War Lord, The (1965)

The War Lord (1965), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner.

A squad of Norman knights arrive at a swampy coastal site to resist depredations of over-the-sea raiders and keep the local part-druid part-Christian villagers in line.

Who keeps the Normans in line? Nobody! Smitten with a village maiden on the eve of her wedding, Sir de la Cruex struggles briefly with his conscience and then exercises his "Right of the First Night" which causes all sorts of trouble. Then the damn raiders are back and we get detailed scenes of siege warfare.

(I have read that the "Droit du seigneur" is mythical and didn't really happen. In the film the village elder permits it because it was part of the Old religion, not the New).

This is an attempt to de-gloss a costume action picture, going for a gritty look and brutal tone. The California locations hurt and the costumes and weapons look cheap. I give them points for authentic ugly haircuts, and also that their Norman tower is ugly and utilitarian, a dark ages police station.

It seems to me, almost against their will, that a women's romance picture emerges amid the medieval bleakness. They want to show that cauterizing a stab wound with a hot poker is pretty much the same technique as torturing someone. But our hero must masochistically endure it while being held and comforted by the maiden, who cries for him. Their reasoning: his manly pride requires him to bear up in the presence of the young woman. "To hold him down requires ten men or one woman".

The exteriors tend to be soft and we have some bad rear projection and bad ADR. The interiors are all on soundstages and look better.

I can accept Charlton Heston is this sort of role, but it is harder to believe Richard Boone in a time before six-guns. He takes it seriously and the character is a good one.

Heston worked for years to get this made. He thought the original three-hour cut was much better but the studio wouldn't go for it. Both he and director Schaffner were more or less content with the theatrical cut, while saying it would have been a better picture if filmed in Europe with a British cast. They would reunite for Planet of the Apes (1968) a few years later.

Heston had seen Julie Christie in Billy Liar (1963) and wanted her for the romantic lead, but the studio found her too expensive for a beginning actress.

As is often the case, Heston really likes to strip off his clothes. I remembered bits of the film from decades ago, including his line: "I slept with my sword for many years; a cold wife".

From a play by Leslie Stevens, who I remember as creator of The Outer Limits (1963) and director of Incubus (1965), the esperanto demonology thriller with William Shatner.

Photographed by Russell Metty. The score is very busy, sort of generically grand.

Available as a region B Blu-ray from Eureka in the UK. Quality is good given the limits of the source and it comes with an informative booklet.