Movie Review: The War Lord

 

I.

Epic historical pictures had pretty much petered out by the end of the 1950’s. A few, however, continued to be made into the mid-60’s, before more or less dying out until such films as Braveheart and Rob Roy heralded their partial return. One of the major stars of such epics was, of course, Charlton Heston, star of Ben Hur, El Cid, and many others. In 1965 he made a lesser-known film, The War Lord, available on DVD.

The War Lord, though it has epic production values, is different from the other historical epics past and present in its focus. The usual epic takes a great or momentous storyline (the fall of Rome, the independence of Scotland, etc.) and deals with a wide panoply of exotic places, incredible deeds, and outsize characters. The War Lord, however, has a narrower focus. In brief, Heston plays Chrysagon, a weary Norman knight and veteran of twenty years of ceaseless war for his lord the duke. He has been assigned as his fief a small backwater village belonging to the duke. With his resentful brother, Draco (Guy Stockwell), and his loyal retainer, Bore (Richard Boone), Chrysagon comes with his retainers to the village, only to find it under siege by Frisian raiders. In a fierce battle, the Normans drive off the Frisians and inadvertently capture the chieftain’s son.

Upon settling into the castle, Chrysagon finds all in disarray and the bodies of the former lord and a nubile girl, both dead, in the main bedchamber. It is explained to him by the village priest that this was the remnant of an old pagan custom, the ius primae noctis, or “right of first night”, whereby the lord has the right to sleep with any virgin of the village on her wedding night before she is delivered to her husband. The new lord expresses disgust with the decay into which the estate has fallen and implicitly condemns the riotous living of his predecessor. He also is perturbed by the talismans and semi-pagan sculptures he has seen on the ride in. He vows to straighten things out now that he is in charge.

Over the course of the next few days, Chrysagon endears himself to the peasants, judging fairly among them. He also meets the beautiful Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth), daughter of the village headman. She is betrothed to Marc (a very young James Farrentino), but she instantly entrances Chrysagon. He becomes increasingly obsessed with her as the oppressive atmosphere of the remote village weighs on him. He even runs across her as she is bathing, but gallantly covers her. When he tells his brother of this, Draco sneers at him for not taking her then. He resists her allure, but becomes ill. Draco and Bore tell him to take the woman to his bed, but he refuses, knowing she is betrothed. The priest, under pressure from Draco, explains the right of first night, and finally, Chrysagon agrees. Riding into the clearing where the wedding feast of Marc and Bronwyn has just taken place, he says he has come to claim his right.

Marc tries to attack him, but is held back by Bronwyn’s father, who acknowledges the right, insisting that Chrysagon follow the village customs. He agrees, and Bronwyn is delivered to the castle. Chrysagon first tells the girl to leave, unable to follow through. He senses that she is willing to go through with it and that she seems to care for him, so finally they consummate the night. In the morning after, he tells her how weary he is of fighting. His father had been kidnapped for ransom by the Frisians, and died soon after returning. All the lands had been lost, and all his father could give Chrysagon was his ring. Having no land, Chrysagon and his brother were forced to serve the duke for a living. Chrysagon thus was forced into endless warfare for twenty years. Now he is steward of one of his lord’s least significant possessions, a godforsaken nowhere that is in constant peril from the Frisian raiders. To Chrysagon, Bronwyn is the sole ray of light in the gloom that has become his life.

Bronwyn has come to love Chrysagon as well, and the knight announces that he will not give her up. He is reproached by Draco, who reminds him that he is to maintain good relations with the peasants, but Chrysagon is adamant. When Bronwyn’s father comes for her, he is sent back. Her husband, Marc, is furious, and at the suggestion of Chrysagon’s dwarf falconer, who has deserted him, hatches a plan. Marc sends word to the king of the Frisians that Chrysagon holds the king’s son, and offers his aid and that of the villagers. Soon the castle is under attack from the combined forces of the Frisians and the villagers. Chrysagon barely holds off the attackers, while Draco goes for reinforcements. Just as the siege of the castle seems sure to succeed, Draco returns with catapults and troops, and drives off the besiegers, for the moment.

In a confrontation with his brother, Draco tells him that the Duke has given the lordship to him, taking it away from Chrysagon. He gloats at his brother, whom he has resented as always having been the duke’s favorite, while Draco lived dissolutely. He states his intention to mutilate the Frisian prince before ransoming him back, at which point Chrysagon begs him not to, having become sick of blood. Draco, enraged, challenges his brother to fight for the lordship. When Chrysagon refuses, Draco tries to kill him anyway, coming at him with a sword. They struggle, Draco trying to kill, Chrysagon to protect himself without harming his brother, until finally, in deflecting Draco’s dagger, Chrysagon plunges it into his brother’s side. Draco stumbles, then falls though an opening to his death at the bottom of the tower.

Remorseful, Chrysagon rides with Bore, the boy, and Bronwyn, to meet the Frisian chieftain in the woods. He returns the prince to his father, who gratefully offers the knight lands and titles in Frisia. Bore urges Chrysagon to take the offer and to take the girl with him, as the duke will be angry at the debacle and will likely have Chrysagon killed and the village punished. Chrysagon refuses, but gives the Bronwyn to the Frisians to be taken to safety. She is unwilling to go, but he persuades her it is best, and she leaves. At this time Marc, armed with a sickle, appears, and wounds Chrysagon in the side. Bore immediately cuts him down. Wounded, possibly mortally, Chrysagon makes Renald, one of his loyal retainers, the lord of the estate and tells him to rule it well until he returns. He then rides off with the loyal Bore to go to the duke personally and set everything right.

 

 

II.

 

To get a particular point over with, I will note, as I have discussed more fully elsewhere, that the current consensus of historians is that the right of first night (or ius primae noctis or droit du seigneur) probably never existed. However, it was widely believed to be the case at one time, so we can suspend our disbelief for the purposes of the movie. In other ways, it is one of the most historically accurate films of the period in which it was made (a period moreover, not known for great accuracy in swashbucklers). The armor, shields, clothing, siege engines, and even the soupbowl haircuts are accurate for 11th-12th century Normans. There is also a far better than average understanding of feudal politics. Marc, Bronwyn, and everyone in the village are vassals of Chrysagon, but he is in turn merely a vassal to his lord, the duke. Everyone is locked into roles not of their own choosing by the accident of their birth. As was usually the case with younger brothers, Draco is surly and awaits an opportunity to take Chrysagon’s place. This is his only possible release from the gilded servitude of being a retainer.

More broadly, the story is on a scale not often seen in historical movies, as I noted at the beginning. Mind you, I’m all for great epic sweep. Still, it is good to see a tighter focus, a view of what life was like in a typical small fiefdom in feudal times, and to see the interaction of serfs and lords. This type of story is almost never seen, and when it is, it is hopelessly distorted by imposing too much of a modern viewpoint on the characters. There are places where this happens in The War Lord, too, and at places the dialogue is a bit melodramatic. Still, the look at what it was like to be a small feudal lord in that turbulent time is a nice change of pace. As history buffs know but Hollywood almost always forgets, small feudal lords and peasants were 90% + of the population. Not everyone was a king or a freedom fighter!

As to the performances, Heston and Boone are, as always, in good form. A bit of a history buff himself, Heston, so the story goes, insisted on the Norman haircuts, much to the chagrin of the director, who supposedly griped of the revenue the movie would lose as the result of a haircut! Heston captures the ambivalence of the character and is in fine physical form as well. Boone is fabulous as a character whose relationship to his lord reminds me of that of Brule to Kull—a nice Howardian treat! Also, Stockwell is well-cast as the cynical, debauched, jealous sibling who admires his brother despite himself. Rosemary Forsyth is not given as much to do, but she does project winsome vulnerability on the screen. Farrentino, as Marc, is not given much, either, but the focus is not on his character.

As already mentioned, the art direction is very good, highly authentic. The combat choreography is well-done. Most of the movies of this time period tried to do flashy swordsmanship based on foil or rapier fencing, which is far removed from Medieval swordplay. The gritty, simple fighting for one’s life that you see here is much more in line with the era, and something hardly seen again until Braveheart. Also, as in that movie, the combatants in The War Lord use a variety of different weapons and are dressed in different costumes. You don’t get the feeling that some wardrobe or prop person ordered ten dozen identical outfits and weapons. After all, there are a lot of movies from the 50’s and 60’s where it looks like that’s exactly what they did, and not all low-budget movies, either—Cleopatra, one of the costliest bombs of all time, springs to mind! The castle sets, utensils, and so on, share in this general air of authenticity.

There are only two reservations I have. The first is historical. The movie does a good job in showing the customs of the village and in portraying them as odd and repugnant to the Normans. Europe was not Christianized as quickly, smoothly, or thoroughly as we tend to think from reading history. Pagan or semi-pagan customs survived for centuries. They still do, as we ourselves bear out when we put up Christmas trees, color Easter eggs, dress up for Halloween, name our days after Woden and Thor, and so on. Certainly, bishops and theologians all through the Middle Ages and Renaissance griped about the heathenishness of the rural population and their weak grasp on the fundamentals of the Faith.

On the other hand, I think the movie’s portrayal of this aspect got it wrong. True, the peasants had plenty of holdover pagan traditions (well-portrayed in the village festival here, in fact), and true, the clergy and rulers often objected to these. Still, the old Druidic ways had long been assimilated into the general matrix of Greco-Roman pagan religion even before Christianity, and by the High Middle Ages, the assimilation into Christianity was so advanced, that no one was consciously pagan in their customs, any more than most people who put up a Christmas tree are consciously symbolizing Yggdrasil, or people who avoid going under a ladder are knowingly following ancient Egyptian beliefs. Thus, I find it highly unlikely that the headman of the village would be talking about the ways of his people before the Church came, or talking about the Druids. He would not think of his people’s ways as pagan, any more than country folk who plant by the astrological signs (“planting in the houses”) do now, nor would he think himself un-Christian or think of the Church as something imposed. He would just follow his traditions and wonder why the priests and lords didn’t like them. Additionally, the latest possible evidence for any explicit, organized holdover of Druidism (and that is debatable) is from the time of Charlemagne, some three to four centuries before the time of the movie’s action. Even this was probably its death rattle.

Admittedly, this is a matter tangential to the film, but I wish it had been done better. God knows, there’s way more than enough half-baked Celtophilia out there and a lot of dumb stuff about the Druids (about whom we know much less than most people think). This was before most of the New Age fascination with supposed Celtic religious antiquity, but for me anyway it still grates a bit. But, as I said, it is tangential.

The second reservation is this. For all that we get insight into the character’s frustration and sickness with war, he is hard to sympathize with. I attribute this to the writing, whether of the play on which the movie is based, or the immediate script. It seems that we are to sympathize with Chrysagon and his love for Bronwyn. Nonetheless, it is hard to get around the fact that he is a powerful noble taking the legitimate wife of a powerless peasant because he can! Any man would feel as Marc does: homicidal! I know I would. And yet Marc’s character and in fact his entire relationship with Bronwyn, is hardly developed at all. He obviously loves her, but it’s unclear how she feels about him. She certainly takes the situation well, and seems to have few regrets. I guess the idea is to emphasize her love for Chrysagon, but it runs the danger of making her seem to toy with Marc. If she had been developed more, or if she had been established as being locked into a marriage she despised or had no say in, we could feel with her more. As it is, it seems that she is going along with whomever happens to have her at the time.

With Chrysagon, it is even more problematic. At the beginning, he seems almost to be the sheriff coming into town to finally set things right. Then, without it really being established where he’s coming from emotionally, he essentially makes off with another man’s wife because he thinks he needs her and he has the juice to do so. True, he does get nearly killed in the end, loses the girl, and seems to take the turn of events as punishment for his faults. However, poor Marc doesn’t get the girl, either, winding up dead. And Bronwyn doesn’t seem too busted up about the situation. I think the problem is that the script isn’t quite sure which direction to go. It seems to vacillate between doing Chrysagon and Bronwyn as doomed lovers and having Chrysagon as the tragically flawed hero who brings disaster upon himself by his hubris and presumption. There is also no clearly developed parallel between Chrysagon and Marc. Finally, the plotline with the son of the Frisian chief, which is meant to mirror the situation with Chrysagon and Draco’s father, is almost tossed off, when it could have been really explored as the bond of pain and tragedy shared by two old foes who finally come to see themselves in the other’s plight.

Let me be clear: the movie has many fine and rewarding elements, and I would definitely recommend it. It is because of these elements that the lack of focus in the plot is frustrating. The direction, acting, and visual aspects are well worth watching, though, and no movie is perfect. I just wish the story had been tightened up and made clearer. I wouldn’t put this in the category of El Cid or Gladiator. On the other hand, you could do far worse, and the intimate focus of the plot is a good counterpoint to the broad epic canvas. Still worth its share of huzzahs!

Posted on 26/09/2012, in movie reviews, movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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