The Tower

For reasons that will become clear, this is posted in memory of my dear friend Linda… known as ‘Henderbird’… who died yesterday.

1965 saw the release of the film The War Lord, starring Charlton Heston. It was directed by Franklin J Shafnner, who was considered by the studio to be a reliable pair of hands for a star vehicle. The screenplay was adapted from a now almost forgotten play by Leslie Stevens, called The Lovers. The story is of a Norman Knight, Chrysagon, charged by his Duke to suppress Frisian incursions at the border of his kingdom. While on active duty, Chrysagon becomes obsessed with a local woman, Bronwyn, the foster child of a Druid chief, pledged to be married to her childhood sweetheart. Chrysagon enforces droit de seigneur, the right of a lord to take a woman on her wedding night. It doesn’t end well! Viewed today the film is patchy, with clunky moments that undermine its undeniable pleasures. But balanced against its deficiencies, it looks wonderful, even when hampered with the technical limitations of its time. Though the horizontal matte-line is painfully obvious in this image, the composition and the mood combine to lovely effect. (The matte artist was the peerless Albert Whitlock.)

 …

As Chrysagon de la Cruex, Charlton Heston was clearly uneasy with the aspects of a narrative that required him to show the vulnerability of a man brought to his knees by desire, let alone love. In his published diary Heston was a tad ungenerous about the inexperienced young Rosemary Forsyth, who played Bronwyn. The evidence on screen is that he was the one struggling with his character, while she was simply not given anything in the script to work with, and was probably in awe of the star opposite her. In front of the camera Forsyth looks frankly terrified by Chrysagon’s rage, and painfully vulnerable and disadvantaged by her nudity in their first scene together. Though a charismatic actor when playing heroic roles, Heston could be a ham when out of his comfort zone, and his default response here lacks any subtlety or delicacy. There is simply no chemistry between him and Forsyth. Nevertheless the scene sticks in the mind, largely due to the underlying unease Chrysagon feels in the presence of what might be ‘old magic’, and this tone, underlined by the soundtrack and music, is one of the film’s great strengths, together with the battle scenes that really get the pulse racing.

Below: Heston is always more at ease in action scenes and in the saddle than when anything more cerebral is required.

Shafnner, so good at the action, was out of his depth with the Druid wedding. With the ‘extras’ woefully under-directed and left to run about and badly act-out the throes of unbridled sexual passion, it all just looks damned silly. Nevertheless, the art department do much to capture the sense of a culture in which pre-Christian religious practices continue to hold sway, an aspect emphasised by the consistently inventive and rapturous music score by Jerome Moross. (At the Druid wedding, wind-chimes and rattles add to the sense of the restless forest.)

Below: more evocative imagery conjured by the great Albert Whitlock.

Elsewhere in the film there is much to be enjoyed. Chrysagon’s manipulative brother Drago is played by Guy Stockwell, who eats the scenery, the furniture and any other actor in his orbit. For me, as an hormonal teenager entranced in the darkened cinema by the heightened passions on the screen… most of them not involving poor Rosemary Forsyth… Stockwell was the chiefest pleasure of the film. (I always preferred the bad boys!) Richard Boone as Bors, Chrysagon’s second-in-command, lends a solidity to the ripely over-heated, men-only environment, and you know you’d want a Bors in your corner if you were in a tight spot.

Below: Rosemary Forsyth as Bronwyn and handsome Guy Stockwell as as the villainous Drago.

The sense of isolation conjured in the bleak landscapes and solitary tower, stayed with me long after I’d viewed the film. Director of Photography Russell Metty doesn’t put a foot wrong, aided and abetted by Whitlock and the Art Direction of Henry Bumstead and Alexander Golitzen. In my head I wanted to be in that place. (And one day, I arranged my life so that I was in it, or as close to it as I could get, when I went to work at Tretower Court and Castle.)

But what of the magnificent set made for the film? In a debased form it was rebuilt and became an attraction on the Universal Studio ‘Tour’. Here it is as it looked in 1967, a mere two years after the release of The War Lord, and already stranded in a sea of awfulness.

The battered door-sign that announced the history of the tower to visitors.

warlord1

By the time the War Lord Tower was demolished in 2001 to make way for a shiny new attraction, it had been reduced to use as a store-room for merchandise, the film it had been raised for largely forgotten. Looking at it in the photographs, I can’t say I’m sorry it’s gone. For too long it had looked like some sad old zoo animal, uncared for, out of its natural environment, ignored by the crowds shuffling past that no longer paused to wonder why it was there. I like to remember it as was intended by the film’s art directors, Henry Blumstead and Alexander Golitzen, standing sentinel at the water’s edge, with marsh-birds calling and the reeds rattling in the wind.

Back in 1965, my friend Linda ‘Henderbird’ Henderson and I were passionately in love with the film, and I purchased the album of the music so that in our more excitable moments we could ‘act-out’ the story together. She was always Bronwyn and I ended up being Chrysagon. I don’t think I ever admitted to her that I wasn’t much interested in Chrysagon, and that I really wanted to swoon in the arms of bad Lord Drago!

Much, much later, as a painter I made images of the solitary tower, in the shadow of which I’d retreated to mend myself… see image below… when I was battered from having worked too long in the theatre.

Tretower Castle

Looking at the images from the film today, it strikes me that my paintings are significantly more like the tower of The War Lord, than that of Tretower Castle in Gwent. That’s come as a bit of a revelation.