One of the more satisfying costume adventures of the ‘sixties is also one of its star’s best vehicles. Charlton Heston was born to play bigger-than-life historical types, and his Norman knight in this film has the benefit of an intelligent screenplay and a terrific supporting ensemble. This hero’s armor doesn’t shine — he’s more than willing to risk everything to possess a pagan woman with whom he’s become infatuated. Many would-be epics want us to think that the charms of unlikely damsels like Virginia Mayo and Claudette Colbert changed the course of history, but this show makes it seem more than possible. Plus, it features great action scenes and a terrific music score by Jerome Moross.
The War Lord
KL Studio Classics
1965 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 123 min. / Special Edition / Street Date January 21, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Charlton Heston, Richard Boone, Rosemary Forsyth, Maurice Evans, Guy Stockwell, Niall MacGinnis, James Farentino, Henry Wilcoxon, Sammy Ross, Woodrow Parfrey, Allen Jaffe, Michael Conrad, Forrest Wood.
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Original Music: Jerome Moross
Written by John Collier, Millard Kaufman from a play by Leslie Stevens
Produced by Walter Seltzer
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
A superior action spectacle with an intelligent, challenging screenplay, 1965’s The War Lord may be Universal’s smartest production of the decade. It doesn’t have a cast of thousands or vast vistas filmed on distant locations: in a last burst of old-studio ingenuity, medieval France was recreated on the Universal Lot … right before the eyes of tourists on the tram cars of Universal’s then-new studio tour.
By 1963 Charlton Heston had been a top star for several years. He commanded clout that could change the shape of the big costume epics that were his specialty. To accommodate Heston’s desire to film 55 Days at Peking instead of The Fall of the Roman Empire, mega-producer Samuel Bronston changed his filming schedule and tore down acres of already-constructed, unused Roman sets. Heston used his industry heft to support the trouble-prone Sam Peckinpah, and remained faithful to Orson Welles even when Hollywood wouldn’t touch the director. The actor likely planned his acting bookings years in advance. After the debacle of Major Dundee he was immediately off to Rome for Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy. Heston still found time to help another talented director. Franklin Schaffner had directed Heston several times for television shows starting back in 1949. Schaffner’s years of TV experience included directing Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House for TV. In 1964 he already had two features under his belt.
For Schaffner Heston would play one more costumed character from history. Universal Pictures didn’t repeat Columbia’s mistakes on Dundee. Filming took place on the studio lot and in Californian locations, not a foreign country. The script was finished, budgeted and planned out before filming began, to make use of the studio’s technical expertise. Rather than trust newcomers the producers (and Heston?) relied on talent they knew. Cameraman Russell Metty had shot Heston’s Touch of Evil. Heston likely insisted on costumer & technical advisor Vittorio Nino Novarese, who had been responsible for much of the look of The Agony and the Ecstasy, filmed in Italy. The War Lord gets extremely high marks for authenticity and period flavor. The 11th century is way, way back in medieval times … the Crusades were just getting under way. Top effects artist Albert Whitlock helped tie together scenes shot on the lot, on the beach at Malibu, and in a marshland north of Sacramento.
Technically, The War Lord came at the end of the vogue for Road Show epics. It’s only a little over two hours long. The collapse of Samuel Bronston’s Spanish epic machine and the Cleopatra debacle convinced Hollywood that extravagant grandiosity wouldn’t pay in the long run. Arguments still erupt over Kirk Douglas/Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings, an action classic without pretensions. Filmed in Technirama in Norway, it cost a fortune. Should it have been expanded into a Road Show epic, and perhaps printed in 70mm? The storyline shows signs that deeper character complications were dropped in editorial.
The War Lord is a big action picture but also a literate drama. The source is The Lovers, a play by the maverick writer-producer Leslie Stevens that starred Darren McGavin and Joanne Woodward. It was adapted for the screen by the respected John Collier and Millard Kaufman. The script avoids cultural anachronisms yet is universal in its appeal. The hero’s difficulties might be shared by any man in a position of authority, who covets a forbidden love object.
The title of Leslie Stevens’ play introduces the theme — a romantic attachment can upset any social system, primitive or sophisticated. Accompanied by his brother Draco (Guy Stockwell) and his aide Bors (Richard Boone) the Norman knight Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) takes ownership of a swampland fiefdom from a noble who has fallen out of favor. Chrysagon is advised to keep the support of the serfs; he gets off to a good start by routing some Viking-like Frisian raiders. He knows their leader (Henry Wilcoxon), who was responsible for the defeat that caused Chrysagon’s father to lose his former fiefdom. One of Chrysagon’s soldiers, Volc (Sammy Ross) takes charge of a Frisian captive, a boy. Draco is unimpressed by the lone tower that the Norman occupiers must call home. He also has no use for the ragtag locals that still follow pagan customs. The local priest (Maurice Evans of Planet of the Apes) has not tried to suppress their strange rituals. The elder serf Odins (Niall MacGinnis of Night of the Demon) asks Chrysagon for permission for his son Marc (James Farentino) to marry his ward Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). All would be well were it not for Chrysagon’s sudden attraction to Bronwyn. The scornful Draco and the loyal Bors interpret Chrysagon’s fixation on Bronwyn as weakness, or perhaps pagan witchery. Draco just wants Chrysagon to get her out of his system. He suggests that his brother exercise his droit de seigneur — a pagan custom that allows him to demand the first honeymoon night with any serf’s bride.
That’s exactly what Chrysagon does but nothing goes as planned. Bronwyn is smitten as well, and their night together is not a rape but a honeymoon. When the dawn comes Chrysagon refuses to give her up. This breaks all the rules of the feudal system, and Odins leads the serfs in rebellion. When they discover that the Normans’ boy captive is the Frisian Prince’s son, the serf community join with the Frisians to overthrow Chrysagon.
In his book American Film critic Andrew Sarris called Franklin Schaffner “…particularly sympathetic for his unrewarded ambitiousness with The War Lord, a film that dared to treat romantic heterosexual love as a sacred subject worthy of epic consideration.” A noble knight throws his entire life away over a desire he scarcely understands. The rigid feudal setup yields no wiggle room for noble or serf. When the able-bodied Marc volunteers to take up arms for Chrysagon, he is turned away because he’s of the wrong class. Chrysagon resents his twenty years of struggle to regain his family honor, and wonders if the assignment to take over this little patch of ground isn’t a demotion. Loyalty forces men to be cruel, whether ambitious like Draco or narrow-mindedly faithful like Bors. The Bors character reminds us of the frighteningly loyal Hagen Tronje of Die Nibelungen, whose intimidating poses Bors sometimes adopts.
The War Lord doesn’t impose modern notions of romantic love on the feudal system. Bronwyn’s medieval flower child has no voice in anything. Her ‘great love’ Chrysagon wouldn’t think to give her one. Rosemary Forsyth fully communicates Bronwyn’s confusion. Medieval women not noble born were generally considered mere property. Brownwyn’s perpetual trepidation comes from the knowledge that her status isn’t much more elevated than that of the livestock. The movie doesn’t assign historically inappropriate attitudes to the characters.
The movie avoids the bogus ways by which action epics normally include romantic themes. Even Sophia Loren in El Cid has little to do but shout encouragement from the bleachers. Chrysagon and Bronwyn’s relationship is limited to raw attraction. They communicate only by glances, just like confused teenagers. But it’s powerful stuff just the same. Even as she must stand naked for Chrysagon, Bronwyn clearly digs the attention. Without her positive signals he would likely lose interest. He’s crazy about her and she actually wants him. Motivations don’t get any stronger.
How does The Warlord avoid the talky baloney of so many costume epics, where knights gab in 20th century jargon and damsels behave like debutantes on May Day? Chrysagon and his men communicate their thoughts and attitudes in glances as well. Richard Boone’s Bors especially benefits from this. His every gesture and stare tell us that he will steadfastly back up Chrysagon, no matter what. That the masculine relationships are sealed through eye contact and not expository dialogue reminds me of two other movies that use the same device: Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
The cast is exemplary, with Maurice Evans and Niall MacGinnis giving depth and substance to their relatively minor roles. The gravel-voiced Richard Boone is a testosterone rock, plain and simple. Guy Stockwell and James Farentino fare better than most younger supporting leads in earlier Heston pix (I’m thinking of Gary Raymond in El Cid). Casting the veteran Henry Wilcoxon as the Frisian Prince appears to be Heston’s nod to Cecil B. DeMille and The Ten Commandments. We can bet that Heston had a major say in approving or suggesting every cast assignment. Forrest Wood, his friend and good luck charm, gets a rare billed appearance here.
The movie overflows with positives. It has one of composer Jerome Moross’s very best music scores. The scenes of broadsword combat are beautifully choreographed for power and clarity, not show-off moves. Antonio Margheriti’s fire-in-the-face trick is swiped from Ben-Hur, but most of the gags are subdued. The practical assaults on Chrysagon’s battle tower echo The Vikings on a smaller scale but are quite pleasing; we aren’t offended when a slightly less hefty stuntman climbs down on a rope for Richard Boone. The wooden siege towers built by the Frisians remind us a bit of the giant structures seen in 55 Days at Peking. We’re always in the middle of the action, yet in any particular shot we get enough context to know what’s happening outside the frame.
The film’s special visual effects are handsome, if obvious. Matte paintings tie the knights in with views of the stone tower by the misty water, etc. The tower was built right in the middle of the Universal City Tour; if the camera were to pan to the right, just off-camera would be the dock area seen in dozens of movies, like the earlier James Stewart westerns. In 1965 I took the studio tour, with the first tram cars. The dock area had been dressed as a PT boat wharf for the TV show McHale’s Navy; the supporting cast eating lunch waved and clowned for the passing trams. The War Lord tower must have been left standing so the tour driver could plug the movie. I wonder if, a few months earlier, actors playing serfs and Frisians waved and clowned for the tour trams too.
The tower is supposed to be on a seashore, and for many shots they must have hauled a mockup of its top out to Malibu, to grab pretty sunset & ocean views. Other scenes appear to move the tower-top to a soundstage, with a painted backdrop. The backlot set never quite connects with the seaside location, but all the shots are attractive. Other shots composite actors with traveling mattes, which are less convincing.
Only a few missteps stand out. Paul Frees dubs dialogue for both Sammy Ross’s Volc and Michael Conrad’s soldier Rainault, and probably others as well. Recognizing Frees’ distinctive voice coming from multiple characters reminds us too much of Spartacus, where he dubs scores of minor roles, very distractingly. Also, somebody botched the dramatics at the finale. For some weird reason, Chrysagon’s farewell dialogue quotes lines verbatim from Gary Cooper’s farewell scene in Sam Wood’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Did Heston always want to play that scene, and nobody knew how to tell him no?
We don’t really see why the film has to be a tragedy, but grudgingly accept the choice (gee, they missed a chance to make War Lord 2.) All in all, we’re impressed by the high quality of The War Lord. The dialogue is excellent, the period is well researched, no lame comic relief intrudes and we see few concessions to the Production Code. Young girls in 1965 must have been VERY impressed by Bronwyn’s sexual situation. No cultural anachronisms leaped out at this viewer, and the filmmakers don’t seem to have a political axe to grind, either. This tale of a particular disillusioned knight’s romantic rebellion is not a metaphor for the Cold War, the sexual revolution or male menopause.
Boy, that music score is great… it’s time to go back and listen to Jerome Moross’s The Sharkfighters and The Valley of Gwangi.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The War Lord is a great encoding of this action favorite, finally available on Blu-ray in Region A. The feature is certainly attractive. Just a year later Universal would go cheap and begin making many of its in-house productions in the half-frame Techniscope process. This is in full anamorphic Panavision. The title sequence looks as if it comes from a lesser-quality copy, and a few shots up front seem to have a slight flicker; maybe those flaws were always a part of the show.
The one extra is a full audio commentary from the Chicago-based writer Sergio Mims, who gives us a steady flow of off-the cuff talk, reacting to events on screen while putting across his collected info on the show. Sergio begins with basic information about the Hollywood scene in ’65, the Production Code, etc.. He offers enthusiastic bios of the cast members, and perhaps gets detoured into one too many synopses of other movies.
Sergio tells us that The War Lord’s first cut was 174 minutes, which contradicts the idea that Universal gave it the green light with the agreement that it would be only about two hours long. After Major Dundee, I can’t see Charlton Heston or the diligent Franklin Schaffner running Peckinpah-wild with the movie. Sergio says that Rosemary Forsyth’s character is under-developed because her role was cut.
Charlton Heston and Franklin Schaffner (with an added ‘J.’ in his name) continued on to Planet of the Apes and movie history; it’s interesting that as Heston’s career wound down he brought star quality to science fiction, which before had been career quicksand for most actors. Schaffner made further film history with Patton, his peak. Just four features later, his The Boys from Brazil came across as trashy kitch, but with high-paid actors. Schaffner brought it to screen at the UCLA Film School expecting to be lauded by the students. He was instead greeted with indifference and questions about good taste and political irresponsibility!
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The War Lord
Video: Very Good +
Supplements: Audio commentary by Sergio Mims.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 12, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson