With a face that might have been carved out of marble, Charlton Heston hardly had a choice but to play heroes. There's no matinee-idol softness to his good looks, and his bearing suggests that he was born giving orders. When the time came to adapt the story of El Cid, the 11th-century Spanish hero famed for his military prowess, unexpected exile, and subsequent conquest of Valencia, who else could play the part? Well, who else in a time of oversized international co-productions in which the leads always went to Hollywood stars?
Heston marches heroically through the three-plus hours of El Cid, a largely forgotten 1961 hit making its DVD debut thanks to restoration by the Weinstein Company. A product of its era's rage for oversized costume epics and the bigger-is-always-better aesthetic of producer Samuel Bronston, it pairs stunning production values and armies of extras with lumbering storytelling that treats every highly fictionalized turning point in its hero's life with the gravity of a Bible story.
It didn't have to be that way. Director Anthony Mann helped reinvent the Western in the '50s with films like Winchester '73 and The Naked Spur, psychologically complex tales filled with morally conflicted heroes. There's a suggestion of that in Heston's El Cid romance with Sophia Loren, a woman who detests and desires him in equal measure. But Heston and Loren, both wonderfully iconic movie stars, may be two of the least introspective actors to grace the screen, and their relationship amounts to little.
Still, it's tough to dismiss a film that succeeds so well at producing spectacle, and it's hard to miss the contemporary parallels in its simple, tortuously protracted story. Heston's El Cid fights for a Spain in which Christians and Muslims can co-exist, making allies of Spanish Moors against the wishes of the Spanish king. "How can anyone say this is wrong?" he asks while watching his army feast alongside their new brothers-in-arms. The sentiment's touching simplicity somehow cuts through a film that traps most other elements under its weight.
Key features: The Weinsteins have gone all-out, particularly in a box set that includes a reprint of an old Dell comic-book adaptation. But the best feature is a documentary on Bronston, an idealistic hustler whose desire to make big, inspiring movies led to epic achievements and an inglorious collapse.