Grade: B
Entire family: No
Action-Adventure, Drama
1965, 123 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG-13 for adult situations, brief nudity and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link

Of the dozen or so films set in medieval times that Hollywood made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, The War Lord stands out. It wasn’t another romanticized tale of knighthood like El Cid, Ivanhoe, The Black Knight, or Knights of the Round Table, and it wasn’t a dreamed-up biopic of a famous figure like Lady Godiva, Prince Valiant, Saint Joan, or Francis of Assissi. If a comparison had to be made, you’d have to say that it comes closest to The Vikings in its tone, spirit, and subject matter.

Like The Vikings, this 1965 Technicolor and Panavision feature from director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) is based on the conflicts between Normans and Frisian (Viking) raiders. But like The Vikings a good portion of the drama comes from internal conflicts unrelated to the main bouts. Unlike The Vikings or any of the films about knights, the life of a warrior is not romanticized, nor is medieval life. The castle in The War Lord is but a single tower, and it’s cold and drafty and in disrepair from previous sieges. There are no lute players or jesters, no feasts, and no life of leisure inside that small castle.

A typically wooden Charlton Heston stars not as a glamorous knight but as knight given a swampy place in the middle of Nowhere, Normandy to hold for his king. Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) relishes the appointment of Lord over all who live in this place, while the brother that accompanies him, Draco (Guy Stockwell) thinks it a mudhole fit only for pigs and heathens. Also accompanying Chrysagon is Bors (Richard Boone), a sidekick who’s fought by his side in the Crusades.

Aside from that implication, the Crusades aren’t mentioned, and there’s no court to provide any courtly intrigue. Though the Normans under Chrysagon are ostensibly there to protect the local population—the Druid-worshipping Saxons—from Frisian invaders, a conflict arises between the pagans and their new Lord and his small band of occupying soldiers. You might say that The War Lord is a small-scale variance on the Helen of Troy myth, where a single woman so captivates one man that he steals her away, and her husband, angered, tries to find a force to help him get her back again. Very little is shown in the way of nudity, but what turns out to be the film’s main premise can leave an impression.

I saw this film in theaters when I was in my mid-teens, and I didn’t remember the long third-act battle. I didn’t even remember that there was a battle. All I remembered was Charlton Heston’s character riding up to a Bacchanalian-style pagan wedding and pointing at the bride (Rosemary Forsyth) to claim his right as Lord for her first night—his right to deflower the virgin, though as the leader of the pagans remarks, “To take her your way is rape.” But by their custom, in ancient times each spring a virgin would be sacrificed to ensure a bountiful year. This was a “modern” twist on that ancient custom.

Fans of the Vikings TV series will find the battle scene tame by comparison, and the Vikings themselves to be far more ordinary than the fearful warriors we encounter in the current TV series. But for the ‘50s and ‘60s, the battle—for a film that’s largely about smaller conflicts and a triangle between a Lord, a pagan lady, and a pagan man—the battle covers all the bases. Though we don’t see their construction, as we do in the Vikings TV series, there’s a battering ram, a catapult, and a siege tower. And because of the tensions between brothers, between the Lord and his lady, and between the Normans and Saxons, when that big moment finally comes when the Frisian raiders attack again, it feels like a bonus.

Language: “Hell,” “damn,” “bastard,” and “whore” pretty much cover it

Sex: A nude man and woman are shown lying dead in bed, but the main characters are more properly covered while nudity and lovemaking are suggested; there is also an attack of the woman by hunting hounds that tear off her clothes, but again we don’t see frontal nudity because she covers herself

Violence: Bloodier and more violent battle scenes than most films of this period, with warriors getting burned and stabbed as well

Adult situations: The whole film is based on adult situations, though again everything is mild compared to today’s standards

Takeaway: For an old-time Hollywood medieval film, The War Lord does a fine job of delivering action, drama, intrigue, and a welcome dose of realism.