15.11.14

Cycling In Portugal: Fact or Fantasy? Hollywood's version of Spanish legend ' El Cid'

Statue of the real Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar
Among the many films of this genre is the 1961 romanticised epic, ‘El Cid’, which tells its own version of the life of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, an 11th-century Castillian knight who contributed towards the unification of Spain.

A typical star vehicle, with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren playing the leading roles, it runs for an interminable 184 minutes, which at my first viewing as a fidgety 10-year-old, felt longer than the unification would have taken itself.

The real Rodrigo Díaz, or El Cid, as he was dubbed by the Moors, led a rather complicated, yet action-packed life, which partly explains the film’s protracted storyline. But Hollywood epics back then, even more than today, were known more for their lavish productions than their accurate biographies.

The over-ambitious bad guy in the film is General Ibn (pronounced Ben) Yussuf, a leader of the North African Almoravid dynasty, who seeks Islamic world domination. Played by a well concealed Herbert Lom, who, with his overly-aggressive voice and menacing eyes bulging out above his black niquāb, makes it excruciatingly clear, right from the outset, the kind of havoc he intends to wreak. Chastising his Emirs of Al-Andalus for their tardiness in dealing with the Spanish infidels, he demands “Burn your books, make warriors of your poets, let your doctors invent new poisons for our arrows, let your scientists invent new war machines.” There’s also an overstated request for ‘killing’ and ‘burning’ just in case his Emirs, or more to the point, the audience, don’t quite yet grasp what side of the fence, or more jingoistically, the world, he is from.

Segovia, Spain. In the background liess the Sierra de
Guadarrama, which was used in the filming of 'El Cid'.
Rodrigo, of course, is Yussuf’s antithesis. Played by Charlton Heston, whose mix of nobility and humanity would have required no more refinement than climbing from a Roman chariot onto an Andalusian pony, he wastes little time in letting the audience know who they’ll be rooting for throughout the film. Offering his captured enemy, Emir Yusuf al-Mu’tamin of Zaragoza (played by Douglas Wilmer) clemency rather than death, he risks being accused of treason in preference to fuelling further hatred between the Christians and the Moors.

Continually running afoul of the royal family because of his unswerving morality, Rodrigo kills the father of his bride-to-be, Count Gormaz, over a matter of honour. Temporarily back in favour, until King Ferdinand’s death, he is later exiled because he suspects the new king, Alfonso, of arranging the death of his brother, who himself covets the throne.

At least now free of wrangling with others who are driven by anger, jealousy and greed, Rodrigo and his equally-noble wife, Ximena (Sophia Loren), who chooses banishment herself, at last have the opportunity to purge some of their pent up frustration that has been fermenting since their over dramatised embrace near the beginning of the movie. A handsome pair, but lacking the dynamism of a couple like Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling in ‘The Notebook’, Chuck has no choice but to do what a man’s gotta do. If he is to protect Castille from Yusuf’s North African army, he must first lead other exiled Spanish soldiers before dutifully serving his country once more.

Still a force to be reckoned with, Rodrigo’s reputation as an astute and gallant leader, brings the Emirs to his side in the successful scrap for Valencia. But it wasn’t the bread fest the movie made it out to be; more likely a siege that starved the city for months, during which time nearby villages were plundered to keep his massive armies fed.

With former Moorish ruler al-Qādir dead, and Rodrigo’s army finally entrenched inside Valencia’s castle walls, the scene is set for the predictable showdown between the clean shaven Castillian knight and his black cloth-covered adversary, Ben Yussuf. The Islamic-fundamentalist, together with his thousands of 11th-century ‘soldiers’ and ‘mounted police’ – which during the making of the film were on loan from Spanish dictator Francisco Franco – are on their way towards Valencia’s shores.

Medieval shrine in Segovia.
In the ensuing battle the very next morning, Rodrigo is badly wounded by an arrow he just never saw coming. With the next day’s outcome looking bleak, especially without his presence on the battlefield, he chooses certain death by not having the arrowhead removed. Looking no more wooden than he did 24 hours earlier, his dead body, carried by a white stallion, rides out through the throng of Ben Yussuf’s army, who by now are frantically retreating towards the sea.

While almost 40 years elapsed between my subsequent viewings of the film, the only vivid memory I retained was the final ponderous image of the lonesome spectre riding aimlessly along the beach. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t how the real El Cid met his demise but more likely, half a decade later, of something as wearisome as natural causes. Even more of a revelation might be the fact that Ben Yussuf, or Yusuf ibn Tashufin as he was known in historical terms, was not defeated. Aged almost 100 years, he led the Almoravids to victory at Valencia in 1102, remaining in Muslim hands until 1238.

While the Hollywood movie-making industry has gone gangbusters since ‘El Cid’s spectacular release in 1961, not a great deal of peace has been achieved between the world’s major religious groups over the same period. Western countries, led by the United States are still fighting terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the war in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine seems to have no end. Though not as explicitly covered, other religious conflict zones, such as India and Pakistan in the sub-continent and Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria, in Africa, are continually wracked by periodic episodes of violence.

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