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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The War Lord (Blu-ray)
The War Lord (Blu-ray)
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // January 21, 2020 // Region A
List Price: $24.90 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted February 4, 2020 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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A Medieval drama starring Charlton Heston, The War Lord (1965) is one of the actor's best films, and a personal project he spearheaded for several years before finally getting it made, though its unusualness, coupled with a studio financing it that really wanted a more conventional film, limited its success at the box-office. Those weaned on Heston's historical and biblical epics like El Cid, Ben-Hur and others may at first be nonplussed by its waist-deep efforts at period fidelity, and a story and characters that unfolds in terms of the time and place where it is set, rather than one trying to draw parallels to contemporary times, the usual manner of such films.

Further, to get the film made Heston and producer Walter Seltzer agreed to shoot most of it at Universal Studios, much of it on the backlot, giving it a look and feel quite different from the majority of Europe-shot epics of the era. Most of these efforts are successful, but the film still has a slightly off-kilter look to it, beautifully photographed though it is.

Eleventh century Norman knight Chrysagon de la Cruex (Heston) is awarded by the Duke of Normandy a small pagan-dominated coastal fiefdom with a single multi-level tower as its main line of defense. Upon arriving he, his brother Draco (Guy Stockwell), dwarf soldier Volc (Sammy Ross), and peasant companion Bors (Richard Boone) find Viking-like Frisians laying siege on the village. They drive them out, the retreating Frisians unwittingly leaving behind their prince, a small boy.

Entrusted to keep order, Chrysagon works with the serf leader, Odins (Niall MacGinnis), and priest (Maurice Evans) but is gradually bewitched by Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth), Odins's ward, she already betrothed to Marc (James Farentino), Odins's son.

Draco and Bors encourage Chrysagon to take Bronwyn as a lover before her nuptials, which everyone, including the villagers, fully accept as his right under both Norman law and pagan tradition. But Draco doesn't realize that Chrysagon, against all logic, has fallen in love with her and she, perhaps, with him.

The War Lord operates not on mid-20th century logic but rather is in synch with the customs of the 11th century. It was an era in which women were regarded as little more than property and everyone, from mid-level knight Chrysagon down to the lowliest villager, knew his place. When Marc volunteers to join Chrysagon's small band of soldiers he's rejected out of hand: a serf, allowed to carry weapons? Impossible. That Chrysagon desires Bronwyn sexually and ceremoniously takes her to the tower to bed her down is considered quite proper, even if Marc personally finds this objectionable. It's when Chrysagon breaks from tradition and wants to make her his wife that the problems begin.

In many respects Heston is cast against type, here playing a seasoned warrior but gentle man who can't comprehend his attraction and tenderness toward a mere village girl, one whom might even practice witchcraft, a relationship utterly at odds with his devout Christian beliefs. Despite this, he's compelled not only to put his position at risk but also the lives of his followers, especially after the villagers join forces with the Frisians, anxious to get their prince back, against the Norman occupiers.

Director Franklin Schaffner and production designers Henry Bumstead and Alexander Golitzen do marvelous things with that tower. When Chrysagon and the others arrive, they survey the tower, floor-by-floor, allowing the movie audience to get a sense of spatial relationships and the functions of its different levels. When the Frisians lay siege viewers always understand what's happening, where, and how. The tower itself may be a little cramped but its functionality is plain.

The film was based on a short-lived (four performances only) 1956 Broadway play, The Lovers, written by Leslie Stevens (of The Outer Limits). Darren McGavin starred in the Heston role, Joanne Woodward, making her Broadway debut, in Forsyth's, with Robert Lansing in Stockwell's. Heston nurtured the script for several years, and originally wanted Welsh actor Stanley Baker as Draco, and Julie Christie as Bronwyn, both of whom might have made The War Lord even better. (Christie, on the cusp of international stardom, had asked for more money than Universal was willing to pay, yet an absurd bargain by the time the movie came out.)

The cast in the final film is mostly good, with Richard Boone standing out as Chrysagon's devoted aide, who says little but expresses much. (His look seems to have patterned after Charles McGraw's gladiator trainer in Spartacus.) Unfortunately, voice actor Paul Frees, who provides the opening narration, was brought in for some reason to dub various bit players and other more significant members of the cast, including Sammy Ross and Michael Conrad, the latter playing Rainault, a soldier. His overly-familiar style and the obvious looping takes viewers out of the film.

Though the main village and exterior tower scenes were shot in the heart of the Universal backlot, the movie disguises this fairly well, mixing that footage with top of the tower scenes filmed above a Malibu beach, with additional shots filmed on a soundstage. The illusion isn't seamless, but works well enough, as do Albert Whitlock's matte paintings. Jerome Moross's rich score is another plus. He was undoubtedly less expensive than Hollywood's top film composers, but the results are just as good.

Video & Audio

Filmed in Panavision and rich colors by Russell Metty, The War Lord was long overdue for a high-def presentation. The opening scenes are soft, but that appears by design, as if to suggest Chrysagon and his soldiers emerging from a kind of timeless mist. The rest of the picture really pops. Around the one hour, thirty-eight-minute mark there's a dark interior where reds are digitally blown out of the water most unnaturally, but overall the transfer is very good. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is fine, and accompanied by optional English subtitles. Brief exit music is heard after the end titles. Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

The lone extra is a meandering commentary track by Sergio Mims, which is merely okay.

Parting Thoughts

A small-scale, thinking-man's epic, The War Lord is Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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