THE WAR LORD would be the battle-weary 11th-century Norman knight ‘Chrysagon de la Cruex’, rewarded by his duke with a watchtower on an impoverished part of the coast, its superstitious, pagan-worshiping peasants now his subjects. Besieged by Frisian raiders (Germanic rowdies from what is now The Netherlands), his little fiefdom is further complicated by arguing with his jealous brother and by fancying a local, already-betrothed peasant lass (serfer-girl?) whom he takes as his own, using the “Droit du signeur”. Literate, ably directed, well acted and stocked with bruising action, this thoughtful and exciting mini-epic failed to find audience favor on release, a fate of a number of fine adventure films that oddly underperformed back in flush 1965. *
It also features one of four fully committed, quite good performances that same year from the actor most associated with period epics, Charlton Heston. Chuck’s detractors are loathe to ever give him credit, but his estimable presence put substantial grit and passion that year into embodying The Agony and The Ecstasy, enlivening The Greatest Story Ever Told and commanding Major Dundee. Impressed by its source, Leslie Stevens’ 1956 play The Lovers, he’d been a prime mover behind this project over several years, dueling with Universal’s ingrained tightness around a budget. John Collier and Millard Kaufman’s script made for a three-hour cut as directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, but the studio chopped it down to 123 minutes.
The relatively stingy outlay ($3,500,000) shows in some too-obvious back-lot sets (though well-appointed), matte work and an under-populated amount of extras. However, Schaffner’s energetic direction, the crisply intelligent dialogue, careful costuming, rich cinematography (Russell Metty) and a superb score from Jerome Moross—-part wistful-mournful, part nobly rousing— more than make up for the few flaws.
Schaffner decorates the second half of the accurate looking and sounding, essentially intimate story with a slew of furious castle stormings. These battering brawls compensate for their restricted scale with some splendidly choreographed bonk, cleave & archery mayhem orchestrated by Joe Canutt’s 2nd-unit stuntmen, including such hardies as brother Tap, Richard Farnsworth, Hal Needham, Chuck Roberson and Buddy Van Horn. Who wants to be the first guy up that ladder?
Heston’s solemn and warmth-deprived Chrysagon has authentic-flavor backing from Richard Boone, growling as the skeptical but loyal ‘Bors’, Guy Stockwell, dripping with casual malevolence as brother ‘Draco’ and Maurice Evans, sputtering affronted piety as the fen’s priest. Universal contract beauty Rosemary Forsythe has her loveliness showcased as the initially terrified, then won over ‘Bronwyn’, in her second new-star role of the year, the other moved up several centuries to Shenandoah.
It barely rippled at the box-office, coming in a dispiriting 93rd place. Seen now, it looks better with each viewing. With Niall MacGinnis, James Farentino, Henry Wilcoxon, Sammy Ross, Woodrow Parfrey, Michael Conrad and Johnny Jenkins.
* Though The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Agony and The Ecstasy made money, their expense mitigated success. Quality 1965 entries that lacked support from above or at large included The Flight Of The Phoenix, Major Dundee, Sands Of The Kalahari, Lord Jim, A High Wind In Jamaica, The Satan Bug and Morituri. The big-scale comedy The Hallelujah Trail was a road less followed.
Droit du seigneur, also known as prima noctis in Latin, was later used in another— bigger, much more popular— medieval melee, Braveheart. Historians take issue with its timeline placement in films, but the brutish practice (‘rape’ is the less flowery term) had its power-wielding adherents in societies ranging far afield from France or Scotland to include such locales as Turkey and Zaire. Men, being swine (and an insult to pigs.)