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The War Lord
A UK region 2 DVD review by Joseph Ewens
 

From books to video games, narrative media aims for immersion. In fictional films the trials and tribulations of the characters must be compelling enough to capture the imagination, but there's a lot of background work to be done to ensure that those interesting elements are fully exposed. The War Lord is an excellent example of how to scupper any potential immersion by making your artifice painfully obvious. The almost interesting tale of a nobleman sent to hold a small patch of swampland is spoilt by sloppy production values and sub-standard acting.

Screen legend and habitual rifle lifter Charlton Heston struts around as Chrysagon, the Norman Lord tasked with defending a crumbling village from blonde-haired raiders and their amphibious assaults. Heston has to deploy all of his natural gravitas to prevent Chrysagon becoming weighed down by poor dialogue and clunky production. Tension arrives in the form of beautiful peasant girl Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth), already promised to the son of the village elder. His unconvincing romantic dalliances send him into a period of polar emotional states. Heston's well-practised heroic jaw line looks good atop a noble steed or brooding in the tower, but lacks the subtly required to communicate the depths of his love affair. To be fair to the Oscar winner, blame must be evenly portioned onto the screenplay, which only permits Chrysagon to be stoically in command or flailing around like a lovestruck Romeo.

The dialogue and story have the feel of a poor man's Shakespearean tragedy, but still present a potentially interesting plot. Under the village's lingering pagan beliefs, the lord of the realm has the right to claim a virgin bride for her first night of wedded bliss. As a strict Christian, Chrysagon wrestles with the desire to give in to his lust for Bronywn. His decision, and the ensuing turmoil, could have become an engaging human story set against a backdrop of medieval conflict. Instead, low production values and overacting conspire to smash any sense of engagement.

Even before the fuzzy opening credits have finished, it's clear that this is not a film blessed with an excess of funds. The Lord and his retinue pad across marshland in front of obviously painted backdrops. Pitched battles fought between two dozen troops are plainly closeted inside a Hollywood sound stage. Swords and axes collide unconvincingly with plywood shields amid seemingly infinite shots of men being pierced with arrows and falling over. Maybe we're spoilt by huge CGI armies and detailed combat choreography, but the highly staged feel of the 'War' section of the The War Lord only adds to the lack of realism. The battles do improve in the film's later stages when siege weapons are introduced. These large wooden objects have a convincing solidity that the rest of the action sequences lack and allow Chrysagon to display some interesting medieval battle-tactics. Sadly, unconvincing catapult fireballs and impossibly fluorescent blood quickly remind you of The War Lord's technical shortcomings.

The actors fall into the same trap, never managing to fully embody their characters. Guy Stockwell has a pleasing sneer to his snide lordly brother and Richard Boone is passable as Chrysagon's right-hand warrior, but the whole ensemble give very actorly performances. Rosemary Forsyth is more believable as the comely maiden of Chrysagon's affections, but her doe-eyed delivery is so understated it's hard to judge whether her affections lie with the commoner or the Lord. Most of the actors are trying too hard, but by not exerting herself in any way, Forsyth avoids overacting pitfalls.

Shoddy production values never let you forget that you're watching elaborate fakery, and the cast do the same. They always appear to be actors reading elaborate faux-medieval lines in a cardboard castle, not petulant schemers or gruff noble fighters. Charlton Heston is noticeably the strongest performer, but cannot completely avoid breaking the immersion. He is one of the most famous Hollywood faces of all time and The War Lord is never good enough to make you forget about all the associations that brings. The script must again shoulder some of the blame, consisting mostly of functional descriptions of emotional states and intentions. Real people speak in disjointed secretive sentences, letting body language embellish and elaborate their meaning.

Period pictures are often maligned for their inaccuracy, but amid all the phoniness, The War Lord delivers admirably on the historical front. The film sticks faithfully to its feudal setting, with the assembled gentry considering themselves intrinsically better that the proletariat. The peasants who scratch a living from the land are seen as imbecilic animals who have no rights that their Lord does not give them. This faithful set-up makes the prospect of Chrysagon and Bronwyn's love across the divide even more tantalising, but The War Lord never fulfils its story's potential.

The costumes are also excellent, from poofy burgundy to sleek chainmail. Designer Vittorio Nino Novarese deserves more credit than most for completing his part in the production with finesse. Musically, Jerome Moross and Hans J. Salter have done their jobs a little too well. Huge orchestral noises befit the kind of epic The War Lord wishes it could be, but only make the pretend swamp and silly fighting look all the more miniature.

sound and vision

A spectacularly clean and well balanced transfer with spot-on contrast and decent colour, that although a touch earthy in places is impressive elsewhere, with bleed-free reproduction of red-lit interiors and punchy handling of prime colours. The image may not be Series 4 Avengers sharp, but is still pleasingly detailed. A nice transfer.

The Dolby 2.0 mono track has a slightly narrowed range compared to modern tracks, but is otherwise impressively clear, with no detectable distortion on music or sound effects.

extra features

There are a couple of extras on offer, starting with the Original Theatrical Trailer, which has a pleasingly bombastic voice-over in true 60s Hollywood style. The second is a Music and Effects Only Track that plays the film in full with all of the dialogue removed. The score is decent, but there's no reason to listen to it alongside The War Lord's failed visual spectacle and the sound of foley artists at work. It's difficult to imagine that anyone would ever want to sit through the whole thing for the full two-hour run time.

summary

The War Lord is a misguided film that does twenty percent of its job well. Poor special effects and acting highlight the studio-bound nature of the production, destroying any sense of intrigue, delight, or wonder. Conceptually it's a decent picture, but the execution is deeply flawed.

The War Lord

USA 1965
116 mins
director
Franklin J. Schaffner
starring
Charlton Heston
Richard Boone
Rosemary Forsyth
Maurice Evans
Guy Stockwell
Niall MacGinnis

Disc details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Trailer
Music and effects track
distributor
Eureka!
release date
21 June 2010
review posted
26 July 2010

See all of Joseph Ewins' reviews