A Year in a Life – 14th December, El Cid The Film

In March 2009 I visited the town of Belmonte in Castilla-la Mancha and visited the castle were some of the scenes for the film El Cid were shot.  On the way back down after visiting the castle I crossed the exact spot where Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren filmed the closing scenes of El Cid the film that was released on 14th November 1961.

El Cid is the national hero of Spain, a bit like our Queen Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill.  He was a warrior, a nobleman, a knight, and a champion.  He became a legend within only a few years of his death and most Spaniards know about him because at school they read an epic poem called El Cantar de Mío Cid.  It is the first great poem in the Spanish language and was written about 1140, only fifty years or so after he died. 

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar known as El Cid Campeador, was a Castilian nobleman, a gifted military leader and a diplomat who fought for and then fell out with Alfonso VI, was exiled but later returned, and in the fight against the Moors conquered and governed the city of Valencia on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

It’s a good story but the film takes a few historical liberties so, in truth it is best not to rely upon it as a source document for serious study.

The film is a Hollywood historical epic starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren and tells the story of the heroic warrior as he sets about (seemingly single-handedly) recovering Spain from the Moors.  With its charismatic stars, a cast of thousands (wearing real armour and using real swords) and its grand themes of love, loyalty and justice, it perpetuates a glowing image of the greatest hero in Spanish history.  Cid is a towering and talismanic figure, the perfect chivalric knight, devoted to his wife and children, a magnificent warrior, unerringly true to his word and merciful to his opponents.  Most of all, he is sworn to the service of God and dedicated to saving Spain from the fearsome invaders from North Africa.

The reality of course is that this wasn’t a completely accurate portrayal of the great warrior and the life of  ‘El Cid’, from the Arabic sayyid, ‘lord’, differed from the film version in many crucial respects.

One aspect of the film that is somewhat confusing is the relationship between the Cid and some of the Spanish Muslims who he holds in high regard and treats with respect and here we begin with an aspect of the film, which is, broadly speaking, accurate.  The Cid’s generosity to some of his Muslim opponents and his alliances with local Muslims against other, more fundamentalist, Islamic armies are based on fact because El Cid was a mercenary who would, in fact, fight for either side.

Three centuries before El Cid lived, the Muslims of North Africa had conquered Iberia but slowly the Christians had regained control of the northern half of the peninsula and the two faiths established a practical live and let live arrangement.  Relations between the two faiths in Spain had yet to be sharpened by the inflammatory and inflexible rhetoric of crusade and jihad and furthermore, it was quite common for local groups of Christians and Muslims to make alliances to fight other Christians and Muslims.  But things were changing and El Cid lived just as the age when the Crusades was beginning and the Christians probably had their eye on the bits of the peninsula with the very best beaches.

El Cid lived at this time and the film shows him having Muslim allies, even though it carefully omits the numerous occasions when he acted for Muslim paymasters against Christians because he was, in short, a warrior for hire, a mercenary, who spent much of his career fighting for whoever paid him the most and the  film accurately pays tribute to his formidable military prowess for which others were prepared to pay. His finest victory was the capture of Valencia in 1094, which is shown in the film on a grand Hollywood epic scale, complete with siege towers, cavalry charges and the full clash of medieval arms.

So there is at least some truth in the film and its plot, but it on the whole it is a highly romaticised version of the story.  The explanation for this lies in the identity of its historical consultant: Ramón Menéndez Pidal, who was the foremost Spanish historian of his age and the author of the standard biography of the Cid, first published in 1929.

The portrait of the Cid Pidal promoted to the movie makers was flawed in two ways.  First, in the evidence he used because he gave substantial credibility to the ‘Poema de Mio Cid’, a work written at the height of the crusading age and, crucially, fifty years after after the Cid’s death.  Then, his valiant deeds against Muslims made him a suitable exemplar to inspire a generation of holy warriors fighting the Crusades, and his life quickly moved into the realms of legend.

The second reason for Pidal’s inaccurate characterisation of El Cid lies in the blurring between the historian’s version of medieval Iberia and many of his own perceptions about the Spain of his own lifetime. To him, the notion of a patriotic hero uniting his troubled country was highly attractive and one that fitted the nationalist mood of Spain in the 1930s.  Hence Heston’s El Cid repeatedly demands a victory ‘for Spain’, but in fact Spain as a national entity was of little relevance in the eleventh century and ‘for Castile’ would have been a much more likely rallying cry.

The end of the film is based entirely on legend.  Shortly before he died in 1099 he allegedly saw a vision of St. Peter, who told him that he should gain a victory over the Saracens after his death.  So he was clothed in a coat of mail and was mounted upon his favourite horse, Babieca,  fastened into the saddle and at midnight was borne out of the gate of Valencia accompanied by an army of a thousand knights.  They marched to where the Moorish king and his army was camped, and at daylight made a sudden attack. The Moors awoke and it seemed to them that there were as many as seventy thousand knights, all dressed in robes of pure white and at their head El Cid holding in his left hand a banner representing Reconquesta and in the other a fiercesome sword, La Tizona.  So afraid were the Moors that they fled to the sea, and twenty thousand of them were drowned as they tried to reach their ships.

El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

El Cid and Alvar Fáñez another hero of the Reconquest

El Cid and his Horse Babieca

El Cid and his Wife Ximena

El Cid and his sword La Tizona

El Cid and Saint James

El Cid and Alfonso VI

El Cid and the Castle of Belmonte

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