Flashback Friday: The Reign in Spain

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Continuing my trawl through past glories — I did an “Anthony Mann Week” some years back — Fiona complained bitterly that it was all too Mannly, but she did like WINCHESTER 73 a lot. In general, she’s had bad luck for these themed weeks, dropping in on films she couldn’t get along with (eg Losey’s BOOM!) and missing a few she would probably have loved (Mann’s A DANDY IN ASPIC, MAN OF THE WEST). She does like THE TALL TARGET, TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (screwball noir!) and REIGN OF TERROR, but I haven’t ever gotten around to writing about the first two.

I never got around to EL CID, i think because I didn’t have a widescreen copy. It’s a film I’d glimpsed over the years in pan-and-scan abomination form, and like most widesecreen epics, it seemed dull on TV. That’s because the composition of the shots is the whole show — it’s very dynamic in its framing, and the storytelling obeys a visual logic of shape and movement and cutting that’s quite unreal, rather comic book, and wholly glorious. And it’s almost totally dead on a human level, despite having Sophia Loren, a magnificent actress when cast in something human. here she’s used more as a shape, like Chuckles Heston himself, an impressive piece of sculpture.

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Terry Jones said that in preparing LIFE OF BRIAN he looked at epics and they all seemed to have something that might be called “epic acting,” which he then impersonated by putting on a declamatory, Sam the American Eagle voice — pure Heston. And if that’s what the film is, Heston is your man. Co-star Douglas Wilmer told him he was “a great journeyman actor” and Heston got all offended and Wilmer smoother his eagle feathers by saying that “journeyman” wasn’t an insult and that Olivier was also a great journeyman. Heston was happy to be named in that company.

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He was called an “axiom of the cinema” too, but maybe he’s more of an axis — a sturdy compositional element around whom a shot can pivot. He’s like a pillar, but poseable. The strongest emotion he can project is STRAIN, strenuous seriousness or a dynamic tension of the emotions in which he’s simultaneously holding back and putting it all out there. Wyler got a great effect from him in THE BIG COUNTRY, by telling Carroll Baker to pull her wrists free from his great ham-hand which held her, and telling Cheston not to let go. Her wrists got red raw, and the agony of hurting a lady brought him to life — you saw the strain turn inwards and sort of ripple out across the veins in his head and the sinews in his arms.

For this kind of thing, if you’re going to make it and I’m not saying you should — he’s somehow perfect. An advance on the he-men of German epic cinema, the “bounding idiots” of DIE NIBELUNGEN and METROPOLIS. Chiseled beefcake with more visible bone than the bodybuilders of Italy, and a far more convincing ability to move about.

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Spain! Where the diopters are as plentiful as paella. For some reason, the Samuel Bronston sword-and-sandal sagas reach for the split-focus lens more than any other films. Though Nick Ray’s pair of bloaters deploy the effect self-consciously, daring you to notice that while the foreground and background are sharp, the midground is a blur, an effect impossible to achieve with the naked eye. Mann disguises the joins so well you often aren’t quite sure there’s hanky-panky afoot.

Mann’s epic phase saw him work with both stars of BEN-HUR, and feels quite reactive to that blockbuster. SPARTACUS, which he shot the opening scenes for before Kirk Douglas fired him, was also a response to BH, an attempt to show you could make that kind of thing on US soil without taking advantage of cheap labour and tax breaks on the continent. The Samuel Bronston films (this and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) arose from the bizarre historical accident that the Hollywood studios were making a lot of money at the Spanish box office but were unable to take that money out of the country, so they had to invent films to shoot in Spain as an excuse to spend money. EMPIRE and 55 DAYS AT PEKING are surreal at times (especially the latter) because they have no sane reason to be Spanish films, and because they’re throwing money at scenes that don’t matter, with colossal overblown sets which dwarf the actors — in fact, “dwarf” is too weak a word. They ANT the actors.

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Here, at least the Spanish castles are real, so it’s only the dementedly huge crowd scenes that beggar belief, fancy dress extras staked out in the sun to bake, contributing nothing save slight distraction, swelling scenes already overstuffed with Herbert Lom or Frank Thring. Despite the authentic setting and the constant twirlings of Miklos Rosza’s score, the world of the film never feels remotely Spanish, because look at who’s in it. The Spanish are Americans and Italians and English and Scots. The Moors are Czech and English and Australian.

A good thing about EL CID is that although it’s all broadswords and bluster, it has bits that are western and bits that are noir, the two genres at which Mann excelled (I’ve never see his two musicals. Anyone?) When a patrol of Spaniards is ambushed by dusky (painted) archers, we’re a stone’s throw from THE LAST FRONTIER. The early part of the story where Sophia is betrothed to Charlton and wants him dead is good doom-laden romance. The wedding night is a symphony of expressionist angst — alone at the dinner table, Heston paces like Garbo memorizing her room in QUEEN CHRISTINA, only clutching frustratedly at every phallic object in reach except himself.

Mann said that the ending of the film was his sole reason for doing it, that with an ending like that you could get away with almost anything. He’s sort of right — but even he, using the highly stylised approach he’s established, and a leading man whose natural destiny might seem to be as a carry-on prop, can’t entirely stifle the giggles as Heston is mounted on his horse, dead, a wooden framework holding him in position like a fake house in a western street. It’s too hideously apt as a piece of satire.

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“Please tell me this was a colossal flop,” groaned Fiona, wearied by the length and annoyed by Sophia’s headgear. Afraid not: the world has bad taste. But I dug it on a shot-by-shot basis.

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16 Responses to “Flashback Friday: The Reign in Spain”

  1. “Charlton Heston is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instil beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the sombre phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle’s profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso – this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like ‘Hiroshima mon amour’ or ‘Citizen Kane’, films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates Charlton Heston. Through him, mise en scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.”

    -Michel Mourlet, “In Defense of Violence” (‘Apologie de la violence, Cahiers du Cinema 107, May 1960),

    Surely the most extravagant cinematic apercu ever written.

    I do hope you get to see El Cid in all its wide screen 70mm splendor sometime. I quite like it and Fiona might not poop out.

    If she thinks Sophia’s headgear is disconcerting what about Barbara Steele’s in L’Aramata Bracleone?

  2. Oh, she’s crazy about Piero Gherardi’s work!

    Was unaware of just how close I was getting at times to Mourlet’s description, if not his ecstasy.

  3. Heston is an axiom of schlock — a psycho-sexual embodiment of daddy-issues. A porn star for cripples.

  4. Us cripples need porn too!

  5. He’s gets a whole chapter to himself in “Narrative is Evil.”

  6. He’s on the side of the angels in Touch of Evil… and in Planet of the Apes, all his bad qualities make him ideal as a representative of the human race. arrogant and self-centred and blind…

  7. Exactly. I’m with Sartre on that one.

  8. So he’s an existentialist axiom axis of evil?

  9. Heston glamorizes asshole-ism.
    He’s the kind of guy who’s screen presence encourages people to say “human nature” — “people suck.” Sartre argued that we have no nature because unlike, say, a paper-cutter (his example) we weren’t designed. No plan. Except the ones we create.

  10. A strange argument — natural things are exactly those which aren’t designed. Instead they evolve. The Heston male evolved out of the fifties certainties of American righteousness.

  11. Sure. But the truly strange argument is that this permutation of American righteousness should stand in for… humanity?

  12. And I would never talk about “American righteousness” as an example of evolutionary change — not if our evolving nature as human beings is the issue.

  13. chris schneider Says:

    I’ve been known to enjoy Charlton Heston on film — and this is in spite of his popular association with politics that I find noxious. Perhaps it’s this divided reaction which keeps me remarking that Heston is best when playing “heroes” who are only inches away from becoming the story’s villain. See SOYLENT GREEN, see many moments in TOUCH OF EVIL.

    Someone should cite the similarity between the endings of EL CID and the Mann-directed MEN IN WAR. Philip Yordan name on both screenplays, whatever that signifies.

    You could say that SERENADE, which I have an undying fondness for, comes close to being a Mann musical. Doomy romance, but with musical numbers. Both SERENADE and EL CID have funny supporting female performances, from Joan Fontaine (SERENADE) and Geneviève Page (EL CID). Perhaps that’s what you do if you’re a woman in a Mann picture: dress swanky, deliver your lines in an arch fashion, and imply that there are tales you’d tell If Only You Were Allowed.

  14. John Logan’s script for Gladiator swipes not only most of Fall of the Roman Empire but the uncomfortably close brother-sister king-princess relationship in El Cid. Two and a Half Manns?

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