Normandy, the eleventh Century. Chrysagon de la Cruz (Charlton Heston) is a knight in the service of Duke William of Ghent sent to build a defensive castle in a coastal area against the Frisian raiders. With his right-hand man Bors (Richard Boone) and his brother Draco (Guy Stockwell) he asserts his authority on the men of the castle. But then he meets a Frisian woman, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth) and falls in love with her...
Franklin J. Schaffner (who died in 1989 aged 69) is not a name to conjure with these days, and I'd suggest that's a little unfair. He began in television, and the IMDB lists small-screen credits for him as late as 1967, but he had made his first cinema feature in 1963 with Woman of Summer. Despite that, Schaffner clearly had a flair for the bigger, wider canvas: Woman of Summer was shot in Scope, and apart from The Best Man and The Double Man every feature he made for the next fifteen years was in the wider format. (Patton was shot in 65mm, one of only two features shot in the Dimension-150 process. Nicholas and Alexandra played roadshow venues in a 70mm blowup.) Schaffner may be a director waiting for the DVD era to have his due, as such widescreen spectacle – not to mention compositions likely to be wrecked by panning and scanning, back in the days when the major studios still let you do that with anamorphic or large-format productions – really needs OAR releases to be appreciated, unless you're lucky enough to catch a cinema showing.
An auteur? Well, I'll leave that one for those who have seen more of Schaffner's output than I have. But in a short period of time he directed a seminal film in the SF genre (the original Planet of the Apes) and a Best Picture Oscar winner that deserved its prize (Patton). Towards the end of his career he served up two reputed turkeys (Sphinx and the Pavarotti vehicle Yes, Giorgio - admittedly I've seen neither) but in his prime he did some fine work, and craftsmanship should certainly be valued.
Which leads me to The War Lord. It may star Charlton Heston and be set in the eleventh century – and contain battle scenes – but in some ways it's intentionally less than epic-scaled. The commercial failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire - not to mention the runaway budget of Cleopatra - had largely put paid to the mega-expensive Hollywood epic. The War Lord is a 35mm production (though in Panavision), was based on a stage play (The Lovers by Leslie Stevens), and has a running time under two hours. It's less concerned with the great grinding wheels of history than with a smaller-scale conflict, between races and between characters. While it's a handsome-looking film (the dark-hued camerawork was by great Russell Metty), it has a modesty of size to it. It's also interesting to see The War Lord as a film of the time it was made, with some scenes pushing at the nudity taboo that was broken by The Pawnbroker the year before (presumably while this film was in production) and some sexual references that push at the limits of the PG rating. (The film was cut for an A certificate for its cinema release but is now uncut.)
Charlton Heston was by now an “axiom of the cinema” as certain French critics had it. Well, maybe that would be taking it too far, but there's no doubting that he had a solidity and presence and was an actor who could star in a historical piece without seeming anachronistic. This was Rosemary Forsyth's second cinema film, but she certainly holds her own against Heston, and is tall enough (5'9”) not to have her 6'2” leading man tower over her. The supporting cast is strong and John Collier and Millard Kaufman's script is literate.
The War Lord has not been an easy film to see over the years, particularly not in its original aspect ratio, and it lives up to its reputation as an intelligent historical drama.
Eureka's release of The War Lord comprises a dual-layered DVD which is in PAL and region-free.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. At times certain shots are much softer than those before or after it, as if shot through a haze. This is particularly noticeable during the battle near the beginning. This may of course be in the original materials, but I mention it here because it seemed odd to me. (The transfer does show up some rather obvious back projection in the opening scene, but that's definitely down to the original.) Also some of the exterior scenes have a slight pinkish hue, suggesting that the source materials have faded a little in places. At other times the colours look just right. Otherwise this is a good transfer. Anamorphically-shot material is rarely pin-sharp, but this does look like I'd expect a mid-60s colour film to look like. The opening credits are pillarboxed, but fortunately the rest of the film isn't.
The War Lord is not on record as playing in any format other than 35mm, so its original soundtrack would be monophonic, and that's what we have on this DVD. As you would expect from a Hollywood production, music, dialogue and sound effects are well-balanced, though I had to turn the volume up rather more than normal. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing and Jerome Moross and Hans J. Salter's music is available in an isolated music and effects track.
The only other extra is the theatrical trailer (2:54) in which Charlton Heston tells us about the film in a voiceover. This is in anamorphic 16:9 and is in a pretty dreadful state: very soft and artefacted, and faded in parts to a pinkish-orange.