Saturday, January 7, 2012

The War Lord

1965, 122 min.
IMDB says... A knight in the service of a duke goes to a coastal villiage where an earlier attempt to build a defensive castle has failed. He begins to rebuild the duke's authority in the face of the barbarians at the border and is making progress until he falls in love with one of the local women. Written by John Vogel <>

The 73rd Virgin says... This Starz offering from the slag heap ended its run on Netflix Instant View service on January 1. Maybe just as well. It’s a miserable fuzzy 4:3 full screen transfer of what looks to be a worn out print. You can almost hear someone press “Record” on the VCR. Stay classy Starz.

Amazon has a widescreen version although I don’t know if the film actually looks any better.
This 1965 Charlton Heston vehicle is a uniquely strange experience that I remember from my youth. At first it just looks cheesy, alternating between very carefully filmed and very pretty distance shots that look like paintings and then cheap full head shots in front of a rear projection screen, all within seconds of each other. The “man of a thousand voices”, Paul Frees, only bothers to use one of them while doing the voice over narration and dubbing in two separate characters.

Based on a play by Leslie Stevens, who mostly wrote for TV, and directed by future Oscar winner Frank Schaffner (Patton), this is set in the 11th Century and tells the story of Chrysagan de la Cruix, a penniless knight who is back from years of fighting all over what would become France. Duke William of Ghent grants him a worn out castle (basically just a single tower) on the northern coast that is frequently under attack by Frisians (Vikings). His job is to take his small band of professional soldiers, secure the coast and subdue the population.

And then a strange thing happens. It gets pretty interesting. The band wanders into a forest where the locals have strung up all manner of perhaps druidic talismans and charms (or as the kid says in Blair Witch Project, “voodoo shit!”). They fight a brief battle with the Vikings and then stumble upon a priest wearing a suspicious vegetative belt around his waist. What’s kinda admirable is the way Heston’s character shows no particular charity or noble sentiment. The villagers are his vassals, and that is that.

As the movie progresses he will slowly grope toward something slightly more nuanced than violent muscular dogmatic Christianity and try to show mercy and wisdom when dealing with his subjects –before screwing up big time.

Heston was a huge star. That he would take on such an ambivalent character at that stage of his career is notable, I think. But if you look at the petty power-wielding cop he played in “Soylent Green” you can see this adventurousness at work again. Whatever you think of his mandible-shattering grimace and tight-lipped stentorian delivery, he could swagger and threaten very well.

But I digress.

The band gets to inspect the miserable little castle, which does not magically expand once they go inside. Note the wacky haircuts, including on Heston. I can’t think of many big stars of any era who would subject themselves to that just for period accuracy.

He has already run across the local chief’s daughter and hot virgin Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). Here we get a moment of unpleasantness when she’s not sure if she’s here for the rapin’ or, as it turns out, to assist in a medical procedure on his wounded shoulder. I was worried about the great Richard Boone, mostly a star of Westerns, as the gruff veteran Bors, but he’s very good throughout. And I still don’t know what Guy Stockwell (younger brother of Dean) is doing with his knife over in the corner. He holds it up over his shoulder as the procedure begins and then takes it down when it’s over. Is it a ceremonial charm to cut the pain? Preparation to kill the girl if she fails? Preparation for self-sacrifice? There are several such flourishes that add a lot of interest.
Later de la Cruix harasses Bronwyn again down by the river and pretty much points her to the shady spot under the tree where he will “lie” with her (cheesy rear-projection again), but she creeps him out with her witchery so he spooks and bails. They also have an intriguing exchange regarding poison plants and mistletoe. Now an old anthro-snob like me can’t help but admire a playwright or a screenwriter who appears to have read Frazier’s “The Golden Bough”. It’s not exactly obscure, but it’s pretty heady stuff for Hollywood, 1965. At a later wedding scene there is a dancer clearly meant to be the Forest King.
Finally he takes his “lord’s right” and hauls her away to have her first before her new husband. There is a long actorly exchange between the priest and Draco about the law, and you remember that this is based on a play. Stockwell is very funny.
Not satisfied with his lord’s right, de la Cruix keeps the woman rather than returning her to her husband and now he’s got all the rebellious vassals and the returning Vikings bearing down on him and his disgusted younger brother working against him. There is an extended 25 minute battle scene featuring a realistic siege tower back before CGI made it easy. You can maybe see at least some of Peter Jackson’s inspiration for the Two Towers and Return of the King battle scenes. It’s slow but reasonably realistic and well done.
The ending trails off a bit and certainly can’t be called rousing, but overall this is surprisingly entertaining, and as mentioned before, is full of odd quasi-brainiac sub-references. A film restoration and cutting around the awful rear-projection scenes would help, but that seems unlikely at this late date.

P.S. As a freshman at Kansas State University - a hundred years ago - The Virg was taught Western Civ by the best professor he ever had, Dr. Albert Hamscher. A world-renowned expert on French history, he took the time to teach one freshman course per year. I seem to remember him in a tweed jacket but that may be a later memory construct. I clearly remember him pacing the front of the room with an unlit plastic tipped cigar while imparting a vast amount of information that has stuck with me since. At some point he sidetracked onto the issue of whether any movies got the Middle Ages right. None did or have, of course, but he did say that one that got sorta close was “The War Lord” and asked if any had seen it. In a lecture hall of maybe 70 students, only The Virg, uber-movie-dweeb, had. Proud moment.


  1. Dear Mister Virg.

    This movie ate my soul, too. I am a Medieval addict and,for Medieval addicts, this film is like the Holly Grail : everyone has heard about it, by nobody had never seen it (it is never on tv, very very rare in dvd). Finally, after years, I watched it from a very bad "pirat" copy from the pirat bay. The War Lord just blew my mind. It was really accurate (far from the medieval rubbish like Ivanhoe, Prince Valiant, etc). It was very hard, not romantized at all. And this film was really in advance from its time. I was bluffed by the interpretation of Guy Stockwell (an actor I never knew before), and I found his interpretation far better than the one of superstar C.Heston.
    Rosemary Forsyth was also mesmerizing in her role. Such a beauty, but she never had a big fame.
    I am still completely "gaga" about this film and its dark (but beautiful) atmosphere.
    Thank you Mister Virg for your text about this forgotten, but forever magnificent, film.
    (excuse my broken English, and best regards from Europe. By the way I am also some kind of "Virg" (born of September 1960, in the "Virgo" Sign.)

  2. Hello, thank you for commenting.

    I like the movie more when I think about it. It really is unique. I'm shocked by how expensive it is on in the USA.
    Amazon UK seems to have a copy but you would want to be sure it is in the correct format, which I think is PAL for Europe.
    There is a Spanish language version on Amazon US, but it probably will not be in PAL format. If you think of any other medieval movies that seem good, let me know.

  3. Dear Mr. Virg

    There is also a medieval, but not very well known, film that I appreciate : it is the "Walk with Love and Death". It is a beautiful movie made by John Huston in 1969, but that film never had a big success. This rare film is played by a very young (17 years old at that time) Anjelica Huston, and by John Huston, as the stubborn and ruthless not very nobleman. This film, which was filmed in beautiful landscapes and castles of central Europe, discribed the turmoil of the end of the Middle Ages : plague , violence, and death all around the actors. A film very rarely seen (never on tv, very very rare on dvd). Once again I found it throught the "Pirat" way. Maybe you have already written an article about the forgotten jewel ?

  4. I saw it on television probably not long after it was in theaters. Maybe 1972 or so. I would have been very young.

    I will try to find it. Some think Angelica Huston dropped out of acting for several years because this movie was such a bad experience.