Shmuel Hanagid: Beyond Charlton Heston‘s El Cid

I hate to disagree with Martin Scorsese. The filmmaker is a consummate master of his craft, director of many great works. My favorite Scorsese film is his 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull. But his evaluation of El Cid – he worked on restoring the film in 1993 – is off the mark.

The director states that the movie biography of the legendary medieval mercenary and Castilian hero, directed by Anthony Mann and debuting in 1961, is “One of the greatest epic films ever made.” In fact, the film starring Charlton Heston in the title role is, despite some outstanding battle scenes, rather tepid and boring. Sophia Loren, as a love interest for Heston’s El Cid, drags the film down with a mediocre performance that does nothing to explore the complexity of the hero’s career, fighting both alongside Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain. If I were to choose great epic films that highlight historical figures, I would go with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Franklin Schaffner’s Patton.

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George C. Scott’s performance in Patton – he received the Oscar for Best Actor but refused to accept it – remains one of the most powerful in American cinema. Heston is just wooden as El Cid.

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar – known as “El Cid” among the Moors, a corruption of the Arabic for “The Lord” – was born in Vivar, a town near the city of Burgos – around 1043. Far from El Cid’s birthplace in Christian Spain, Samuel Ib Nagrela was leading the Berber forces of Granada against Arab enemies in Seville. At the time of El Cid’s birth, Ib Nagrela was at the height of his power as a military leader, a prime minister and a poet. Ib Nagrela was born in Cordoba in 993, but was later forced to flee the city when the Umayyad caliphate in Andalusia was shaken by civil war in 1013.

The story of his rise to power in the Berber kingdom of Granada is a tale of danger, luck and political smarts. His birth name was Samuel Ibn Nagrela but he soon became known among the Jews of Iberia and North Africa as Shmuel Hanagid (“The Prince”). After a power struggle among the leaders of Granada – Ibn Nagrela was on the winning side in the conflict – Badis, the ruler of Granada appointed Ibn Nagrela to the post of vizier, prime minister in 1038. As vizier, he led Berber armies in victorious campaigns against Arab Seville and her allies for 20 summers, from his rise to power until his death in 1056. He died in that year after leading a particular stressful campaign and was succeeded as both nagid and vizier by his son Yehoseph. In December 1066, Yehoseph was assassinated and Berbers and Arabs together carried out a violent pogrom against the Jews of Granada. Despite the massacre, the community was able to revive but never regained the glory of Ibn Nagrela’s leadership.

For a filmmaker who has the guts and the knowledge of Jewish history to produce a film biography of Shmuel Hanagid, a gold mine of information regarding this outstanding figure in Jewish history is his poems. Beside his military prowess and political savvy, Shmuel Hanagid is one of the greatest Hebrew poets of all time. He composed poetry on the glories of friendship and the wine parties of the Jewish elite in Andalusia, as well as elegies for the dead and a praise of his patrons. Most of all he composed poems from the battlefield recounting his campaigns and his trust in God to lead him to victory, poems that he sent back to his young son Yehoseph to edit and collect in Granada. This was the first example of war poetry in Hebrew since the Bible.

Filmmakers can tap into a number of sources to create a screenplay biography of Shmuel Hanagid.

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Israeli historian Eliyahu Ashtor’s two-volume The Jews of Moslem Spain, although published a generation ago, remains the standard and detailed chronicle of the Jews in Andalusia. He describes in detail Shmuel Hanagid’s career – the vizier was known among the Muslims as Isma’il ibn Nagrela – and its aftermath. A script could be built based on Ashtor’s history.

A second and more intriguing source is the prime minister’s poetry, spanning his whole life and career. Hillel Halkin’s Grand Things to Write a Poem On traces Shmuel Hanagid’s life through his poetry – translated by Halkin into English – covering every aspect of the Nagid’s rise to power until his death. But there are other translators, as well, whose work could be incorporated into a film biography: Raymond Scheindlin, Peter Cole, T. Carmi, are just a few examples of able and talented translators. The poetry could be read in voice-over in much of the motion picture. With Ashtor as a secondary source and the translated poems as a primary source, Shmuel Hanagid’s incredible story could be brought to life.

While a film can remain historically accurate, untainted by modern movements and ideologies, telling the story of Shmuel Hanagid raises many questions that are relevant to the events of our own time: • How was it possible that a Jew led Muslim armies out to battle for 20 years and retained their loyalty? Was he not an infidel in the eyes of Islam? • Was the Golden Age in Andalusia always a tale of convivencia, cooperation between Jews, Christian, and Muslims, under tolerant Islamic leadership, or does the Granada massacre tarnish the apologists who argue that Jews and Muslims lived together in harmony and only with the rise of the State of Israel did Muslims turn against Jews? • What was the cause of Yehoseph’s failure, following in the footsteps of his legendary father? • Shmuel Hanagid blazed a trail of brilliant Hebrew poetry composed by Jews a continent away for the Land of Israel – how can propagandists deny the intimate Jewish connection to the language of their ancestors and the land from which it emerged? • What was the nature of Jewish power in the Diaspora throughout Jewish history and what danger did it entail that it could unravel at the whim of the non-Jewish majority? • What does the divide between Muslim Arabs and Muslim Berbers in Andalusia tell us about the events of our time in which Israel seems to be forging alliances with Arab Muslims to halt the conquest of Persian Muslims? All these questions could be addressed if handled in the right way.

Shmuel Hanagid’s attitude toward the Muslim soldiers he was leading and his relationship with Yehoseph would also be explored in a film full of battles and action.

His poem recounting the Battle of Alfuente against Seville in 1038 describes the soldiers under his command as “gallant men” and “young lions” who “welcomed each raw wound upon their heads as though it were a garland” (Carmi translation). At the same time he was a realist about the price of war and the heroism of his soldiers. In another Carmi translation, Shmuel Hanagid writes, “War is at first like a beautiful girl with whom all men long to play, but in the end like a repulsive hag whose suitors all weep and ache.”

In regard to his relationship with his son and successor, the Nagid writes before battle, as translated by Halkin, some poignant advice if he is not to return from battle, “Obey your mother; speak gently to your uncle and your kin; respect your friends; be loving to all creatures; see, before all goods, to your good name.” Of course, Shmuel saw in God the reason for his victories, battles he could not lose if the Jewish community of Granada were to survive.

Jewish history consists of triumph and tragedy, success and persecution, creativity and division.

There are so many great stories to tell – whether in the Land of Israel or the Diaspora – that it is a shame that most Jewish filmmakers do not have the knowledge and the will to explore our people’s past – except for the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. While modern events, especially of such pivotal and significant import, deserve filmmakers’ attention, Jews should know more about the pride and the complexity of a history that is not just a vale of tears. Whether Bar Kochba or Shmuel Hanagid, we need to learn who we are and from whence we came. Stereotypes and caricatures cripple us. The time has arrived for a cinematic revival that will teach, enlighten and entertain.

Our past is not dead. It lives within us. We must explore it.

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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