When it’s on: Thursday, 7 May (2.55 pm)
In my reading about The War Lord, I came across a quote from anongst the user reviews on IMDb that stuck with me – ‘This is the role Charlton Heston was born to play.’ Bold statement, but the more I thought about it the truer it rang. Heston was of course the star of some of Hollywood’s biggest ever movies, of which The War Lord is not one, with its more modest budget and smaller sense of scale, also the fact it remained unreleased on DVD until 2010. But it does play to the actor’s core strength, that of playing someone torn between duty or ‘path’ and his desires. This, essentially, is the film; Heston’s status as the eponymous war lord ensures that every decision he makes causes ripples for everyone around him.
The War Lord was directed by Franklin J Schaffner, a half-forgotten name now yet an Oscar winner in his day, for Patton. Looking through his credits, I was surprised how many of his films I had actually seen, from his best known work – Planet of the Apes, another collaboration with Heston – to The Boys from Brazil and the admittedly hopeless Sphinx. This one, however, which he directed with his career in television not far behind him, is a bit of a standout entry. Schaffner’s compositional ability to fill a wide canvas belies all that work for the small screen, opening up the grimy world of the Middle Ages whilst similarly being intimate enough to present those who lived in it as real people with hopes and dreams not so dissimilar to our own. As a surprisingly accurate insight into the medieval existence, it really is riveting, quite ahead of its time – light years ahead, for instance, of El Cid, a more celebrated Heston epic and a favourite within this household – and as removed from the romantic perception of the era as it gets.
The story takes place in northern France in the year 1060. Chrysagon (Heston) is a famed and experienced knight, in the service of Duke William, who is sent to hold a stretch of coastal land against the barbarian Frisians. In return, he gets to be overlord of his new territory, though it consists of little beyond a single stone tower and the nearby peasant village. Nevertheless, Chrysagon is a dutiful servant and, upon arriving sees off the Frisians, even capturing their chieftain’s young son. He then settles down to rule, along with his faithful, largely silent right hand man, Bors (Richard Boone), and his younger brother, Draco (Guy Stockwell). The relationship between the siblings is particularly tense. Draco is clearly jealous of his older brother’s reputation and does all he can to belittle him, but the truth, as it’s teased out along the way, is that he’s been carried by Chrysagon all along; everything Draco possesses is down to him.
In the meantime, life goes on as normal for the people of the village, a sense of their ways changing little no matter who rules them. What’s especially striking is the minimal impact Christianity has had on them; the local priest confesses he has had little success in changing their pagan beliefs. Chrysagon determines to be a good lord, demanding that his men ‘treat them softly’, but then it all gets complicated when he finds himself beguiled by a girl, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). Egged on by Draco, he claims the right of ‘first night’ before Bronwyn’s married, the lord’s ancient privilege to sleep with a girl prior to her nuptials. The law’s roots are pagan, so the population agrees to his demand providing he hands her over the following dawn. The twist is that Chrysagon and Bronwyn turn out to be crazy about each other and he refuses to give her up, leading to tensions with the village that spill over into hostility. Bronwyn’s spurned groom, Marc (James Farentino), goes a step further and recruits the Frisians to their cause, with the promise of getting the chieftain’s son back. Suddenly, Chrysagon’s little force is besieged in its tower, an army closing in and no chance of escape.
Battle fans will be delighted with the second half of The War Lord, the result of strains that have been building carefully to this stage, between Chrysagon and Draco as much as his fractured relationship with the locale. Presented as a complicated yet largely good man who wants to do the right thing, Heston’s character is plunged into violent action as a consequence of his succumbing to desire and fully lives up to his title, at one stage defending the tower alone, weaponless and clad in a loincloth. Clearly there’s an element of him that abhors the killing, yet he’s so good at it, adept as a military commander, with the stoic Bors at his side, occasionally offering the merest nod of approval, a result of the latter’s role as someone who has watched Chrysagon mature over the years.
It’s all told against a backdrop of a world that has vanished, northern Europe in its largely pre-Christian state, trees decorated with lurid symbols to show the people’s closeness to nature and emphasising the contrast between them and their Catholic overlords. The score by Jerome Moross is as energetic as one would expect, though at its best when highlighting the tenderness of Chrysagon’s feeling towards Bronwyn.
The War Lord is a great film, punctuated by the complex characterisation of its central character that was a hallmark of films of this era (I couldn’t help drawing comparisons with The Lion in Winter, another entry that drew on its fully rounded people) and an attention to detail that is altogether superior.
The War Lord: ****