This post isn’t really about guns, but about the effect they have on our heroes. The National Rifle Association of America was founded in 1871 after the Civil War. Generals had discovered that for every 1,000 rounds a soldier shot at Confederates, only one bullet hit its mark. Thus an organisation was formed to teach gun-loving people how to aim straight and not waste bullets. Judging by what recently happened in Florida, the long-term results 150 years later are ‘encouraging’. These days, a mentally deranged teenage maniac can successfully murder 17 of his classmates in a few seconds. The NRA has done its job. The NRA has an annual turnover of around $500 million. It has 5 million active members, and is the third largest lobbying group in Washington. Donald Trump’s election campaign was helped along by a $30 million NRA donation. But this story is about an actor. He was a fine, versatile Thespian who played Presidents, Prophets and chariot-driving, chivalrous muscular heroes. And he was a great Shakespearian, too. Alongside Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, he had always been my cinematic hero. Yet he went from being a Liberal Democrat to a rabid, gun-totin’ President of the NRA. How are the mighty fallen …now read on.
CHARLTON, PIZZA BREATH and THE REAL EL CID
It’s common knowledge that John ‘Duke’ Wayne was as gung-ho a right wing Republican as you could possibly get; little wonder that he got the role of Genghis Khan in the 1956 film The Conqueror. No doubt, as the very scourge of ‘Un-American activities’ he would have enjoyed the company of Senator McCarthy, and the UK’s favourite old movie critic, Barry Norman, tells a scary story of trying to interview Wayne on a train and being threatened as a ‘damned commie bastard’. But with big John, you knew what you were getting. What was on the label was in the can.
However, it’s always a bitter disappointment for a film fan to find that his idols fall well short in real life of the noble characters they often portray on screen. Such a case is the mighty Charlton Heston. Whereas Wayne, however, spent much of his time on screen in uniform, Heston had at least experienced actual military service. In 1944, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force. He served for two years as a radio operator and aerial gunner aboard a B-25 Mitchell stationed in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands with the Eleventh Air Force. He reached the rank of Staff Sergeant.
In films such as Ben Hur, The War Lord, and The Agony & The Ecstasy, this muscular, booming giant managed the whole gamut of on-screen emotions. He was a skilled, sensitive actor, no stranger to Shakespeare, and an icon of heroic inspiration. That all fell apart for me when I watched Michael Moore’s anti-gun documentary, Bowling for Columbine. Something happened to Charlton along the way. He started his professional life as a liberal-leaning Democrat. He was also a union man who in 1965 became president of the Screen Actors Guild. He remained in the position until 1971. He was well known for his political activism. In the 1950s and 1960s he was one of a handful of Hollywood actors to speak openly against racism and was an active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.
The contrast by the time Michael Moore got to him in 2002 was staggering. When Moore asked him about an April 1999 National Rifle Association meeting (of which Heston was President) held shortly after the Columbine high school massacre, it had become obvious that every vestige of liberalism had been expunged from his character. He became a different icon; at rabid, right wing NRA rallies, holding his rifle above his head exclaiming ‘out of these cold, dead hands’. Railing against political correctness, this one-time friend of Martin Luther King later claimed he’d not changed, and had only become a Republican because ‘the Democratic party had changed’.
But politics and show business never mix too well, either for the artist or the audience. Whatever Chuck Heston was when he died in 2008 can’t take away his achievements as an epic actor. We should also remember, that at the time he was filming El Cid in 1960-61 he was still a Democrat, and was unhappy that the movie’s schedule was taking him away from his chance to campaign for John F. Kennedy. His lurch into political darkness (or, depending on the reader’s stance, the light) was still a couple of decades away.
El Cid remains one of Martin Scorsese’s all-time favourites. He was heavily involved in the 1993 restoration and re-release, calling it ‘one of the greatest epic films ever made.’ Following the success of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, Heston had cornered the market for epic hero roles. Initially, for Ben Hur, William Wyler had sent the script to Kirk Douglas. Kirk, however, thinking that the role was perfect for him, was disappointed that Wyler didn’t want him for the lead; Douglas was to play Ben Hur’s vile chariot racing enemy, Messala. As Douglas says in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son: ‘I wasn’t interested in the role of a one-note bad guy.’ But Kirk would get his chance – Spartacus was waiting in the wings.
Almost every film’s production has its own tempestuous story of escalating budgets, difficult diva stars and other disasters. To verify this, one only has to watch Terry Gilliam’s tragic documentary Lost in La Mancha, which tells the astonishing story of his failed attempt to film Don Quixote. And even if you complete your film, the finished product may well be savaged by critics with poisoned pens. The bigger the movie, the greater the potential for strife, and El Cid was no exception.
Without CGI, colossal films like this could not be made today. It runs at three hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission), cost $6,200,000, (a staggering sum for 1961) employs an extra-wide widescreen, a special colour process, 7,000 extras from the Spanish Army, 10,000 costumes, 35 ships, 50 outsize engines of medieval war, and four of the noblest old castles in Spain: Ampudia, Belmonte, Peñíscola (which doubles for medieval Valencia) and Torrelobaton.
The on-screen passion between Heston’s Cid and Sophia Loren’s Jimene (Mrs. El Cid) might seem real enough to the audience, but in reality it was a triumph for Thespian dedication. The fact is, Heston hated Loren with a passion and vice versa. One problem is that Loren was the first woman to be paid well above the going rate for acting in a single motion picture. She got $1 million, much more than Heston. She also demanded a $200-a-week hairdresser. Loren seems to have been not only some kind of advance guard for Hollywood feminism, but a somewhat prickly prima donna. Proof of this emerged in an article entitled Egos: Watch My Line in Time Magazine dated January 5 1962;
‘On a 600-sq.-ft. billboard facing south over Manhattan’s Times Square, Sophia Loren’s name appears in illuminated letters that could be read from an incoming liner, but—Mamma mia!—that name is below Charlton Heston’s. In the language of the complaint: ‘If the defendants are permitted to place deponent’s name below that of Charlton Heston, then it will appear that deponent’s status is considered to be inferior to that of Charlton Heston … It is impossible to determine or even to estimate the extent of the damages which the plaintiff will suffer.’
Thus in epic style, it came to pass that producer Samuel Bronston was sued for breach of contract in New York Supreme Court. ‘The extent of damages’ and the suggestion of ‘suffering’ is typical of the histrionics involved in showbiz litigation. Maybe it would have made sense if the film had been titled Jimene rather than El Cid. It didn’t end there; even Chuck had a go at the finished film, criticising director Anthony Mann by saying it would have been a better movie if it had been directed by William Wyler. One might also wonder how different the movie might have been if the role of the main villain, Ben Yusuf, played admirably by the late Herbert Lom, had gone to Bronstein’s first choice – Orson Welles. As for La Loren’s antipathy towards male co-stars, it surfaces again in The Fall of The Roman Empire where there was no spark of affection between her and her beleaguered co-star Stephen Boyd. Pizza breath strikes again?
On the DVD release of El Cid there are some interesting extras containing comments made by people who were on the set during the production. The animosity between its stars gives you a whole new angle when you watch the movie today. During many of the film’s ‘love’ scenes, Heston refused to look at Loren for more than a glance. It was tough work for director Anthony Mann, begging Heston to look into the eyes of the woman he was supposed to love, but Chuck simply couldn’t do it. It is obvious in El Cid’s deathbed scene, where he doesn’t look directly at his distraught spouse. Heston later claimed that he was ‘looking into the future,’ rather than into the eyes of his wife. Another of Chuck’s gripes was that Sophia had what he called ‘pizza breath’, which was the inevitable result of Ms. Loren having her Italian chef on the shoot, cooking her all her favourite dishes ‘just like Mamma used to make’. Finally, even the man who got an Oscar out of El Cid, composer Miklós Rózsa, had a justified gripe. When he viewed the finished film at the premiere he angrily discovered that 20% of his score had been jettisoned. He fell out with producer Samuel Bronston big time and never worked for him again.
THE REAL EL CID
Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043 – July 10, 1099), was a Castilian nobleman known as El Cid Campeador ‘The lord-master of military arts’, military leader, and diplomat. Exiled from the court of the Spanish Emperor Alfonso VI of León and Castile, El Cid went on to command a Moorish force consisting of Muladis, Berbers, Arabs and Malians, under Yusuf al-Mu’taman ibn Hud, Moorish king of the northeast Al-Andalus city of Zaragoza, and his successor, Al-Mustein II. Rodrigo’s godfather, Pedro El Grande, was a Carthusian monk. Pedro’s coming-of-age gift to El Cid was his pick of a horse from an Andalusian herd. Rodrigo picked a horse that his godfather thought was a weak, poor choice, causing the monk to exclaim ‘Babieca!’ (stupid!) It seems an odd name for a hero’s horse. Then again, it’s no worse than the Lone Ranger calling his Native American sidekick ‘Tonto’; in Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, the word tonto means ‘fool’ or ‘dumb’ or ‘fat dummy’. But I digress…
After the Christian defeat at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086, El Cid (The Lord) was recalled to service by Alfonso VI, and commanded a combined Christian and Moorish army, which he used to create his own fiefdom in the Moorish Mediterranean coastal city of Valencia. His tomb is in the cathedral of Burgos, Spain, and his sword is on display in Madrid’s Military Museum.
THE CELLULOID CID
Although Rodrigo was a real historical character, and is the subject of Spain’s oldest epic poem Cantar de Mio Cid, few details of the man and his true character survive. So as usual, Hollywood ‘history’ takes over, filling in the gaps between the true, main events with romance and invention. That said, screenwriter Philip Yordan (who worked as writer on many epics, including The Fall of The Roman Empire) made a pretty literate attempt at combining all the myths and legends. However, for example, the Cid didn’t die at Valencia before being strapped in an iron corset to his horse to ride off into the Mediterranean sun. After routing the Moors at Valencia, he may have ruled the city in the name of his king, but as far as Rodrigo was concerned, that part of Spain had become his by conquest. Valencia was his, and he died there in the company of Jimene 5 years after the battle, although his armies were formed of both Muslims and Christians. Despite this, Valencia was recaptured by Masdali on May 5, 1102 and remained a Muslim city for another 125 years. There is a legend that Jimena fled to Burgos with her husband’s body and did strap him to a horse to raise morale, but poor Rodrigo’s corpse must have been pretty ripe by then.
Yet Yordan could see the drama in some legends and blended them well into the script. One such tale is of the young Rodrigo discovering a leper sinking in quicksand crying for help, but none of the bystanders dared touch him. Rodrigo pulled him from the bog, clothed him in his cloak, housed him in a barn and went to get him some food. When he returned, he found the leper had transformed into an angelic figure that identified himself as St. Lazarus. He said ‘For your bravery and kindness you will enjoy success as a warrior. You will win battles upon battles and never know defeat’. In a nice nod to the legend, the film contains a scene wherein the banished Rodrigo encounters a thirsty leper who begs a drink. After unhesitatingly offering his own pouch, the Leper thanks him by name. ‘Who are you?’ asks Rodrigo. ‘I am called Lazarus.’ The leper answers. Then he crosses Rodrigo with his staff. “May helping hands be extended to you everywhere you go, my Cid.’