By James Turner
Time to shine a light on the half-forgotten and flawed gem from 1965 that is The War Lord. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston, who collaborated again three years later on Planet of the Apes (1968), The War Lord follows an eleventh-century Norman knight as he attempts to defend and dominate his new domain. If Planet of the Apes can be said to be genre shaping, expanding as it did the visual language and themes of mainstream science fiction, then The War Lord can fairly be described as genre-busting – it is gritty and grubby, its characters all too often tarnished by their baser instincts. It is a tale of violence and dominion, of lust un-tempered by love or scruples, and of family and ambition. Overall, it is a surprisingly resonant and effective work that is to an extent marred by a regrettable mishandling of its central romance.
Charlton Heston’s character Chrysagon de la Cruex makes for a stoic yet pugnacious leading man of conflicting impulses and uncompromising martialism. A portrayal which ably embodies and further facilitates the film’s vision of the eleventh century as a period characterized by endemic brutal and highly personalised conflict and dispels all the illusions of gallantry and romanticism that cinema-goers had previously been taught to associate with the period. Chrysagon is a hardened veteran knight who has been dispatched by his liege lord, the Duke, to rule over and protect a remote Flemish village nestled between swamp and sea that has come under attack by Frisian raiders.
He is aided in this endeavour by his younger brother Draco, played by Guy Stockwell whose performance amusingly enough contains all the haughty entitlement and slimy one-upmanship of a certain Slytherin student with whom he shares a name. The two brothers are joined by a small company of retainers and soldiers, including the fiercely loyal Bors, a former companion of their father, played by Richard Boone who is today best known for his role as Paladin, a pseudo knightly cowboy and gunslinger who serves as the main character of the television show Have Gun – Will Travel. Chrysagon’s party arrives just in time to thwart another raid by the Frisians, during which the Frisian chieftain’s son is inadvertently left behind by his fleeing kinsman.
Chrysagon then settles into his seat as warlord, the fortified tower that looms over the village before acquainting himself with his tiny new fief. As part of this orientation, he meets with the put upon and discombobulated local priest, played by celebrated screen and stage actor Maurice Evans and the village chief, Odins, portrayed by veteran Irish actor Niall MacGinnis. While stone fortifications were not exactly uncommon in the eleventh century, it seems strange someone would have gone to the immense trouble and expense of constructing a stone tower on the very hinterlands of their civilisation rather than whip up a motte-and-bailey castle in a few weeks. Perhaps we are meant to infer a certain antiquity from the structure and remain open to the possibility that it was built by some sort of swamp wizard.
The villagers are less than thrilled to see Chrysagon and co, despite their timely military intervention, resenting the arbitrary imposition of outside authority upon them. Chrysagon certainly doesn’t help matters, viewing the culturally alien Flemish villagers as barbarians that need to be broken to his way of doing things. Indeed, he treats them as if they are as severe a threat to his safety and position as the Frisians and is practically appalled by the idea that the peasantry had seen fit to arm and defend themselves in his absence. It is an attitude in keeping with the movie’s quest for realism and preoccupation with the role of force in eleventh-century society. While this highly reactive and idiosyncratic vision of the eleventh century naturally needs to be taken with more than a pinch of salt, it is nonetheless an interesting reminder that such tenurial relationships, particularly on the borders between cultures and polities, were underpinned by the implication if not the common application of martial power.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that both the villagers and their more or less wilfully oblivious priest are eager to hide their ongoing practice of pagan rites from the newcomers. Clearly the idea of a Flemish village in the eleventh century engaged in active paganism is ahistorical, no matter how remote it is meant to be. Indeed, while the village priest turns a blind eye to his parishioners’ nocturnal worshiping, the medieval Church was on the whole reasonably proficient at adapting and annexing pagan-derived rural customs and traditions. Its ahistorical nature aside, in the context of the movie the villagers’ adherence to pagan rites further delineates the difference in culture and values between the Norman warlord and his unwilling subjects and further stresses the brooding isolation and surreal eeriness of the setting.
Chrysagon soon encounters Bronwyn, a stunningly beautiful villager who is in a canny bit of casting played by the stunningly beautiful Rosemary Forsyth. Chrysagon saves Bronwyn from the lecherous attentions of a group of soldiers, although it is questionable how much credit he should be given for this since they were his soldiers, and he almost instantly makes his own lecherous interest in Bronwyn unclear. At one point, when the suspicious and unflinchingly brave Bronwyn contemptuously questions the trustworthiness and emotional capacity of the hardened professional killer, Chrysagon counters by pointing out he can be gentle with hawks and horses, a deeply illuminating baseline for the main character’s attitude towards women which regretfully the film never deviates from.
He is subsequently approached by Bronwyn’s intended, Marc (James Farentino), the son of the village Chief, who asks his newly installed liege permission to marry her. Chrysagon agrees with obvious reluctance, only for him to decide with some prompting from his brother Draco to crash the wedding and invoke the highly fictional, Droit du Seigneur, much to the horror and outrage of the villagers, the priest, and of course Bronwyn herself. Whisking her away to his tower, much is made of Chrysagon’s agonising indecision as lust wars with his rather blunted and fragile sense of morality. In a bizarre and ill-judged plot contrivance, Bronwyn is apparently impressed by his self-control and in a hyper-accelerated case of Stockholm syndrome agrees to stay with him.
Meanwhile the Frisian war chief, played by Henry Wilcoxon, having learnt that his son is alive and being kept prisoner by Chrysagon returns and begins a siege of the tower. Despite his role as the film’s nominal antagonist, his determination to rescue his son and obvious paternal concern are actually pretty pleasant and refreshing to behold when compared to the probing barbs that characterise Chrysagon and Draco’s increasingly complicated relationship or the blatant favouritism that Bors, who is something of a foster uncle to the brothers, shows to Chrysagon.
The siege, which dominates the central portions of the film is meticulously plotted around the Frisians’ increasingly ferocious attempts to enact an escalade and is thrillingly executed throughout. Really, it is the true highlight of the movie. It is superbly well-paced, the Frisians unveil their latest ploy to take the castle, skirmishing breaks out and the fighting is slowly allowed to ratchet up to a fever pitch before each attempt to seize the tower is foiled by some cunning ploy of the defenders or a showing of bloody-handed heroics. The film allows the characters and audience to enjoy these small triumphs and the spectacle and excitement of the daringly choreographed fight scenes but also ably communicates the claustrophobic atmosphere of a castle under siege. The stale air of the tower positively thrums with tension as relationships begin to fray and their situation appears ever more tenuous, as little by little their numbers dwindle and their means of defence are compromised. Overall, it is a thoroughly engaging action centrepiece for the film that ably blends the spectacle of cut and thrust swashbuckling action with the film’s brooding preoccupation with the exercise of power in both political and personal contexts.
This atmosphere is carried through the entire visual design of the movie, consistently and to great effect. While I joked about it earlier, the cramped and crumbling confines of a lone tower in the middle of nowhere, rearing out between swamp and sea, really is quite evocative regardless of its historical implausibility. Characters cannot help but prickle one another’s nerves as they live and scheme on the tower’s narrow landings and winding staircases. This sense of grim isolation is shaded with an understated feeling of dark mysticism lent to it by the design of the primeval glade in which the villagers often meet throughout the film, an eerie and alien place in which the demarcation between swamp and civilisation becomes blurred.
The film decisively banishes any expectations regarding the classic Hollywood depiction of knights in shining armour in the costuming and apparel of Chrysagon’s modest warband. Watching the film, you get the feeling you are hundreds of miles away from the nearest vermillion plume or mirrored shield. Actually, for a Hollywood film, particularly one of this era, the costume is pretty great. Everything is looking reasonable accurate for an eleventh-century milites, from their distinctive kite-shaped shields, the occasionally cumbersome looking length of the Chrysagon’ hauberk, through to distinctive bowl cuts that would have been the height of fashion of an eleventh-century Norman noble on the go. The Frisians, of course, appear as far more generic Hollywood-era Vikings but at least they avoided the horned helmets and for the most part their close-ups are dominated by swinging axes at people which helps to distract from their oddly generic and anarchistic appearance.
Interestingly, judging by the contemporary marketing material, the creative team behind The War Lord seem to have conceived of the film as being primarily a love story, a more gritty and realistic counterpoint to the romanticism-infused historical pictures of classic Hollywood. It seems clear though that whatever the film’s original intentions, the “Love” Story is its Achilles heel. Despite her strong characterisation in her initial appearance following her abduction, Bronwyn becomes an essentially passive character stripped of most of her agency, with the narrative thrust of the story becoming about Chrysagon, Draco and Marc vying for access to her rather than her actual relationship with any of them. Bronwyn’s eventual rather placid acceptance of a man who is continually contemplating raping her and the film’s circular justification for this is obviously extremely dicey and distasteful.
The film’s self-image has its roots in its origins as an adaption of a stage play called The Lovers written by Leslie Stevens. After serving in the air force during World War II, Stevens dogged persistence and commitment to honing his craft as a playwright saw him rewarded with opportunities to write, direct and produce within television. The original Broadway run of The Lovers starred the legendary Joanne Woodward, one of Hollywood’s most talented stars during her time; in fact, at the time of writing she is the oldest living winner of an Academy Award. Amongst Stevens’ most well-known and notable works were the Incubus, a film in which all the dialogue was performed in the artificial language Esperanto which he directed in 1966 and some of the most memorable episodes of Buck Rogers, The Invisible Man and The Outer Limits which he wrote and produced.
The War Lord itself was produced by Walter Seltzer who had previously produced a modest clutch of films across a surprising variety of genres, including the military courtroom drama Man in the Middle (1965), the musical Paris Blues (1961) and the western One Eye Jack (1961). It seems clear that Charlton Heston was, as a result of his level of clout within the industry, also deeply involved behind the scenes and had a significant say in casting, in particular. Seltzer did not seem to mind this input though as he would go on to work with Heston again in the science fiction staples The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). The task of adapting Leslie Stevens play into a filmable script was given to John Collier and Millard Kaufman.
In addition to John Collier’s work as a screenwriter, he was also an author of numerous fantasy-infused short stories, one of his collections, Fancies and Goodnights, won the International Fantasy Award in 1952 and his work has been cited as an influence upon such luminary authors as Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman. He had previously been one of three writers working on the much-maligned but now thought to be ahead of its time screenplay for Sylvia Scarlett (1935) which starred Kathrine Hepburn and Carey Grant. Millard Kaufman originally moved to California and became a screenwriter to escape New York winters after his health was weakened by a number of tropical diseases he contracted while serving in the Pacific during World War II. Probably his most notable work prior to The War Lord was the script for the Oscar-nominated Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) which examines and deconstructs many of the aspects of the western genre in a manner highly reminiscent of The War Lord’s contrasting depiction of the brutal reality of power and authority in the medieval period which Hollywood and the Victorians before it had buried under layers of chivalric fuelled romanticism.
As stated all the way back at the beginning of this review, the film was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner who would go on to direct amongst other films Planet of the Apes (1968), the award-laden Patton (1970) and The Boys From Brazil (1978). Also pertinent to our current discussion are his previous two films, both of which received Oscar nominations, The Stripper (1963) and The Best Man (1964) which was written by Gore Vidal.
If The War Lord doesn’t quite make it into genre-busting territory, it is at least a thoughtful and calculated deconstruction. It is a bold film artfully made by a rising star of the industry, eager to peel back the glamour of Hollywood’s pleasantly sanitized stock facsimile of the Middle Ages and gaze into the darkness of a human soul and society calloused by violence. The War Lord touches upon and examines multiple themes such as the extent to which the shape and form of civilisation define human behaviour, the nature of evil, and the inherent duality between duty and vainglory found within certain exemplars of martial traditions that all blossom into full life in Schaffner’s later films.
The War Lord is at its best when it allows these preoccupations and deconstructive ruminations to crystalise as it does in its portrayal of the way the social architecture and cultural norms of the Norman aristocracy work to push Chrystagon and Draco into conflict with one another. When these thematic nuances are paired with the film’s pervasive atmosphere of eerie isolation and a few excellently staged action set pieces The War Lord comes into its own, as iconic and intriguing as its namesake.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.