This film is set in mediaeval Normandy, and the war lord of the title is the knight Chrysagon de la Crue. Chrysagon does not rank very high among the Norman aristocracy. His lands are poor,consisting mostly of marshland, and he has the thankless task of defending them on behalf of the Duke against warlike Frisian raiders. He is impoverished, having been forced to pay an extortionate ransom after his father was captured by the Frisians. Nevertheless, he is still a feudal lord, having near-absolute power over the peasants within his domain.
At first, he tries to exercise this power in a just and humane manner; for example, he saves the lives of poachers accused of poaching deer (a capital offence at that time) when he dismisses the evidence against them. Things change, however, when he meets a young village girl, Bronwyn. She is engaged to be married to Marc, a young peasant, but Chrysagon, struck by her beauty, claims the right of "Droit de Seigneur" which permits a feudal lord to sleep with any woman within his domain on the night before her marriage. Having spent the night with her, he falls obsessively in love and refuses to give her up. Marc and the other villagers swear revenge, and inform the Frisian chieftain that Chrysagon is holding his young son as a prisoner. The Frisians launch a raid to rescue the boy, and lay siege to Chrysagon's castle.
The film was based on a play called The Lovers; Charlton Heston altered the title after his production company bought the film rights. This would suggest that he was more interested in military action than in the love story, but in fact both elements are equally important. Chrysagon can be seen as a tragic hero, facing a classic dilemma, the choice between love and honour. A choice of this type was a common theme in the plays of Pierre Corneille (himself from Normandy), and the appeal of The Lovers to Heston may have been due to the fact that a few years earlier he had had a big success starring in another mediaeval drama with a similar theme, El Cid, partly based upon one of Corneille's most famous plays. Chrysagon is a battle-hardened, middle-aged bachelor, whose life has been dominated by what he calls his "cold mistress"- his sword. Suddenly, he realises that he has a chance of happiness with a beautiful young woman, but he can only achieve that happiness if he fails in his duty to his vassals, who expect that he will rule them justly, and to the Duke, who expects that he will keep the peace.
The film's main strength is the vivid picture it gives of the Middle Ages and the sense of a world very different from ours. The battle scenes are very realistic and convincing, especially the siege of the castle. Its main weakness is that the love story of Chrysagon and Bronwyn is never really credible. Heston is a fine actor, but even good actors have their limitations as well as their strengths. Heston's main strength has been playing men of action- not just military heroes (although he has played plenty of those) but also statesmen such as Richelieu and Thomas More, creative artists such as Michelangelo and religious leaders such as Moses. Sensitive individuals given to strong emotions have been less in his line of country; several of his characters have had wives or sweethearts, but affairs of the heart have generally taken a lesser role in his films. Will Penny may be an exception, but even here Will's rather gruff tenderness for Catherine is very different to Chrysagon's guilty, obsessive passion.
It is therefore not surprising that Chrysagon the warrior comes across as more credible than Chrysagon the lover. In Heston's scenes with Bronwyn he comes across as too stiff and stolid. The casting of Rosemary Forsyth as Bronwyn was not ideal, either. Although her innocent beauty made her physically right for the part, she is far too passive. For the story to work, the audience need to believe that she returns Chrysagon's passion for her, or at least that she is torn between her two lovers. Unfortunately, there is no sense of this in the film. The impression is given that she is meekly submitting to Chrysagon's will because she is too frightened to defy him, which means that he ceases to be a tragic hero and becomes a villain, little better than a rapist.
If the filmmakers had merely wanted to make a mediaeval adventure story, they would probably have made a very good one. The appear, however, to have had something more ambitious in mind, namely to make that rare thing in the cinema, a genuine tragic drama. I think that they failed in this ambition, but it was an honourable one, and The War Lord can be seen as an honourable failure. 6/10
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