Tackling the Twelve: The War Lord
The release on UK DVD last week of The War Lord (Franklin Schaffner, 1965) finally gave me the opportunity to see another in my list of Twelve.
Schaeffner's film comes from the last wave of Hollywood Epics in the mid-60s, before New Hollywood emerged and cinema began to reflect the culture of the decade. It follows Chrysagon (Charlton Heston), a Norman Knight who is charged with taking over a Castle in the marshlands of Normandy to serve the interests of his master, an unseen Duke. The area around the Tower is frequently attacked by Frisian raiders who arrive Viking-style from the sea. The leader of these Frisians was responsible for the death of Chrysagon's father, also a legendarily heroic Knight. As well as this, Chrysagon has to contend with the malign influence of his devious, sarcastic, jealous brother Draco (Guy Stockwell) and maintain good relations with the Druidic, pagan locals, who have their own agenda.
The War Lord is the first film where Schaffner displayed a talent for handling an Epic scale in his work. Afterwards, he would go on to direct some massively scaled films - Patton (1970), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Lionheart (1987) spring to mind - but the feel of Epic storytelling, a certain grandeur in his staging and shooting style, is evident even in "smaller" films, like Planet of the Apes (1968) and Papillon (1973). As this list indicates, in his time Schaffner was a major commercial director who made Big, Serious, Important, somewhat stodgy films. But he always had a good eye and confidently handled his large canvas storytelling. In the mid-60s when he made The War Lord, he was coming off the success of the political drama The Best Man (1964), which had been based on Gore Vidal's play. So it must have seemed a good fit to entrust him with another theatrical adaptation - The War Lord is based on Leslie Stevens' The Lovers. As it happens, the theatrical origins of the film lend it a schizophrenic quality: it is full of intense scenes of dialogue bearing much of the thematic load, mostly set within the Tower where all of the films big male egos bump up against one another. But it is also a battle Epic, and the last reel is focused almost entirely upon the siege of the tower by the Frisians, while there is a big set-piece battle inside the film's first fifteen minutes. Schaffner is great at action and these scenes are muscular, coherent and exciting.
The more theatrical elements are weaker, though they are fascinating. The story is concerned with religion and politics - oddly contemporary territory - as the Christian Normans find themselves flummoxed by and disdainful of the "pagan" locals, who follow Druids and seem to live by vaguely New Age principles involving worship of nature. The actual plot complicates this, as Heston's Chrystagon is exhausted by his years of War and a little sickened by what he has seen of the World to the extent that he seems unmoved by either religion. He then falls in love with a local girl, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth) and his consequent meddling in local affairs leads inevitably to trouble.
Heston, so good in the action scenes, is probably the film's big weak point. The theatrical nature of much of the film doesn't suit him, however. In his other big Epics, Anthony Mann's magnificent El Cid (1961) and Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959), the drama is heightened and more operatic, his character outsized, his speeches better suited to his hammy, somewhat fevered delivery. Here, everything is decidedly more intimate and more of an attempt is made at emotional realism. He doesn't have the skill as an actor to express Chrystagon's inner conflict, which should be the crux of the films emotional scheme. He grimaces and sweats and frowns, but he is inescapably wooden and seems as far from real emotion as anyone in the film. He is best in the early scenes where Chrystagon is tired and grumpy, something Schaffner seems to have picked up on, for he again utilizes that (arrogant, superior) Heston in Planet of the Apes, particularly in the long early monologue Heston has onboard the ship.
One of the most troubling aspects of his performance is his inability to express desire. The film is concerned, at least partly, with sex. Chrysagon is sexually frustrated - he admits it has been too long since he "embraced" a woman - after years of warfare, and he instantly wants Bronwyn when he first encounters her naked in a river. But he is awkward and clumsy with her, especially when she reveals her virginity to him. The problem is that when Heston gazes at her, he just looks angry. The suggestion may be that he is contemplating rape - his men certainly expect him to take what he needs from the girl, with or without her consent - but for me, it looks like Heston is simply incapable of the nuance required to show how he really feels. He glares huffily at her and she looks frankly terrified. Forsyth is beautiful but her character is barely existent, and when the pair do fall in love, it seems sudden and unconvincing. There is the possibility that she responds to the odd vulnerability in Chrysagon, and she also seems slightly discomfited by the expectations her Druidic tribe place upon her, but the film does not do enough to make a certainty of either of these possibilities.
So what does work? Well, with Russell Metty photography and music by Jerome Moross, the film always looks and sounds classy. The supporting cast is correspondingly strong; particularly Richard Boone putting that steel bear-trap face to great use as Bors, Chrysagon's brooding second, and Guy Stockwell as the Iago-like Draco. And the sidelines of the story are filled with interesting, colourful detail; from the pagan Wedding ceremony to the dwarf in Chrysagon's party who drags a captured Frisian child around with him on a rope. But it was unmistakeably shot in California and the stagey, overlit scenes in the Tower are perhaps even more claustrophobic than intended.
All of which makes it a slight disappointment for me. For Schaffner, the only way was up.