In 1965, Charleton Heston appeared in The War Lord (dir. Franklin J. Schaffner), a surprisingly gritty little medieval drama. It’s not a well-known film, and while it has some serious problems from a historical standpoint, it is in many ways a better film about the Middle Ages than much of what Hollywood has released since then (other than The Lion in Winter, of course). In 1991, the American Historical Association honored it as one of the best films about the period ever produced.
The opening narration (by Orson Wells) sets the story some time in the 11th century. Heston plays Chrysagon, a Norman knight, just back from “the wars” (the suggestion is that he’s been on crusade, but unless the film is set around 1099, that’s not possible, especially since he’s been fighting for 20 years). His lord, the Duke of Ghent (historically actually the Count of Flanders), has sent him to hold a small tower somewhere near the coast, by a small village. He discovers that the villages are ‘druids’, by which the film means that they follow old pagan customs, although the village priest insists that they are good Christians.
Early in the film, the village is attacked by Frisian raiders. Chrysagon and his brother Draco (Guy Stockwell) drive them off, managing to capture the Frisian leader’s unnamed young son. As luck would have it, this unnamed Frisian captured their father years ago and reduced his family to poverty by demanding a stiff ransom.
The village headman, Odins (Niall McGinnis) asks permission for his son, Marc (James Farentino), to marry his foster daughter, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). Chysagon gives permission, but immediately regrets the choice, because he has become infatuated with Bronwyn. Draco suggests that Chrysagon should exercise his “Droit du Seigneur”, the supposed right of feudal lords to sleep with new brides on their wedding night. Chrysagon decides to do so, but refuses to return Bronwyn to Marc the next morning.
Furious, Marc sails to Frisia and alerts the Frisian lord to the fact that Chrysagon has his son. The Frisians return and set siege to the tower. Draco rides to get the duke’s support, and ultimately saves the tower from being overrun by Frisians. But he has betrayed Chrysagon by telling the duke that the whole problem is Chrysagon’s fault; as a result, the duke has granted the tower to Draco. The two fight, and Chrysagon kills Draco.
Chrysagon is disgusted by everything that has happened. He returns the Frisian boy to his father without asking for a ransom, and asks that Bronwyn be allowed to seek shelter with them. Marc tries to kill Chrysagon, but is killed by Chrysagon’s right-hand man, Bors (Richard Boone). The film ends with Chrysagon and Bors riding to meet the duke of Ghent in an attempt to fix things with his lord.
Heston was the driving force behind this picture, having optioned the script of a play, and it was a small enough project that he was able to exercise considerable artistic control over the film. Thanks to his interest in history, The War Lord is one of the first Hollywood films to attempt a more historical treatment of the Middle Ages (and in that sense, might be seen as a precursor to The Lion in Winter’s treatment of the period). The film does not try to romanticize the period the way that earlier films about Robin Hood or King Arthur had generally done. Chrysagon is not referred to as ‘Sir Chrysagon’, perhaps because it would seem too Arthurian.
Instead, The War Lord seeks to be fairly accurate. The clothing and armor worn by the Norman knights is all reasonably accurate to the 11th century (long tunics, chainmail hauberks, open-faced Norman helmets, kite shields). The peasants get generic tunics, and the Frisians look rather like stock Vikings, but there are no helmets with horns on them or other obviously anachronistic details. During the siege of the tower, the Frisians use both a battering ram with wheels and a cover, and a siege tower; these are perhaps a little improbable for a film set so early in the history of castles, but not outrageously so. When he returns, Draco brings a catapult with him that throws the ever-popular flaming missiles, but this is the only really jarring note in terms of technology. The tower, although perhaps a little too large on the inside, is shown as a cramped, smelly space, and Chrysagon’s men sleep on the floors and staircases of the tower, with only Chrysagon have the privilege of a private chamber. Chrysagon’s haircut is a stab at a genuine 11th century style, but without the fashionable mustaches of the period.
The film also attempts a more historical treatment of the social dynamics of the period. The knights and the peasants are shown as having different values and not fully trusting each other, even before Chrysagon upsets the situation by taking Bronwyn. Most of the knights, particularly Draco, show contempt for the peasants, and the peasants consistently demonstrate an understanding of their social inferiority and need to show deference to the knights.
The film never really figures out the economics of peasant-lord relations. There is no sign that the peasants farm; mostly they just wander around, gather plants, and look peasant-y. But the film understands that the lord of the manor needs to hold a court to address problems with the running of the estate, and so we get a scene in which Chrysagon gradually grows frustrated with his administrative duties. Marc and Bronwyn ask permission to marry, which if they are serfs is historically accurate, although Chrysagon simply grants permission instead of demanding a payment for his permission the way a historical lord probably would have.
The film also explores Chrysagon’s complicated relationship with his brother, and here again it seems to capture something of the complexities of medieval families. Their father was evidently a more important noble, but ransoming him beggared the family. Draco evidently resents his older brother for standing between him and success, while Chrysagon resents the fact that his brother has lived relatively comfortably at the duke’s court while Chrysagon has been off fighting in the duke’s service. Given the Norman system of primogeniture, in which the oldest son received nearly everything of the father’s estate, this tension between them feels very plausible. Draco’s betrayal of him is exactly the sort of crime on which a medieval chanson de geste would have focused.
Instead of an Arthurian romance between a knight and his lady, the plot turns on Chrysagon’s obsession with Bronwyn. The film directly acknowledges the fact that by taking her on her wedding night, he is raping her, although it refuses to acknowledge the full ramifications of that act. In doing this, the film was rejecting Hollywood conventions, and this may well have been a part of the reason the film did poorly at the box office, failing to break even.
Perhaps the best thing about this film is that so little is at stake. It is the story of one unimportant knight, the tiny fief he has been given, and his struggle to keep what he has been given by his lord. Most films set in the Middle Ages seek to tell grand stories about kings and great heroes, and Chrysagon is neither, just a middle-aged man feeling exhausted and disillusioned with his life. The siege sequence, which occupies close to a third of the film’s running time, dramatizes the challenge of attacking and defending one very minor fortification. As such, Chrysagon stands in for the countless minor nobles of the period, and the siege is one of the many inconsequential little conflicts that littered the 11th century.
While quite a good treatment of the Middle Ages in some respects, the film is not perfect. It has two serious historical flaws. The plot makes heavy use of the “droit du seigneur” (also variously known as “jus primae noctis” and “the right of the first night”). As the film presents it, feudal lords have the right to sleep with a newly-married bride. While a common myth about the Middle Ages, there never was such a right; it is essentially the invention of 16th century French authors. While some nobles undoubtedly abused their legal authority by raping peasant women, at no point anywhere did they have a legal right to do so.
To its credit, the film at least shows this concept as being socially contested between different groups. Chrysagon seems unaware of the idea until Draco suggests it. The priest says that it would be a sin to do so, but when Draco presses him, the priest reluctantly admits that it is lawful. Odins counters Chrysagon’s assertion of his right by saying that if Chrysagon does it the way Draco suggests, it would be rape, but that it was also a custom practiced by their ancestors when they followed “the old ways”. He lays out a set of rules for how to do it acceptably (it has to be done at night, with the bride returning at sunrise, there have to torches, men have to stand watch, and so on). Nevertheless, even with this gloss on it, this element of the film is entirely ahistorical.
Equally problematic is the film’s depiction of the villagers as pagans. They are flat out described as “druids”, they maintain a sacred grove of trees and a sacred stone, and Marc and Bronwyn’s wedding ritual involves pagan garlands, dolls being waved around and kissed, taking bites out of a piece of bread, and dancers dressed as bulls, roosters, and a wild man ( inspired perhaps by Welsh morris dancing). When they are declared married, the villagers shout for joy and jump into a PG-rated orgy, with lots of indiscriminate dancing, kissing, and wine being poured on people. At various points, Chrysagon accuses the villagers of working magic, and repeatedly suggests that Bronwyn might be a witch.
In doing this, the film was drawing off a semi-scholarly tradition dating back to the 19th century that medieval peasants were only thinly Christianized during the Middle Ages. Much attention was given to so-called ‘pagan survivals’ in which medieval practices that did not seem to be clearly Christian, such as morris dancing or maypoles, were explained as surviving pagan rituals, usually fertility rituals. The assumption was that medieval missionaries had paid comparatively little attention to the religious beliefs and practices of the people they were converting, as long as those people made a show of performing the basic Christian rituals. Thus, in this view, peasants attended church as needed, but continued worshipping ‘the old gods’ as well, particularly when it came to matters involving sex and fertility. Margaret Murray, an early-20th century scholar, added the dubious notion that witches were actually crypto-pagans, so that magic and paganism came to be seen as the same thing, and accusing a woman of witchcraft was really accusing her of being pagan.
The scholarly foundations of this notion were always rather shaky, and in the past thirty years or so, these ideas have been substantially disproven. There is little evidence of provably pagan rituals surviving for centuries, although Christians did re-purpose many pagan holy places as churches. Even when practices might have pagan origins, there is no evidence that medieval people saw them as anything but Christian. Rituals such as maypole dancing are today generally seen by scholars, not as pagan fertility rituals surviving from the ancient period but rather as fertility rituals developed in the later Middle Ages. The fact that they are concerned with fertility does not automatically make them pagan in nature, and since the evidence points to them developing within a Christian society, they are therefore seen as Christian fertility rituals. And Murray’s claim that accusations of witchcraft were actually accusations of paganism completely disintegrated as her evidence was re-examined and found to be deeply flawed and often flat-out misrepresented. So while the film’s treatment of the villagers as pagans was perhaps in accordance with mid-20th century ideas on the issue (though not really with the scholarship of the period), it is certainly completely wrong.
The screenwriters also seem to have essentially pulled the characters’ names out of a hat. “Chrysagon” is a Greek name, although St. Chrysagon is an obscure saint venerated by Catholics, and so it is perhaps imaginable that his father named him after the saint. But Draco is a Graeco-Latin word meaning ‘dragon’; so far as I know, it wasn’t used as a name in this period. The Flemish peasant Odins is named after a Norse god associated with kings, while his son Marc sports a Roman and therefore Christian name, and Bronwyn gets a Welsh name. Three important characters, the priest, the Frisian leader, and the Frisian boy, don’t even get names.
The biggest problem with the film, however, is its sexual politics. Bronwyn clearly does not want to have sex with Chrysagon, and the film situates his claim on her as rape. But he refuses to actually force himself on her, and somehow his reluctance to rape her softens her heart and she willingly submits to him. When he refuses to give her back, she says that their relationship “can never be,” but does not otherwise protest. Although she never says so, the film strongly implies that by the end of the film she has fallen in love with Chrysagon. He gives her his father’s ring, an action which infuriates Draco, but which clearly symbolizes a commitment like marriage.
Throughout the film, Bronwyn is essentially passive. She protests a little bit here and there, and her reluctance is clear, but at no point does she enjoy any sense of true agency. The film presents Chrysagon’s obsession with her as an expression of his love and suggests that his feelings for her slowly redeem him, leading him to simply give the Frisian boy back to his father without demanding a ransom, after having fought the siege to keep him. She goes with the Frisians when Chrysagon tells her to, and he promises her that he is going with her in spirit, but needs to fix things with his lord before he can rejoin her. In essence, his rape of her becomes the means of his emotional redemption, and the fact that being married to him will essentially ennoble her is presented as a reward for everything he has done to her. Thus while the film seeks to de-romanticize the Middle Ages and acknowledges that what Chrysagon is doing is virtually rape, its plot stubbornly clings to a ‘true love conquers all’ pattern, and achieves its admittedly ambivalent ending mostly by ignoring what is really going on here. But that’s Hollywood for you.
Want to Know More?
The Warlordis available on DVD (after years of only being available on VHS) through Amazon.
If you’re interested in my critique of the concept of ‘pagan survivals’, one good place to start is Ronald Hutton’s The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, which surveys what we can actually say we know for a fact about ancient paganism in Britain, and which offers a history of the idea of ‘pagan survivals’. I highly recommend it