El Cid (1961) Barry Lyndon (1975)

What are the two best duels in the history of cinema? Your mileage may vary. We all have our own favorites. For me they would have to be the trial by combat in Anthony Mann’s medieval epic El Cid, and the final duel in Stanley Kubrick’s 18th-Century costume drama Barry Lyndon. They are both so masterfully done, and yet so different, that a comparison between them will shed light on two great directors, and two great films.

No duel in film can quite match the famous trial by combat between Charleton Heston’s Don Rodrigo, the champion of the King of Castile, and Don Martin, the champion of the King of Aragon. Earlier in the film, Rodrigo had spared the lives of two Muslim Emirs he had taken prisoner. For that act of mercy and patriotism — he wants to unite Christian and civilized Muslim Spain against Islamic fundamentalism — he was given the title El Cid. He was also branded a traitor. After he kills Count Gormaz, his would-be father-in-law and one of his accusers, he not only wins the hatred of his fiancee Donna Ximena — it’s never a good idea to kill your girlfriend’s father —he deprives Castile of its best knight. It’s at that moment that the King of Aragon decides to press his claim to the disputed city of Callahora.

Aragon’s champion, Don Martin, is a legendary knight who’s already killed 27 other men in single combat. Rodrigo, even though he killed Count Gormaz, is still young and relatively untested. The Castilian court doesn’t trust him. Maybe he killed Gormaz by treachery. But Ferdinand, the King, also recognizes that Cid, who’s been accused of treason, has the right to clear his name, and so accepts his petition. The stage is set. If Cid kills Don Martin, he proves himself an innocent man. The city of Callahora goes to Castile, and Cid becomes Ferdinand’s champion. If Don Martin wins, however, then Callahora goes to the King of Aragon. Cid is proven a traitor. His family’s reputation is ruined, and he presumably goes to hell.

We find ourselves in front of the City of Callahora, the real Castle Belmonte in Spain, an imposing structure that dominates many miles of farmland from atop a commanding hill. The trial by combat is part of an elaborate ritual. Both Kings are there with their full compliments of lords, ladies, and men at arms. If Cid is a traitor for sparing the lives of two Muslims, then what is Donna Ximena, Sophia Loren, after she gives her colors to Don Martin, and expresses her desire that he kill Cid, her one time fiancee? Is she also a traitor? No. It’s her right as a witness to the trial by combat to bless whomever she feels is worthy of her support. Ferdinand’s daughter, Donna Urraca, a haughty, regal Geneviève Page, in turn, gives her colors to Rodrigo.

What follows is a clash between two big, strong, athletic men on horseback with lances, then broadswords. Cid, a religious man, believes that whoever is right with God will win the duel, but it’s also clear that the trial will be decided on the individual merits of the two champions, on their courage and on the strength of their arms. The elaborate ritual, the complex rules, the stately pageantry, is all designed to “let the best man win.” It’s a relentless, brutal fight to the death. Don Martin unhorses Cid, but, as he moves in for the kill, Cid knocks him off his mount and brings him crashing to the ground. There’s no room for error. Don Martin has his sword out so fast Cid has no time, even to raise his arm. Eventually, through sheer skill and tenacity, Rodrigo maneuvers Don Martin out of his initial momentum. The camera angles, the facial expressions of the lords and ladies of Aragon and Castile, the score by Miklós Rózsa, the clanging of the swords, are all so engaging that we become involved in a semi-mythical, semi-fictionalized joust that took place centuries ago. We are transported back in time to a grand, romantic medieval Spain that never quite existed, but which looks like history written in light.

The two duels that bracket Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon are an entirely different affair.

As the film opens, Redmond Barry, a young Irishman played by Ryan O’Neal, is courting his cousin Nora Brady. Nora, in turn, is being courted by Captain John Quin, a rich and cowardly English gentleman played by Leonard Rossiter. Barry demands “satisfaction.” Seconds are named. They meet, armed with pistols, in a quiet field. Barry, apparently, kills Quin, but no. It’s all a setup. The pistols have been loaded with blanks. Nora’s father, who’s deeply in debt, needs Quin’s money, and Quin, terrified by Barry, agrees to “play dead.” Barry is given 20 crowns and hustled off to Dublin. Like a modern day conservative, he believes he’s proven himself the best man. He’s not. The game has been rigged in his favor.

Years later, after working his way into high-society as a professional gambler, and into a marriage with the beautiful Lady Lyndon, Redmond Barry’s bad character finally catches up with him. He’s no El Cid, no pure-hearted knight willing to give up everything for God and country. He’s a mean-spirited little spendthrift who cheats on his wife, drinks himself into a stupor, and squanders her fortune. Eventually, he’s ostracized by polite society after he assaults Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon’s son by her first husband, at a concert. Lord Bullingdon, now grown into a young adult, challenges his step father to a duel. They meet in an abandoned church. What follows is 5 minutes of cinema so full of tension that we can barely stand it.

It’s also a comic masterpiece. The elaborate ritual of the trial by combat in El Cid was designed to strip away anything that would have gotten in the way of either knight’s strength and courage. The second duel in Barry Lyndon brings two small men down to each other’s low level. Redmond Barry is physically stronger than Lord Bullingdon, who’s a sallow faced, effeminate little mama’s boy, but he’s no better a man. Barry would have clobbered Bullingdon had it been a duel with rapiers, but a stylized ritual with pistols neutralizes his strength and courage. Lord Bullingdon gets the first shot. He’s so incompetent,he fires the pistol into the ground by mistake. Barry gets the second shot. Bullingdon is white with terror. He throws up. But Barry spares him. He also fires into the ground. It’s probably the only generous thing he’s done in the film’s three hours. He won’t kill his wife’s child, but he’s miscalculated. Bullingdon has no intention of letting bygones be bygones. He raises his pistol and takes aim. Then he shoots Redmond Barry in the leg, crushing the bone and the artery. Barry loses the leg. He goes back to Ireland to live out the rest of his days in poverty and obscurity.

Kubrick makes it clear that Barry goes back to Ireland because of his debt, not because of the amputated leg. While the pistols this time aren’t loaded with blanks, the game is still rigged. Lord Bullingdon restores the old order, sends the upstart Barry back home, not because of his own abilities, but because Barry’s luck had simply run out. Barry had been put in a lose lose situation, kill his wife’s first born, or fire into the ground. He takes his chances on Bullingdon’s generosity and loses. If Rodrigo and Don Martin fight each other to the death without a trace of personal animosity, these two men hate each other to the bone. Lord Bullingdon finally gets in a lucky shot. He also gives his victim a pension after it’s all over.

What would have happened if Lord Bullingdon had also fired into the ground? Things probably wouldn’t have been much different. Barry would have either gone to debtor’s prison, or his rotten character would have caught up with him in the end. Lord Bullingdon, it must be remembered, only acts after Barry has already been shunned by aristocratic society. His own personal animosity means nothing. He’s nothing more than the aristocratic old order’s bumbling tool. Had it not been Lord Bullingdon, it would have been somebody else. The film, significantly, ends in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, Perhaps Kubrick is telling us that even revolution is meaningless. After all, the rising bourgeoisie in the form of Redmond Barry has already proven itself no better than the aristocratic old order in the form of Lord Bullingdon.

“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled,” the final title card says. “Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.”

Perhaps Kubrick’s fatalism, his tendency to put all his characters under a microscope like bugs, is reactionary. Kubrick was certainly no liberal, as his earlier film, A Clockwork Orange, demonstrated. He admired violent little pricks like Alex and his droogs for their own sake. Freedom, for Kubrick, was the freedom to rape women, and beat up old men, just for kicks. But is Anthony Mann necessarily more progressive than Kubrick? Perhaps not. Mann, unlike Kubrick, was no reactionary, but El Cid is anything but liberal. Indeed, there’s a reason Francisco Franco allowed Mann to film in Spain and wound up using the film as part of a campaign to increase tourism. Mann’s Don Rodrigo, El Cid, is a noble, honorable, pure-hearted knight in shining armor, but therein lies the problem. The Castilian royal family in Mann’s film is thoroughly corrupt. Cid should just declare himself king, unite Spain behind him, and drive out the invading Muslim fundamentalists. He doesn’t. Like Franco himself, he lets the Spanish royal family stay on as puppets, even though he’s obviously the great man of destiny who saves his country from the invader. Perhaps Franco saw himself in Spain’s legendary knight of the Reconquista, and Mann’s ode to Spain’s greatest hero as unintentional fascist propaganda that validated his own brutal dictatorship. El Cid is certainly open to that interpretation. Great men, even when noble, generous, and self-sacrificing, are always problematic.

Henry V (1944) Henry V (1989) El Cid (1961)

“But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?”

When Laurence Olivier decided to film Henry V, he understood that he was defying the conventional wisdom that Shakespeare didn’t translate well to the movies. With a multi-million dollar budget and a cast of hundreds, you could reenact the Battle of Agincourt, but that by no means guaranteed that you’d capture the excitement of the famous English military victory any better than the Lord Chamberlain’s men did in 1600 with a cast of dozens. William Shakespeare knew that what limited his ability to stage the history of Henry V also freed his imagination. The more he was required to to make up for the Globe Theater’s lack of realism, the more he would  have the opportunity to display his poetic genius. Laurence Olivier understood Shakespeare intuitively. He decided not to film Henry V as a Hollywood epic. Rather, he would use the tools film gave him to translate the language of the Elizabethan theater into the language of cinema.

Henry V opens with a panoramic view of London in 1600. There it is, old London Bridge, old St. Paul’s, the full skyline of the medieval English capitol. Surely this would have been a powerful image for any British theatergoer in 1944. Olivier’s inspired approach to filming a close, almost literal translation of Henry V from the Elizabethan stage to the movie theaters of 1944 was to film, along with Henry V itself, a recreation of how Henry V would have been staged in 1600. Felix Aylmer and Robert Helpmann, therefore,  not only play the Archbishops of Canterbury and Ely. They play actors playing the archbishops of Canterbury and Ely.  Laurence Oliver not only plays Prince Hal. He plays an actor playing Prince Hal. As the two archbishops manipulate the King into invading France — a war that will head off any possibility that the crown will try to confiscate church property — we realize that we are watching the opening of Henry V along with a 16th century audience. They laugh. They cheer. They make the actor playing the actor playing the Archbishop of Ely so nervous that he drops a handful of documents on the floor. He has to pick them up to read his lines. He drops them again.

By this method, Olivier can stop and start the play at his convenience. He can slow down and break up the famously convoluted reading of the Law Salique, dish it out in bites small enough for a modern audience to swallow. By the time Henry is ready to cross the English channel to invade France, we understand both the legal justification for the invasion and how contrived this legal justification probably was. It doesn’t matter. These funny little churchman aren’t manipulating King Henry. He’s already decided on his course of action. What’s more, we no more question Henry’s decision to invade France than we question the coming invasion of Normandy. Henry is the man to restore a just order to western Europe, a Churchill in Elizabethan clothing. Olivier’s reading of Henry V is both nationalist and true to its original intent. William Shakespeare knew war was terrible. He was also a patriotic Englishman.  War is hell. Go team Britannia.

If Laurence Olivier’s decision to stage a play within a film solved the problem of how to translate the language of theater into the language of film, he’s now faced with the challenge of how to make full use of the tools cinema provides him. How would William Shakespeare himself stage Henry V if he had cameras and hundreds of extras, if he could control the lighting, stop and start the film as he successfully builds new stage after new stage, if he could leave the “cockpit” and film on location in the “vasty fields of France?” An abrupt introduction of “nature,” a rainstorm, into the play within the film signals the beginning of the transformation from the theater to the movies, from the play within the film to the highly stylized, yet still more cinematic than Elizabethan recreation of the Battle of Agincourt. We hear a thunderclap. A boy with a placard that says “The Boar’s Tavern” indicates a possible change in venue, but the “groundlings,” the common people in the cheap seats, stay on. It’s their moment, the introduction of “Pistol,” who was a great favorite of the working class in Elizabethan England,  Nym, and Bardolph. We here about Sir John Falstaff’s illness, and remember how Prince Hal rejected Falstaff and all his old friends when he became king. The groundings laugh at Pistol’s every word, every gesture. The actors get soaking wet but continue. Whether or not the “gentlemen” in the audience have gone to the Boar’s Tavern is never made clear, but we don’t see any sign of them. This is the London mob having fun.

When Nym, Bardolph and Pistol decide to follow King Henry to France, we remember that the English army at Agincourt, like the British and American army that would hit the beaches at Normandy depended on the working-class, those English long bowman who would defeat French chivalry, those British and American factory workers and shopkeepers who would drive Hitler’s master race back across the Rhine. The transition to France now quickly proceeds, first to the French court, then to the siege of Harfleur.

“Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies
In motion of no less celerity
Than that of thought. Suppose that you have seen
The well-appointed king at Hampton pier
Embark his royalty; and his brave fleet
With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning:
Play with your fancies, and in them behold
Upon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing;
Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give
To sounds confused; behold the threaden sails,
Borne with the invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrow’d sea,
Breasting the lofty surge: O, do but think
You stand upon the ravage and behold
A city on the inconstant billows dancing;
For so appears this fleet majestical,
Holding due course to Harfleur.”

Harfleur, like Normandy, falls. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” Henry declaims, leading the charge. “Or close the wall up with our English dead.” Nym, Bardolph and Pistol are now in France, having participated in the successful attack. The Globe Theater is gone. We know we’re not really in France. The scene is stylized, ritualistic, dramatic, not realistic, but it’s no longer a film of a play, but, rather, a cinematic dramatization of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Every Englishman (and woman) in 1944 would have known what happened next. The English army is cornered by vastly superior French numbers. The French crown has paid an enormous sum of money to recruit and outfit a army, which now  outnumbers the English anywhere from 4:3 to 6:1. By all rights the English should have lost. Henry should have gone back to England in disgrace with most of his soldiers lying dead in the “vasty fields of France.” Agincourt was a decisive English victory against the odds, as unlikely as it would have been had the British not gotten on their ships at Dunkirk, but turned and smashed Hitler and the Wehrmacht once and for all.

Compared to pageantry and unapologetic patriotism of Olivier’s film, Kenneth Branagh’s revisionist, post-Vietnam reading of Henry V is intelligent, competently acted, thought provoking, and humanistic, but, ultimately, dull and uninspired. Laurence Olivier’s St. Crispians Day speech makes me want to jump once more into the breach right along with Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol.  Branagh’s makes me wonder what exactly such a ringing call to battle is doing in a film that,if a misreading of Shakespeare’s play for a good cause  is still a pretty blatant misreading. The film’s most powerful scene, Henry ordering his old friend Bardolph hanged for looting,  is so well done that it short circuits the victory at Agincourt. Is Henry a hero or just a ruthless dictator? In Olivier’s play, Henry is a shimmering democratic warrior angel, an athletic Churchill in the prime of his youth. In Branagh’s film, he’s an opportunistic social climber who hangs an old friend on the way to marry his French Princess — a magnificent young Emma Thompson speaking perfect French and bad English.

But as laudable as Branagh’s liberal, anti-war vision is, he undercuts it with the way he stages the Battle of Agincourt. The battle, which is filmed largely in close ups, might be more realistic than Olivier’s. The mud, gore, and brutal hand to hand combat is probably what the Hundred Years War did look like to the common soldier, but neither Shakespeare nor Branagh has the consistent anti-war, anti-authoritarian vision of, say, a Leo Tolstoy. For Shakespeare, it’s intentional. He wrote a play to glorify Henry V and the Tudors. Branagh, on the other hand, rudely pushes a post-Vietnam sensibility into the play’s patriotic Elizabethan myth making. What’s more, shortly after we see Henry order Bardolph’s hanging, we then get to see the horror of war visualized as the brutality of the common soldier. That might work as an anti-war message. War reduces us to beasts. But it also detracts from message Branagh had sent when he dwelt on Bardolph’s brutal execution. Is this a straight staging of Henry V or a deconstruction of the legend of Prince Hal? It’s both, obviously, and it’s not bad as far as cinema goes, but it’s not Shakespeare either. It’s a realistic war movie weighted down by Shakespeare’s language.

Anthony Mann’s El Cid is something quite different. If Olivier overcomes the limitations of the cinema of his day by his oblique, stylized approach to the Battle of Agincourt, and if Kenneth Branagh gives us a realistic, big budget Henry V that’s neither true to the source material nor grand enough to be genuinely realistic — Agincourt was, after all, the biggest, bloodiest battle of the Middle Ages — then Anthony Mann, up until then best known for low-budget westerns, makes a bold dramatic choice and stays with it with so much crazy determination that it works. El Cid is the biggest, loudest, grandest, most patriotic, most romantic historical epic ever made. Mann has thousands of extras, not hundreds. He films on location at four of the biggest, most imposing castles in all of Spain. What’s more, having worked in the American southwest, he knows how to make good use of the Spanish landscape, the deep blue, sun drenched Mediterranean, the forbidding light, space, and beauty of the Iberian peninsula. Charleton Heston may be wooden, but he’s larger than life wooden. Sophia Loren may not be a great actress, but she is able to convey the broad, operatic quality of her character Doña Ximena. Genevieve Page, as Princess Donna Urraca of Zamora, has more regal, female authority in one glance than you can find in all nine hours of Peter Jackson’s execrable Lord of the Rings saga. The over the top drama, the incestuous love of Donna Urraca for her brother Alphonso, Alphonso’s betrayal of their other brother Sancho, Cid’s blatantly oedipal dual with Doña Ximena’s father Count Gormaz, the Muslims, both good, Cid’s friend Al-Mu’tamin the Emir of Zaragosa, or comically, B-movie evil, the Osama Bin Laden like Ben Yusef, Doña Ximena’s attempt to revenge herself on the man she loves for having killed her father, everything right up to the climatic battle on the beaches in front of Valencia, where Cid leads his troops into battle even after he’s dead, serves up the kind of blood and thunder, the romantic melodrama an Elizabethan poet like William Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe surely would have appreciated better than any of us.

The very best scene by far in this relentless, driving, noisy, colorful, out-sized, overly long, over the top medieval epic follows the inspired method Laurence Olivier invented for Henry V. As good as the climatic battle scenes are — and they’re better than anything in the infantile Lord of the Rings — the most exciting battle scene is a fake, or more accurately, a staged battle scene, a tournament staged by the film’s characters within the film. We are in front of Castle Bellmonte in Southern Spain, here standing in for the ancient Spanish city of Callahora. Callahora is disputed territory, claimed by both the King of Aragon and the King of Castile. Cid, who’s under arrest for treason — he defied a royal decree by sparing Al-Mu’tamin’s life — has taken up the gauntlet as Ferdinand, the King of Castile’s champion. Since Cid had killed Count Gormaz under suspicious circumstances, the King of Aragon thinks it’s an opportune moment to lay claim. He’s certain his champion, Don Martin, who’s killed 27 other men in single combat, can beat anything Ferdinand can send against him. Ferdinand, with good reason, is skeptical himself. Cid is a young man. Don Martin is a legendary knight.

What follows is as realistic a staging of a medieval trial by combat as you’re likely to see, yet a realistic staging that uses the full panoply of cinematic technique available in 1961. Olivier’s staging of the Battle of Agincourt, Sergei Eisenstein’s staging of the Battle of Lake Peipus are among the best battle scenes ever filmed, but they are limited by their size and scope. Olivier couldn’t put the 30,000 men he would have needed on stage. Nevsky couldn’t show the real carnage of the battle on the ice. Anthony Mann solves the problem by staging not a battle — although he would stage a battle at the end of the movie — but a tournament, a dual, a fight to the death by the champions of Aragon and Castile for the City of Callahora. In place of Olivier’s and Shakespeare’s groundlings, in place of the London mob, we get a battle of of facial expressions between Doña Ximena and Donna Urraca. Donna Urraca wins. I think Genevieve Page is a much better, much more subtle actress, but I suppose your mileage may vary. We see the dual between Cid and Don Martin — we know that Cid’s going to win because we’re only an hour into a three hour movie — not through our eyes, but through the eyes of the Castilian court. Donna Urraca’s beautiful face registers every blow and every counter blow. Doña Ximena is melodramatically conflicted. She loves Cid but wants him dead. She was charged by her father just before he died to avenge his death, and she wants to avenge his death, but she also knows that the only reason he had been so determined to provoke Cid was a creepy, incestuous passion, and a reluctance to admit he was growing old. After Cid stabs Don Martin through the heart, the camera draws back. Cid walks across the field to bow to greet King Ferdinand as the now Prince of Callahora. We see not only the scale of their field of battle, but the scale of Castle Bellemonte, and the stark landscape surrounding it. Olivier’s Henry V seems positively intimate and domestic compared to this. But Mann could not have done it without the approach to history Olivier invented back in 1944.

Sadly, people who film historical romance have not followed up on Laurence Olivier or Anthony Mann. They’ve taken one of two approaches. There’s the approach Kenneth Branagh used in the 1989 version of Henry V, a liberal, revisionist, anti-war deconstruction of the myth of chivalry. The best, and probably the most extreme example of this type of cinema would be Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. The second and far worse would be the one Peter Jackson took in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, romance devoid of romance, chivalry without chivalry, a medieval epic that uses special effects in place of drama, infantile racism in place of political intrigue. If Olivier’s Prince Hal is a man of destiny who triumphs, and Charleton Heston’s El Cid one who fails, then Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is one who bores. Replace the bawdy, irreverent Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym with the insipid Frodo and Sam, and Shakespeare’s groundlings become G-rated moppets. Aragorn’s speech in front of the gates of Mordor is a wooden imitation of Olivier’s St. Crispian’s Day speech. Three major set pieces and an army of the dead against what must seem like 100,000 computer generated orcs doesn’t equal one Battle of Agincourt. Laurence Olivier we have need of thee today.