A Revisionist View Of Fierce Wars And Faithful Loves

DIRECTED BY FRANKLIN J. SCHAFFNER/1965

STREET DATE: January 21st, 2020/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS

Produced by Universal Pictures in the waning days of the classic big screen epic, 1965’s The War Lord feels simultaneously intimate and grandiose for its complex portrayal of heroism in battle and the all-too-human motivations of those who fight. Set in the 11th century on coastal Normandy, the Medieval milieu of brave knights, shining armor, and flashing swords takes a revisionist turn in its fire, blood, and dirt approach to adventuring and warfare. Whether caked in mud or scorched in oil, the vastness of the castle interiors or the greenery of the battlegrounds is tarnished in a manner similar to the moral failures of the title character himself. The War Lord replaces myth with history and demystifies the romantic allure, quoting Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, of “fierce warres and faithfull loues”.

Dramatizing the feudal (and possible fictional) custom of droit de seigneur, also known as prima nocte, a royal duke dispatches his most battle-hardened knight Chrysognon (Charlton Heston) to the unguarded coastal frontier of Normandy. Fighting Frisian raiders while also holding uneasy dominion over the pagan villagers, Chrysognon takes advantage of a local tradition which allows a master to take sexual possession of any maid on the eve of her marriage. Over the objections of his ambitious brother (Guy Stockwell) and trusted lieutenant (Richard Boone), Chrysognon defies the local chief elder of the village (Niall MacGinnis) by refusing to release the betrothed Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth) past their evening of shared passion.

The battle that follows, when the chief elder allies his interest with the Frisian chieftain (Henry Wilcoxon), and the combined forces of the Frisians and villagers lay siege to the Norman-occupied castle with battering rams, scaffolding, and fire-breathing bellows — the royalists under Chrysognon retaliating with scorching oil and slab-hurling catapults — is realized in still impressive visual terms by cinematographer Russell Metty and director Franklin J. Schaffner; the wanton destruction so vividly portrayed showing the human cost of ultimately pointless conflict. Doubling for medieval France and its shadow world of ancient superstition, seamlessly-blended Universal soundstages, Malibu beach locations, and L.A. County forestry stand in visually-effective for their evocation of historical fact and deromanticized drama.

Cast to near perfection with snarly and surly Guy Stockwell, gnarled and sturdy Richard Boone, and unyielding and resolute Niall MacGinnes — with Henry Wilcoxon physically terrifying as the rampaging Frisian leader fighting for his kidnapped young son (Johnny Jensen) — star Charlton Heston brings a wounded nobility to his flawed warlord, the screen memory of many more larger-than-life heroes flickering across his torch-lit brow as Chrysognon falls deeper into personal compromise and unchecked vanity.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray evidences its sympathy for the material with a strong transfer of its source elements, the picture sustaining the high contrast of its chain-mailed, sack clothed, and homespun figures foregrounded by the burnished, sunlit, and even star-crossed and sea-reflected imagery behind. Also sympathetic is film historian Sergio Mims’ audio commentary, which makes up for its occasional lapses in forward momentum — betraying the usual commentary difficulty of keeping up with the abundance of personalities and information appearing onscreen — with an infectious abundance of enthusiasm and appropriately sea-limpid fecundity of knowledge and historical context. One might take issue with Mims’ parting shot to the effect that director Schaffner would make a great director of latterday superhero movies, but one certainly can’t argue that purely through the evidence of this movie that The War Lord shows a powerful and complex view of screen spectacle and the recognizably human factors behind it.

The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver, some of which (but not all) are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a Blu-ray copy for review.