did a good job. This is a good film."
Asked why epics had such a healthy run three decades ago, Heston credits changing technology, which made it possible to get out of the studio.
"All the good ones were made on location," he said. "It was not really feasible until the 1950s. That's when they started making these films. But even if you could afford to make `El Cid' today, you couldn't shoot the final seaside battle as we did.
"Two years ago I went to a 30th anniversary celebration of the filming at Pensicola, which is a functioning town as well as the walled city you see in the movie.
"There are 20 hotels on that beach now."