Saturday, October 8, 2016

The War Lord (1965)

The War Lord marked a new departure for historical costume epics. This 1965 Universal production starring Charlton Heston took a much grittier and more realistic look at the Middle Ages.

Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) is a Norman knight who has just arrived to take possession of his newly granted lands on the Normandy coast. It’s a bleak depressing place but Chrysagon doesn’t care. It’s his and that’s all that matters. His father lost all his lands, having been captured and forced to sell everything he had to pay the ransom. Chrysagon has served the Duke of Normandy well and his new lands are his reward. If he holds them successfully he may perhaps eventually be given a more attractive reward.

He soon makes a very disturbing discovery. Christianity has not much headway here. The people are still firmly in the grip of pagan superstitions. Chrysagon, who is a reasonably devout Christian, does not approve.

He has other problems. His lands are subject to regular sea-borne raids from Frisians. Protecting his new possessions and his people will present serious challenges. 

Chrysagon is determined to treat the locals fairly and kindly. Unfortunately another problem presents itself. He has become obsessed with a girl from the nearby village, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). Bronwyn is betrothed to the son of the village headman. 

At this point the film, sadly, resorts to the hoary old myth of the droit de seigneur - the supposed right of a feudal lord to have sex with a girl on her wedding night. There is no evidence that any such right existed in medieval Europe but I guess it makes a good story. In fairness the film does explain this right as a pagan custom and does point out that the Church firmly opposes it.

In any case Chrysagon is determined to avail himself of this right. He does however only intend to do so if Bronwyn is willing. In fact Bronwyn is very willing indeed. She has fallen in love with him, as he has with her. The villagers are perfectly happy about the arrangement as long as it is for one night only after which she will return to her husband. Bronwn has no intention of doing so and Chrysagon has no intention of giving her up. This not only precipitates a revolt - the villagers ally themselves with the Frisians and Chrysagon now has a full-scale war on his hands.

There is yet another complication. Chrysagon’s Normans captured a young Frisian boy after defeating an earlier raid. The boy is the son of the Frisian prince and the Frisians want him back. Chrysagon’s small force of Normans, ensconced in their forbidding but not very defensible tower, will now have to withstand a determined siege. Chrysagon also has problems with his ambitious younger brother Draco (Guy Stockwell).

The movie devotes a great deal of time to the Chrysagon-Bronwyn love story but luckily there’s also plenty of time for some marvellous action sequences. The Frisians come up with some very impressive-looking siege engines which provide exciting battle scenes as the Normans have to try to destroy these siege engines before the Frisians are able to use them to destroy Chrysagon’s tower.

Visually this film offers superb spectacle as well as atmosphere. The War Lord is a long way from the romanticised idealised vision of the MIddle Ages seen in earlier Hollywood epics such as The Knights of the Round Table (although it’s not quite as gloomy or as squalid as many later period films). One thing I certainly appreciated is that these Norman knights actually look like Norman knights of around the 11th century - they aren’t wearing the anachronistic 15th century full plate armour that appears in virtually every earlier Hollywood film about the Middle Ages.

Charlton Heston gives one of the best performances of his career as the complex and haunted Chrysagon - he’s just as good as he was in Anthony Mann’s magnificent El Cid a few years earlier. Rosemary Forsyth is adequate but rather insipid. Richard Boone is splendid as Chrysagon’s faithful retainer Bors. Guy Stockwell is suitably cynical as the untrustworthy Draco. It’s great to see the underrated Henry Wilcoxon, the star of so many of Cecil B. DeMille’s epics, giving a fine spirited performance as the Frisian prince.

Eureka’s Region DVD is barebones but offers a pretty satisfactory transfer in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I believe there is now a Blu-Ray release.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner was trying to make an emotionally nuanced and intelligent costume epic and he succeeds fairly well. He certainly handles the action scenes with a great deal of confidence and gusto. The War Lord might be more pessimistic and morally ambiguous than most previous films of its type but thankfully it doesn’t succumb entirely to the fashionable nihilism of the 60s. Highly recommended and Charlton Heston’s performance is a very major plus. 

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