The restored three-hour adventure screened the other night in Hollywood, on the eve of the DVD release, courtesy of the Weinstein Company/Genius Products and the American Film Institute.
When a presenter noted that the widescreen movie was produced decades before CGI -- that those seas of warriors were brimming with real human beings -- the full house applauded. Here was your basic Cast of Thousands. We're not likely to see another one like "El Cid."
(Update: Read "The Fall of the Roman Empire" DVD review.)
The stars were Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. They couldn’t stand each other, according to the extras in the Miriam Collection’s double-disc release of “El Cid.” (Miriam is a new Weinstein label named in honor of the founding brothers’ mother.) Heston apparently was embittered by Loren's salary of $1 million while he received $800,000. Heston was known for being hard on his leading ladies.
"El Cid" is no "Becket," but for an epic packed with troop movements and battle scenes, the movie does pretty well with the drama. A love-hate romance and fact-based political intrigue are at its center. " 'Ben Hur' was a chariot movie," Heston says. "This was a drama."
The film about Spain’s unifying hero of the 11th century is beautifully rendered in 2:35 widescreen. “El Cid” was restored in the 1990s by Martin Scorsese and now worked more completely in the new century. Many elements have been lost or damaged, resulting in some off-color tints.
The story of “El Cid's” making is almost as captivating as the movie itself. The producer, Samuel Bronston (“King of Kings”), was making his epics out of Spain for various reasons, including freedom from bureaucratic Hollywood. He hired blacklisted writers -- such as Ben Barzman for "El Cid" -- while the film studios fired them. Unfortunately, Barzman's name isn't on the new print, his widow pointed out at the prescreening party. (Copyright issues got the blame.)
Bronston’s sideline business of crude-oil arbitrage and Spanish government's extraordinary cooperation kept the project afloat. The gamble paid off, as “El Cid” became a blockbuster. Bronston, unfortunately, wasn't able to repeat that success with "The Fall of the Roman Empire" and his film operation collapsed four years later. ("Roman Empire" is expected on DVD in the spring.)
DVD extras include a fine feature-length making-of docu and profiles of three off-camera forces: Bronston, director Anthony Mann and composer Miklos Rozsa. You’re lucky to get one good bio on most DVD sets -- here we have three. Fascinating men with underappreciated roles in movie history.
Samuel Bronston’s son William was one of the filmmakers' family members who attended the screening. We talked in an Arclight lobby under photos of Mardi Gras revelry.
I asked about his involvement in bringing “El Cid” to DVD:
William Bronston: I haven’t been part of that loop. My family has no holdings on any of the properties. My dad lost everything in the (late 1960s) bankruptcy. … What really shocked me was there was there was no DVD of (“El Cid”).
In 1993, Harvey Weinstein bought the rights for the four last movies that my dad did: “El Cid,” “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” “55 Days in Peking” and “Circus World.” Weinstein was going to bring them back to market then but … (shrugs).
So it has now been a decade since Martin Scorsese did the laserdisc -- which was a very beautiful piece of work, but it was not meaningfully able to reach the market (in that format). … It turns out that this is one of the leading movies that the market wants on DVD.
Glenn Abel: Right, it’s always been listed in DVD aficionado polls as the No. 1, 2 or 3 most-wanted discs.
Were you happy with the portrait of your dad that came out on the DVD?
WB: Very much. It was beautifully edited.
He was a mystery to me. And there’s a real yearning to get to know where we’re from and what is our patrimony. And to know who that was. And to have strangers tell us who he was. It’s extremely powerful to have a stranger who knew him talk to me about him. …
It’s just a beautiful job that they did (on the DVD profiles). It’s very personal (with children of the producer, director and composer participating as witnesses). I thought the commentaries were very special, particularly Paul Nagle’s. He’s been studying my dad for a dozen years.
GA: Were the older clips of your sister from the laserdisc extras?
WB: Yes. What was happening was my sister was dying of cancer this past year. And I wanted very much to have the job done and contribute that work of hers before she died. She died Christmas Eve.
On the 22nd of December I talked to (project publicist) Tawna Boucher and I said listen, my sister’s really at the end. If you have a copy, please, please FedEx it to her. She FedEx’d it that day.
My sister sat up in bed with a smile and watched that one-hour special feature. And was just enchanted. And told her husband how wonderful it was. 36 hours later she died.
GA: You learned a lot from this DVD, it seems.
WB: My dad was an extraordinarily original man. When you’re a kid you just take that for granted. He did things that were brilliant. I never gave him credit for that.
When my dad and I started to finally get together (as adults), he was losing his mind from Alzheimer’s already. … I didn’t understand the commitment he made, the integrity he brought, the showmanship and the originality. To see the stuff in the movie and to have the story told is sweet beyond words. I’m so proud of him. He lived a great creative life that was not without suffering.
Update 2/2/08: An audience member at the "El Cid" screening listened to Bronston talk about great missing footage from the prerelease version of "The Fall of the Roman Empire," and realized he knew where to find the reels. They were quickly located in London.