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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Warlord (1965) review


Charlton Heston (Chrysagon), Richard Boone (Bors), Rosemary Forsyth (Bronwyn), Maurice Evans (Priest), Guy Stockwell (Draco), Niall MacGinnis (Odins), Henry Wilcoxon (Frisian Prince), James Farentino (Marc), Sammy Ross (Volc)

Directed by Franklin Shaffner

The Short Version: For two cinematically lush hours stoic knight Chrysagon falls in love with a bestowed pagan girl and battles pillaging barbarians in Franklin Shaffner's lesser known Arrows & Armor saga about swords and social status. A love story at its core, there's Medieval macho posturing aplenty as our chainmail-wearing hero adheres to pagan law to take a man's woman on her wedding night; but when she refuses to go back, swords are drawn and blood is shed in a series of impressive sieges by armies of Hollywood stuntmen.

In 11th century Europe, Chrysagon de la Creux is sent by the Duke of Ghent to maintain order of a Normandy coastal area plundered by Frisian raiders. Out in the middle of this marshland is a tower overlooking a pagan village. Before they arrive, they engage in battle with their Frisian enemies. With the leader's young son left behind, Volc, the dwarf falcon trainer, takes the boy back with them. The next day, Chrysagon rescues a beautiful young girl from a pack of dogs while out hunting. Named Bronwyn, he immediately becomes transfixed with her. Promised from birth to a villager named Marc, Chrysagon is saddened upon learning she is to marry this man the following day.

Advised by his brother Draco and squire Bors, there exists a custom among the pagans known as 'Droit du seigneur' wherein the Lord of the land can take the bride on her wedding night, but must return her by dawn the following day. Marc takes immense umbrage with the Lord using the Right of the First Night, and becomes even more incensed when, the next day, his new bride decides to stay with Chrysagon of her own volition. Enraged, Marc heads North to bring the Frisian barbarians to both retrieve his son, and lay siege to the Norman tower and kill everyone in it.

Prior to working on PLANET OF THE APES (1968), director Shaffner, actors Charlton Heston and Maurice Evans worked together on this spectacular action-love story set in Medieval times. From the opening majestic herald of Jerome Moross's main theme to the closing curtain call, THE WAR LORD conquers the screen with superb performances, vigorous battles, and a king's ransom in battle-hardened bravado.

Charlton Heston's fourth and last film of 1965, this one's an Arrows and Armor saga with some 50 minutes worth of battering rams, catapults, mobile assault towers, and the clanging of cold steel. According to Heston, he ranked his work in THE WAR LORD among his best. He definitely delivers a spirited performance as the righteous knight, Chrysagon. Despite being the Duke's favored chevalier, and a penchant for being fair and just, the love he builds with Bronwyn (whom he initially believes is a witch) manages to pierce his heart underneath all that chainmail, melting away some of that steely exterior.

Based on the play, 'The Lovers', by Leslie Stevens, the film kicks things off with a brutal, extraordinarily well choreographed battle scene that introduces the unwavering resolve of Heston's Chrysagon; a character that we will discover is far more complex than his overly masculine nature lets on. This first duel with the Frisian leader sets the stage for the years long enmity between the two men that comes to a surprising, and ambiguous finish by the end of the movie.

After this attention-grabbing opening, THE WAR LORD settles into dramatic territory exploring topics of social status, superstition, religion, and romance. The village is populated by pagans whose bizarre rites are orated by Chrysagon's loyal attendant (Boone) as the remnants of lingering devilry after Christ cast "the old gods, demons and spirits with snakey hair" down into hell. Chrysagon is too preoccupied with the Frisian devils to be bothered with the biblical sort. He's a Christian man, but doesn't have a devout attachment to it. 

Maurice Evans (see insert above) is on hand in a modestly lighter capacity as the chief priest. If you listen carefully, you'll recognize a hint of Dr. Zaius in his voice. 

Pagan and Christian iconography are spread throughout the movie; the former having greater significance than the latter. The scripts flirtation with pagan religion briefly carries supernatural overtones. This is dispelled right after Bronwyn, after laying bare her body, bears no regret in refusing to go back to the man she'd just married the night before. From here the movie sets the religion and romance angle aside, indulging in near non-stop action with the last 45 minutes begetting a string of sieges on the tower. 

In that time, every Medieval Age trick in the book is catapulted onto the screen. The Frisians bring with them a few crude, yet elaborate contraptions to breach the tower. With each succeeding attempt, the enemies manage to eventually get inside, or on top of the tower. This gives dozens of stuntmen one opportunity after another to endanger themselves with a slew of high falls and crashing through objects. If that weren't enough, there's trouble brewing between Chrysagon and his brother Draco (Stockwell) that bubbles over like the boiling oil poured from the parapets. Altogether, you've got about an hour spent with a romance angle, and about another hour with action and sword fights before the two are merged during the conclusion. Heston even utters "damn, dirty armor" at one point.

THE WAR LORD is a very busy picture whose brisk pace defies its 121 minute running time. Shaffner's movie was originally a three hour spectacle, but lost an hour after the studio re-cut it.

The genesis of THE WAR LORD began in 1962, with filming taking place in late 1964. Heston was very excited about the production, but, according to him, Shaffner's creative control extended to a contractually 2 hour movie. Since it ended up a 3 hour picture, the studio took over. To see this lost hour would prove beneficial, but as it is, the movie is near perfection. Characters are top notch, with line readings of the major participants having this low, guttural delivery that could put hair on your chest. You'll recognize Paul Frees dubbing some of the voices, too.

From the beginning, both Shaffner and Heston wanted to shoot on genuine European locales, but the studio refused; so the Universal backlot stood in for Medieval Normandy. Albert Whitlock's matte paintings completed the illusion. Interiors lend an old-fashioned, operatic feel. Only some obvious process shots mar an otherwise sumptuous production.

Alongside Heston, Richard Boone is superb as his wisened squire, Bors. Without even saying anything, Boone evokes a defiant mood in lieu of one of his lords bewildering decisions. Looking war weary, he eagerly jumps into the thick of things during the hairier moments. Steadfastly loyal, he's like a father to Chrysagon. His dedication contrasts with Guy Stockwell's increasingly perturbed Draco. 

As Chrysagon's brother, Draco lays hints from time to time that he takes issue with both his brother's virtuousness and his lofty position; the latter of which Chrysagon carelessly puts in danger for the love of a woman. Late in the film, Draco plans to return to the Duke with reinforcements to handle the Frisian threat. Upon his return, he brings support with him, but also a huge surprise.

For a PG movie made in 1964, there's a quite a bit of skin on display without ever showing anything explicit. Tastefully done, it's unusual to see half a dozen scenes with a barely obscured, unclothed lady in a mid 60s Hollywood film. Additionally the violence is surprisingly forceful for this time period, and foreshadows the direction cinema was headed in a few more years.

This was an early role for Rosemary Forsyth, who spends much of her screen time wearing very little. Her character isn't as (figuratively) fleshed out as she could be, but considering an hour of the movie was removed, no doubt a lot of Bronwyn went with it. Julie Christie was up for the role of Bronwyn but the studio passed on her, believing her asking price too expensive.

A stunning presentation with a fantastic script and performances bringing it to life, THE WAR LORD delivers everything its trailer promises. Set decor, costumes, a rousing and romantic score, marvelously mounted action sequences all complement the men and women of this 11th century landscape. A strangely underrated film lost in the folds of other Heston pictures, it comes highly recommended, and an essential title, if for nothing else, to see Shaffner and Heston warm up for their iconic PLANET OF THE APES a few years into the future. 

This review is representative of the Eureka! UK RB Blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; isolated music and effects track; original theatrical trailer; 28 page booklet.

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