Charlton Heston’s ‘El Cid’: A Hero for Our Time

David Shasha

Posted Sep 6, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Charlton Heston’s ‘El Cid’: A Hero for Our Time

by David Shasha

Our view of things is often colored by what we know about the past.

Each year at Easter time, American commercial television airs the director Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments” featuring Charlton Heston as Moses. It is well-known that DeMille, one of Hollywood’s pioneers, was a Biblical literalist who brought to his film adaptations a slavish attitude to religion that turned movies like “The Ten Commandments” into pure kitsch.

Heston’s Moses has become iconic for many Americans. Combined with Heston’s notorious right-wing politics, best remembered in an oft-screened clip from a rally of the National Rifle Association where he brandished a rifle which he said could only be dislodged from his “cold, dead hands,” what people knew of Charlton Heston spoke to the most reactionary and atavistic tendencies of our culture.

And yet, beyond the obvious, it was Charlton Heston way back in 1961 who presented to American audiences the extraordinary figure of the Spanish hero Rodrigo Diaz of Vivar, better known as “El Cid.”

El Cid, whose name comes from the Arabic sayyid, meaning “lord,” was a Spaniard who lived in the tumultuous age when Muslims, Jews and Christians all shared the Iberian peninsula. The land that the Arabs called “Al-Andalus” and that the Jews called “Sepharad” was often torn by war and contention between the three religious groups, but at the same time afforded us a vision of a cultural symbiosis that successfully fused monotheistic belief with the scientific and philosophical heritage of Greece and Rome. The Arabic language carried the values of what can rightly be called religious humanism. And it was through figures like El Cid that this culture took shape in Spain.

In his comprehensive 1989 work The Quest for El Cid, the late scholar Richard Fletcher cites a text from the Arab writer Ibn Bassam relating to El Cid: “It is said that books were studied in his presence: the warlike deeds of the old heroes of Arabia were read to him, and when the story of Mohallab was reached he was seized with delight and expressed himself full of admiration for the hero.”

Later in the book Fletcher shows the way in which El Cid’s military exploits brought him into the service of Arab kings in the patchwork Spain of what scholars have called the age of the “Party Kings” (from the Arabic Ta’ifa):

By the end of 1084 Rodrigo must have cut a considerable figure at the court of Zaragoza. He would surely have been present, for example, at such great occasions as the marriage, in January 1085, of al-Mu’tamin’s son Ahmad al-Musta’in to a daughter of Abu Bakr of Valencia, splendidly organized by the Jewish vizier Abu al-Fadl ibn Hasday, himself one of the luminaries of the court culture of Zaragoza. Everyone of any consequence in Islamic Spain was there.

One can see here the prominent place of El Cid in the pluralistic culture of Muslim Spain and the way in which members of the three religions were able to co-exist.

The Song of the Cid, the great epic poem of Rodrigo Diaz’s exploits known to all Spanish schoolchildren since its first publication in 1779 (though the single copy that was preserved is dated to 1204), has sealed the national legend of El Cid even as much of the cultural context of what has been called Convivencia has been forgotten.

In her introduction to Burton Raffel’s wonderful new translation of the epic, published by Penguin Books in 2009, the scholar Maria Rosa Menocal confirms that El Cid was indeed a central part of Convivencia:

The historical Cid was exiled not once but several times, for reasons that, on at least one occasion, clearly had to do with what [King] Alfonso felt was egregious lack of loyalty—the virtue the poem is devoted to establishing and repeatedly praising—and for embezzling the parias [tribute paid by the Muslim kings to the Spanish] he had gone to collect for the Castilian king from al-Mutamid of Seville. And in history, the great Castilian warrior fought at the head of virtually any army that he could muster (and frequently these were “mixed” armies, with both Christian and Muslim soldiers) or that would hire him, including that of the Muslim Taifa of Saragossa.

As proof of El Cid’s rootedness in the world of Muslim Spain, the poem itself recounts the close friendship that he had with the Moor Abengalbon. The fictionalized history of the poem recounts the way in which the Muslim served the Christian when El Cid found himself in some trouble with regard to his daughters:

Then Abengalbon came, and as soon as he saw Minaya
Embraced him, smilingly broadly and,
According to his custom, kissed him on the shoulder:
“How good to see you, Minaya Alver Fanez!
This is a great honor for us, your bringing
Warrior Cid’s wife and daughters,
To whom we show honor, one and all, as his fortune
Deserves—for no one can harm him; in peace or war
He is destined for triumph, whatever we do.
Only an idiot can keep himself from seeing the truth.”
Far from there being a separation between Christians and Muslims, the history of medieval Spain cannot be understood without taking into account the close relationship between the different religious groups.

This theme is a central part of the classic work by the great Spanish scholar Americo Castro in his 1954 book The Structure of Spanish History. After publishing the Spanish-language version of the book in 1948, Castro came under fire for re-exposing the intimate links tying the Christians, Jews and Muslims together. The Structure of Spanish History has never been reprinted and is today not known to the larger reading public. But through the indefatigable work of Maria Rosa Menocal, many of its central ideas have now been laid out to the general reader.

Commenting on an important sixteenth-century Spanish work called The Book of Good Love, written by Juan Ruiz, archpriest of Hita, Castro states:

The archpriest’s song book is not an Arabic work, but a Christian-Arabic harmony, rather like the fifteenth century door that stood next to the high altar in the Cathedral of Baeza, to be seen today in the museum of the Hispanic Society of New York. Here is a gothic frame, Christian-European, enclosing ornamentation in arabesque, open designs without beginning, end, or repose, in pursuit of unarrestable being, alternating between “inner” and “outer,” leaping from gaiety to deception, and from good love to made love.
In the 1961 Anthony Mann historical epic “El Cid,” Charlton Heston recreates this great Spanish character and his era. The film was one of the high water marks in Hollywood’s cycle of historical epics. With the beautiful Sophia Loren playing Jimene, El Cid’s wife, audiences of that era were treated to a great love story set against the backdrop of eleventh-century Spain.

In contrast to the poem’s blood and guts, the movie focuses on El Cid’s more humanitarian impulses. The first part of the movie sets El Cid against King Ferdinand, and against Jimene’s father who is the king’s champion, when he captures some Moorish prisoners and chooses to set them free after they vow their loyalty to Ferdinand.

The great director Anthony Mann was brought to the project by the producer Samuel Bronston—both men being Jews of Eastern European origin (Bronston was the cousin of Leon Trotsky!). They worked from a script that was secretly written by then-blacklisted writer Ben Barzman. The script is at pains to emphasize the ecumenical side of the Cid—who in history was more likely to display a mercenary tendency—as the uniter of all Spain, a man who wished to see a land that was home to all its citizens regardless of their religion.

In preparing for the part, Charlton Heston sought assistance from the great Spanish scholar Ramon Menendez-Pidal who was then the dean of Cid studies. Menendez-Pidal brought his literary and historical expertise as an uncredited advisor to the movie, and it is was this expertise that allowed the film to present its audience with a Cid whose example can resonate with us today.

In our time when Muslim and Christian find themselves at odds, the story of El Cid and his Muslim allies defending Spain against the incursions of the North African fundamentalists, known in history as the Almoravids, can teach us a very important lesson. As asserted in the movie’s very first scene, the fanatical Almoravids were bent on destroying the Muslims who wrote poetry, studied philosophy and developed science and math in order to assert a “purist” form of the Islamic religion.

The history of medieval Spain, with its complex merging of Christians, Jews and Muslims, is one that was once well-known because of films like “El Cid.” President John F. Kennedy held the film in such high esteem that he ordered three screenings of it in the White House. The battle waged in eleventh-century Spain to hold back the Muslim extremists was thus part of our common culture in the early 1960s.

But the movie soon drifted into obscurity and was not re-released for public viewing until Martin Scorsese urged that it be restored. His successful campaign led to a limited theatrical re-release in 1993 and finally a DVD release in 2008 by Miramax.

But in the time between the film’s original release in 1961 and 2008, the literate public would lose the vital lessons imparted by the movie and Heston’s role in it. As I said earlier, if we do not have living models to understand history and culture, we are often left to our own devices to process the conflicts that sully our civilization.

The ubiquitous image of Moses parting the Red Sea in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” has flooded our minds; meanwhile, the stirring images of the same Charlton Heston as El Cid, heroically leading a mixed army of Christians and Muslims to defeat an army of fundamentalist Muslims seeking to destroy the fragile Spanish culture of co-existence based on the knowledge and values of religious humanism, has not become a part of our common cultural vocabulary.

By incorporating the tale of El Cid into our shared cultural lexicon we can better come to terms with the complexities of history and take on the seemingly impossible task of establishing a peaceful co-existence between the three Monotheistic religions. Its lessons for our time are far more relevant than those of the better-known “Ten Commandments.” In his portrayal of El Cid, Charlton Heston provided us with a vital clue to unlocking one of the most pressing issues of our own time.

Source:  Huffington Post

David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. The Center publishes the weekly e-mail newsletter Sephardic Heritage Update as well as promoting lectures and cultural events.  His articles have been published in Tikkun magazine, The American Muslim, the Christian Progressive and other publications.  To sign up for the newsletter visit the Sephardic Heritage Google Group at