Made by Samuel Bronston Productions in association with Dear Film Produzione and released in the United States by Allied Artists, the film was directed by Anthony Mann and produced by Samuel Bronston with Jaime Prades and Michal Waszynski as associate producers. The screenplay was by Philip Yordan, Ben Barzman and Fredric M. Frank from a story by Frank. The music score was by Miklós Rózsa, the cinematography by Robert Krasker and the editing by Robert Lawrence. The film had its World Premiere at the Metropole Theatre, Victoria, London on December 6, 1961.
General Ibn (pronounced Ben) Yusuf (Herbert Lom) of the Almoravid dynasty has summoned all the Emirs of Al-Andalus to North Africa and chastises them for their complacency in dealing with the infidels and reveals his plan for Islamic world domination.
Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston), on the way to his wedding with Doña Ximena (Sophia Loren), rescues a Spanish town from an invading Moorish army. Two of the Emirs, Al-Mu'tamin (Douglas Wilmer) of Zaragoza and Al-Kadir (Frank Thring) of Valencia, are captured. After escorting his prisoners to Vivar and seeing that peace will not come from others' bloodthirsty desire for revenge, Rodrigo releases the Moors on condition that they pledge never again to attack King Ferdinand of Castile's (Ralph Truman) lands. The Emirs proclaim him "El Cid" (the Castillian Spanish pronunciation of the Arabic for Lord: "Al Sidi") and swear allegiance to him.
For this act of mercy, Don Rodrigo is accused of treason by Count Ordóñez (Raf Vallone). When the charge is repeated in court, they are supported by Ximena's father, Count Gormaz (Andrew Cruickshank), the king's champion. Rodrigo's aged father, Don Diego (Michael Hordern), once himself the champion, angrily calls Gormaz a liar. Gormaz strikes Don Diego with a glove, challenging him to a duel. Rodrigo asks Gormaz to come meet privately, begging him several times to "have pity" and instead ask the aged but proud Diego for forgiveness (for accusing Rodrigo of treason). Gormaz refuses, and Rodrigo kills him in a duel. Ximena swears revenge, wishing she were a son rather than a daughter.
When a rival king demands the city of Calahorra, Rodrigo takes up the mantle of the Ferdinand's champion, to win the city based on single combat. Rodrigo is victorious and then is sent on a mission to collect tribute from Moorish vassals of the Castillian crown. He asks that if he returns, Ximena is given to him as wife, so that he can protect and provide for her. Count Ordóñez, conspiring with Ximena to win her as he's wanted, plots to kill Rodrigo. Rodrigo and his men are ambushed but are saved by Al-Mu'tamin, one of the pair to whom he showed mercy at the beginning of the story. Returning home, he and Ximena are wed, but the marriage is not consummated: Rodrigo will not take her if she does not give herself out of love, Ximena spends the night crying, and she soon removes herself to a convent.
On the death of King Ferdinand, his younger son, Prince Alfonso (John Fraser), tells the elder son Prince Sancho (Gary Raymond), that Ferdinand divided the kingdom: Castile to Sancho, Asturias and León to Alfonso, and Calahorra to their sister, Princess Urraca (Geneviève Page). Sancho refuses to accept anything but an undivided kingdom as his birthright, knowing Ferdinand would have been manipulated by the treacherous Urraca. After Alfonso instigates a knife fight, Sancho overpowers his brother and sends him to the dungeon Zamora. Rodrigo chases down the group, telling Alfonso's guards they are violating God's law, defeats them all and escorts Alfonto to Calahorra. When Sancho arrives to demand Alfonso, Urraca refuses to hand him over. She and Alfonso beg Rodrigo to join them, but he refuses, because his oath was to all of them equally. He could not help one without breaking his oath to the others.
Ibn Yusuf arrives at Valencia, planning to land his armada on Spanish shores, and hiring Dolfos to kill one of Ferdinand's sons, making it look like the other's order, thus weakening their part of Spain. Because Ferdinand had trusted Dolfos, Urraca suspects nothing when Dolfos offers to assassinate Sancho. At Alfonso's coronation, El Cid has him swear upon the Bible that he had no part in the death of his brother, including "by counsel" or "by design." Since he had no part in it or any knowledge (as it was Urraca's doing), Alfonso swears truthfully, and banishes Rodrigo for the impudence. Ximena secretly listens to the edict, and her love is rekindled. Well into his way out of Spain, Rodrigo finds that Ximena followed, choosing exile with him.
Rodrigo is called into service by other exiled Spanish fighters and eventually into the service of the king to protect Castille from Yusuf's North African army. Rodrigo does not join the king, but allies himself with the Emirs who fight at Valencia, where Rodrigo relieves the city from the wicked Emir Al-Kadir, who betrayed him.
Count Ordóñez brings Ximena from where the king had imprisoned her and her children after his defeat by the Moors. After patching things up with Rodrigo, Ordóñez joins him in his cause. Valencia falls and Emir Al-Mu'tamin, Rodrigo's army and the Valencians offer the crown to Rodrigo, "The Cid," but he refuses and sends the crown to King Alfonso. Rodrigo then repels the invading army of Ben Yusuf, but is wounded in battle by an arrow before the final victory. Yusuf and his men see that Rodrigo has been badly wounded. If the arrow is removed, he would be unable to lead his army, but he would have a chance of recovery. El Cid obtains a promise from Ximena to leave the arrow, choosing to ride out, dying or dead. King Alfonso comes to his bedside and asks for his forgiveness.
Rodrigo, El Cid, dies, and his body is secured in a heroic pose, wearing his armor and cape, to an iron frame fitted to his saddle. With the sounding battle cry of "For God, the Cid, and Spain" his body is sent out at the head of his army, with King Alfonso and Emir Al-Mu'tamin riding on either side to guide his horse. When Yusuf's soldiers see El Cid with his eyes still open, they believe that he has risen from the dead. The Cid's horse, Babieca, followed by the column of mounted knights, trample Ben Yusuf, who is too terrified to fight. The invading North African army is routed and smashed. King Alfonso leads Christians and Moors alike in a prayer for God to receive the soul "of the purest knight of all".
Loren was paid $200,000 for ten weeks' work; producer Samuel Bronston also agreed to pay $200 a week for her hairdresser.
Ramón Menéndez Pidal, a Spanish authority on El Cid and Spain in the Middle Ages, was the historical adviser for the film and for the interpretation of the hero as presented by Charlton Heston.
Time magazine provided some production details: "Inevitably, the picture is colossal — it runs three hours and 15 minutes (including intermission), cost $6,200,000, employs an extra-wide widescreen, a special color process, 7,000 extras, 10,000 costumes, 35 ships, 50 outsize engines of medieval war, and four of the noblest old castles in Spain: Ampudia, Belmonte, Peñíscola and Torrelobatón".
Ampudia appears as the raided village at the beginning of the film, Torrelobatón as Cid's hometown Vivar, the Castle of Belmonte appears as Calahorra, and Peñíscola and Bamburgh Castle as Valencia.
El Cid was shot mostly on location in Spain but a few studio scenes were shot in Rome, to achieve co-production status. An Iberia airplane is allegedly seen in the background during the Valencia battle scenes.
The movie earned $12 million in North American rentals.
Upon the release of El Cid, Bosley Crowther wrote "it is hard to remember a picture — not excluding Henry V, Ivanhoe, Helen of Troy and, naturally, Ben-Hur — in which scenery and regal rites and warfare have been so magnificently assembled and photographed as they are in this dazzler… The pure graphic structure of the pictures, the imposing arrangement of the scenes, the dynamic flow of the action against strong backgrounds, all photographed with the 70mm color camera and projected on the Super-Technirama screen, give a grandeur and eloquence to this production that are worth seeing for themselves". Crowther also pointed out that while "the spectacle is terrific the human drama is stiff and dull".
Sophia Loren had a major issue with Bronston's promotion of the film, an issue important enough to her that Loren sued Bronston for breach of contract in New York Supreme Court. As Time described it:
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."
The film is a favorite of Martin Scorsese, who called it "one of the greatest epic films ever made." Scorsese was one of the major forces behind a 1993 restoration and re-release of El Cid.
El Cid was nominated for three Academy Awards, for Best Art Direction (Veniero Colasanti, John Moore), Original Music Score for Miklós Rózsa and Best Song.
It was also nominated for three Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Motion Picture Director (Anthony Mann), and Best Motion Picture Score (Miklós Rózsa). Samuel Bronston won the 1962 Special Merit Award.
Robert Krasker won the 1961 Best Cinematography Award by the British Society of Cinematographers. Verna Fields won the 1962 "Golden Reel Award" of the Motion Picture Sound Editors.Dell Four Color #1259 (1961)