The War Lord (1965) with Charlton Heston

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He Battled Two Empires For The Love Of One Woman.

Charlton Heston’s The War Lord is usually (perhaps always) not the first of the star’s many films one mentions but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. It fits nicely in Charlton Heston’s fimography between The Agony and the Ecstasy and Khartoum. In honesty it doesn’t rate with Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, or even El Cid, but The War Lord is well worth the time, should you be lucky enough to find it.

Although Heston carries most all of the weight on screen, he gets some extremely able help from behind the camera from Franklin Schaffner, the acclaimed director also of Planet of the Apes, Papillon, and Patton. Jerome Moross steps in with a strong score which is rousing in the right places without becoming overdone.

On screen, however, Charlton Heston is on his own, although you wouldn’t know if from his on target performance. Joining him it what could otherwise be termed a weak ensemble supporting cast is Richard Boone and Rosemary Forsyth. Richard Boone does quite a nice job even though he isn’t in the heart of my acting batting order.

The War Lord took quite a while for Charlton Heston to bring to the screen as he notes in his autobiography In the Arena. Heston is Chrysagon, a 11th century Norman Lord who has come north to restore the power of his Duke. Richard Boone is his worthy lieutenant. Chrysagon’s new home is a desolate and marshy wasteland with a roughly finished (or perhaps even unfinished) tower marking the center of his rule.

The inhabitants of this land are druidic in nature and are caught between their ways and those of the Normans. Chrysagon begins as a benevolent ruler but quickly becomes smitten with the rather timid and tongue-tied local woman Bronwyn, played by Rosemary Forsyth.

Ultimately Chrysagon throws caution to the wind and demands his rites, under druidic tradition, of sharing her wedding night with her. After he refuses to release her and she in fact falls for him as well. After the Frisians launch an attack on the stronghold and the last third of the film has a rather interesting- and suprising- turn of events, which I won’t share here.

Overall The War Lord is a rather bleak film, which is exactly as it should be. The atmosphere is oppressive, the castle dank, cold, and unappealing. Furnishings are rather minimal. Outside of the rather ridiculous page boy wigs the Normans wear, the viewer totally buys the sense of overwhelming medieval dreariness. Well, that and a few New York accents.

Refreshingly, there is nobody to root for as the entire cast is filled with rather despicable folks. My how things would be different now in a culture so spoiled by The Lord of the Rings and the like.

The battle scenes – especially the dramatic battering of the main gate- are really well done, even more so when one realizes this was done in 1965. Cinematography also is strong and never for a moment would you think this was filmed in California.

And finally, our star Charlton Heston himself turns in one of his best performances in a role which perhaps at the time only he could have perfected. He is dour and somber, yet raging at times. His stiffness with Bronwyn some would chalk up to perhaps playing against a placid actress, but I find it perfectly in character.

The War Lord was released on DVD eons ago, but is insanely hard to find unless you go the ebay route. Viewings on TCM are also somewhat rare, which is a true shame. This is a wonderful film – though to be honest Charlton Heston always thought it fell short of his expectations – and if you want an unglamorous, interesting (even quirky at times), and powerful film, this is the one for you.

Surely later films like Gladiator have taken something from this. And so should you.