Welcome to another monthly installment of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Movie Challenge, where Mike’s Take on the Movies and I expand our horizons by picking for each other a new-to-us film to watch and review. This time I got 1965’s The War Lord starring Charlton Heston, Richard Boone, Guy Stockwell, Rosemary Forsyth and many more familiar faces in a truly epic story that has a human center.
The movie’s director is Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Papillon, Nicholas and Alexandra, and one of my alltime favourite movies, Patton), a filmmaker who knows his way around stories and characters of epic scales, and he does a fine, impressive job telling this tale set in Medieval times. Battle-tested and weary Norman Knight Heston arrives to his new fiefdom, accompanied by men including his snarky, jealous, bitter, scheming brother Stockwell and a brutish but wise and loyal lifelong right hand man Boone. Heston’s father once ruled vast lands, but lost it all in ransom to the Viking-like Frisians who live just across the water. For Heston’s valiant service, the Duke gives him this remote, Godforsaken, marshy, depressing, pagan bit of coastal land with an underwhelming ramshackle tower to live in, where there’s a foreboding sense of doom right from the start. And wouldn’t you know, the Frisians are raiding the neighbourhood when Heston and crew arrive. They repel this attack and find the Frisian chief’s boy left behind, so he’s kept by the dwarf at the tower. While Heston starts off with the locals on the right foot, he makes the mistake of lusting after their fairest maid (Forsyth), and takes her from her groom, a baby faced James Farentino, who vows revenge and sets off a much bigger Frisian invasion.
That’s the story, which is big and fascinating and full of action, but to me even bigger drama comes from these gargantuan male egos pushing against each other, shifting like land masses building up pressure before a major tremor. Stockwell is power hungry, mindful of his more glorious birthright, and disappointed with this gloomy little property. He looks down upon all the primitives they survey and constantly pushes Heston to act more within his rights as a brutal Lord, chiding him for the wimpiness of believing in love and wanting to be liked. Heston wavers this way and that, but since he has a heart (a lonely one at that) he seals his fate by claiming Forsyth for himself, choosing to put love before his duty and position and the respect of his subjects.
Befitting a time when men weren’t known for expressing feelings, Heston plays his role with variations of haughty, intense, reserved and grim. Even so, he manages to convey chivalry to a fault, apprehension over this new-agey wilderness girl who might be a witch (these are superstitious times, especially as the previous Lord died “bewitched” by a local girl), as well as expressing reluctance mixed with barely suppressed passion and frustration when he’s near her. Forsyth, however, is missing the spark to light Heston’s fire, to believably attract him to the extent he’d to throw away his kingdom (such as it is) for her. Sweetly innocent and attractive as she is, she never quite moves beyond looking vaguely curious or frozen by fear, and even after her character grows to love Heston, doesn’t really show enough warmth or devotion.
Stockwell and Boone give great support, like the devil and angel on Heston’s shoulders, and their interactions with the pagans and the Priest (Maurice Evans) are arranged to bring out the most in everyone’s character. The music is sweeping and period-friendly without resorting to 100% dulcimer. The action and siege scenes are very exciting, both modern and accurate for the times (the Frisians hiding in the nearby forest felling trees to build wall-scaling contraptions reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and there’s probably a good chance this was the inspiration). Schaffner brings to life the difficult reality of tower defense and the creativity needed for hand to hand combat; lots of tossing people from ahigh, fighting dirty, pushing with poles, torches put to faces and catapults loaded with flaming boulders, all well choreographed and very fun to watch. Details from the chain mail to the cramped tower make this one of the most accurate-looking Medieval movies I’ve seen, and the end titles tell us it was all done on a backlot, which was surprising. The movie had a good balance between the debating and the ruling, the loving and the fighting, and overall was an excellent spectacle, ranking as a must-see part of all the leads’ and the director’s careers.