Charlton Heston is an actor directly associated with historical epics. Some have gotten lost in the shuffle over the years, including the worthwhile 1965 epic The War Lord.
It's the 11th Century in the Middle Ages in France, knight Chrysagon de la Cruex (Heston) has been given a mission. An isolated Druid village along the coast comes under constant attack so Chrysagon is tasked with taking a small troop of knights and soldiers, including his brother, Draco (Guy Stockwell), and right hand man, Bors (Richard Boone). Upon arriving, he finds a poor village where a failed defensive castle was only partially built and villagers who have strayed from acceptable ways. Chrysagon's group works well though, but the knight falls for a beautiful young woman from the village, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). The only problem? She is engaged to a villager, and the only way Chrysagon can have her is to simply take her, angering the rest of the villagers. All the while, the threat of an attack looms.
In the age of the epics -- the 1960s -- this modestly scaled epic from director Franklin J. Schaffner has been lost in the shuffle over the last 40-plus years. I say 'modestly scaled,' and I don't intend that at all in a negative way. There are no on-location shooting, just California filling in for Middle Ages France. Much of the story is contained in one stretch of marshy coast, Chrysagon's single-towered castle sitting just off the land in a shallow waterway. There is something simple and elegant about the setting; the knights in their water-surrounded castle, the villagers hidden away in the woods. So while the scale isn't on a hugely epic level -- no countries warring, no government in-fighting -- it focuses on the personal at its most simple. In this case, it's just a man and woman who fall madly in love with each other and all the repercussions and fall-out.
I've made no secret about my general disdain for romance sub-plots in stories that simply don't call for it. In this epic though, it's not only necessary but handled well. I don't think of Heston as a natural choice for a historical epic's romantic lead, but he does a solid job here in an understated way. His Chrysagon has been fighting for a Duke for 20-something years, traveling, fighting and warring wherever he goes. When he meets Forsyth's Bronwyn, he can't help himself. He needs her, wants her. Similarly, Bronwyn is drawn to him in a way she can't explain. Without being ridiculously lovey-dovey or over the top, this relationship seems real. Everything hits the fan when Chrysagon realizes a local custom allows the powerful lords to take a virgin bride on her wedding night for himself. Not surprisingly, Bronwyn's husband-to-be (James Farentino) is less than pleased to give away his wife for a night. The results are not surprisingly pretty downbeat, but getting there is worthwhile, and the finale is a highly effective emotional punch.
Balancing out the effective love story is the solid casting backing up Heston. Adding another dimension is Stockwell's Draco as Chrysagon's brother. Brothers in the Middle Ages who differ in opinions on how to do things? Well, it doesn't take a nuclear scientist to figure out that might not end well. Stockwell does a fine job as Draco, the less-experienced knight in battle who nonetheless wants to prove himself. As the gruff voiced Bors, Boone delivers the best supporting performance. As we learn more about how these characters came to ride together, Boone's acting gets better and better, including a great job in the last few scenes without saying more than a few words. Also look for Maurice Evans as the local priest caught in the middle of the knights and villagers, Niall MacGinnis as Odins, the village elder trying to hold his people together, Henry Wilcoxon as the rival Frisian chief, and Allen Jaffe and Michael Conrad as two of Chrysagon's men.
So overall, I liked this movie a lot. I liked it a lot, and that's considering that there is little in the way of action until the last third of the 120-minute long movie. When it does arrive on the scene, the action does not disappoint. The Frisian raiders arrive to reclaim the chief's son -- accidentally left behind in a raid and feared dead -- forcing Chrysagon and his troop to retreat to their castle tower for defense. The violence is brutal without being graphic, and the action is kept from the view of the foot soldiers. We see the Frisians attacking -- catch an example HERE -- in various ways, any way to breach the heavily guarded door or at least get over the walls. The attack runs about 25 minutes, and it's a gem. The post-battle fallout is equally good too. Also worth mentioning, the score from Jerome Moross and Hans J. Salter is perfect for both the action and the love scenes. Check out the entire movie at Youtube starting HERE.
The War Lord (1965): ***/****