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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Filmstar Ben-Hur made peace with Frisian raiders

Chrysagon and the Frisians (NBCUniversal)

Who doesn't know the epic movie Ben-Hur released on the white screen in 1959? A movie in which masculine Hollywood actor, and civil rights activist, Charlton Heston played the role of Judah Ben-Hur. And for which he was awarded an Oscar. Six years later, Heston played the role of Chrysagon in the movie The War Lord. A much braver role than Ben-Hur being a galley slave and charioteer. In The War Lord, namely, Heston had to battle frightful Frisians, and, of course, was forced to cut a deal with these heathen barbarians. Nonetheless, with a grand gesture the Frisians helped out Chrysagon and his lover.

The War Lord

Universal Pictures movie The War Lord was directed by Franklin Schaffner and released in 1965. Setting of the movie is the eleventh century. Furthermore, the plot is based upon the The Lovers, a play written by Leslie Stevens in 1957. Like Heston, Schaffner wasn't a nobody in Hollywood either. He, among other, directed the movies Planet of the Apes (1968) and Patton (1969). Although critics were actually quite positive about The War Lord, somehow the movie never made into the collective cinematic consciousness. Reviews were positive about the cast, the level of acting, and also about the relatively historically correct outfits, including Charlton Heston’s charming haircut. A thing that drew specific attention. In fact, The War Lord was the first Hollywood movie trying to create a more realistic and less stereotype and trivial image of the Middle Ages.

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters (NBCUniversal)

The story of The War Lord is about a knight named Chrysagon de la Creux. Chrysagon, a man who was tired after twenty years of battle and bloodshed. For his services and loyalty the duke of Normandy, William of Ghent, gave him a small fiefdom of marshland in a remote area along the coast of Flanders. An area where druidism and pagan rituals are still widespread. His plan was to civilize those people, a thing necessary to this day.

The area was being haunted by raiding Frisians from the north. Chrysagon and his brother Draco are successful in driving out the Frisian raiders during an attack. Leader of the Frisians is a prince, a part played by Henry Wilcoxon. He's never called by his name in the movie. The prince has brought with him his little, blond-haired son. The Frisian prince and Chrysagon enter into a dual during the raid. They know each other of previous battles, and the prince exclaims: “De La Creux!” when he sees Chrysagon. But the prince gets hurt and passes out. He's carried by his men to a ship. When the Frisians flee with their ships to open sea, they're unaware that the son of the prince is being left behind.

Lord Chrysagon and his small force have taken hold of the donjon of the village. A big, freestanding Norman tower made of stone, close to the seashore. Not long after his arrival, he has an encounter with a beautiful girl during a hunting party, named Bronwyn. A role played by Rosemary Forsyth. A simple but beautiful girl. She, however, is soon to be married. Her fiancé is named Marc, a local farmer. But, the powerful Chrysagon cannot get her out of his mind. And that's where all the misery starts.

Because Chrysagon is their lord, according to local, pagan traditions he has le Droit de Seigneur or, in Latin, jus primae noctis. It is a lord’s privilege to have the virgin-bride the first night of her wedding. On the day of the wedding, Chrysagon takes Bronwyn to his loft in the tower, under protest and great grief of Marc. Of course, the high party spirit of the wedding was tempered as well. Instead of the anticipated rape, both fell in love, and the next day Chrysagon does not give her back to Marc. This is against le Droit de Seigneur since a lord only has this right for one night. No more.

Marc seeks revenge. He learns that the Frisian boy from the last raid, is in fact of Frisian royal stock. Marc travels north to alert the Frisians of the whereabouts of the boy and to help him to take revenge on the war lord. With a large fleet, the Frisians sail to the village. Together with the still upset villagers, the Frisians attack the tower. Draco rides out to the duke of Normandy to ask for reinforcements, whilst his brother Chrysagon has a hard time to defend the tower in the meantime. He does so with using fire creating spectacular fighting scenes. Draco and the reinforcements arrive just in time to help Chrysagon.

the Tower, remote Flemish coast (NBCUniversal)

Next it became clear Draco had betrayed his brother while he was at the duke of Normandy to ask for help. Draco, namely, had lived at the duke's court for long. The duke promised the Flemish fiefdom to him, because Chrysago apparently wasn't able to manage it properly. In a scuffle between both brothers, after Draco attacked his brother with his sword first, Chrysagon accidently kills his brother with a dagger. Now, Chrysagon wants to end all the bloodshed. A chain of events he had set in motion by stealing Bronwyn from Marc on their wedding day.

Chrysagon rides to the camp of the Frisians and returns the boy to his father, the Frisian prince. In return the prince agrees to give Bronwyn shelter in Frisia (note that on the Faroe, Frisians are remembered for taking their women to Friesland, read our post Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast!). This enrages Marc again, and he manages to wound Chrysagon when he wants to take Bronwyn to the land of the Frisians. Marc also charges with a sickle at Bronwyn. Before he can approach her, Marc is killed by Chrysagon’s most loyal warrior. Perhaps because Marc's aggrieved emotions again and again became too annoying for this warrior.

The movie ends with the priest bringing Bronwyn to the Frisians. Chrysagon promises to follow her, but first he has to settle things with the duke of Normandy. Like a classic Western movie, the final shot is Chrysagon riding on his black horse to the duke.

The Lovers

As said, the movie The War Lord is based upon the play The Lovers written by Leslie Stevens in 1957. Besides having been married five times in his life, Stevens was also an accomplished producer, writer, and director. He's said to be the godfather of the television series Battlestar Galactica.

In Stevens' play The Lovers, Bronwyn is named Douane. The main character’s name is almost the same, namely Chrysagon de la Crux, and he is riding a black stallion. His brother Draco is described as "young, lean, and sculptured with hot eyes and blond, poll-cropped hair. And that the ancestral strain of Nordic barbarians shows in him."

The whole conflict with the Frisians, however, isn't part of the play at all. This is, of course, historically more truthful than all those barbaric Frisian pirates in the movie The War Lord. Frisians, as everyone knows, always were such peace-loving people in the Middle Ages. Indeed, the only reference to Frisians in the play The Lovers can be found in Act III, where Chrysagon says to Douane (as said, known as Bronwyn in the movie The War Lord):

“Douane, I have a water-castle in the Frisian lands – set out on the sea. We can live there through the snow – the summer – You will forget the village and they will forget you.”

This Frisia or Friesland thing somehow must have sprouted out of Stevens imagination. But how did he come up with Frisia? Another interesting question is, where did Schaffner get this idea of medieval Frisian pirates from back in the '50s?

Our guess is from the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (GND) by William of Jumièges, written in 1070, or in 1071. It has the ingredients raiders, Normandy and Frisia, just like the play and the movie. The GND is one of the most important historical sources about the medieval history of Normandy. It tells about the campaigns of Rollo, also known as Hrólfr, ruler of Normandy, and the raiding expeditions in Flanders and Frisia. Check for more our post Frisia, a Viking graveyard.

fLtR Charlton Heston (Chyrsagon), Rosemary Forsyth (Bronwyn/Douane), Henry Wilcoxon (Frisian Prince)

The End

The real bitter end is, everyone forgot about the Frisian lands but does remember Bronwyn (Douane) instead. The only northern comfort is knowing that in 1965, Judah Ben-Hur (i.e. Charlton Heston) stood face-to-face with a bunch of shabby-looking Frisian plunderers dressed in jute sacks and a lot of leather, somewhere on a sweaty film set in California. Let's hold on to that.


Note 1 - Rosemary's family name Forsyth shouldn't be confused with the early-medieval, Frisian idol Fo(r)site. Purely coincidence, of course, Rosemary Forsyth leaves for Frisia to live the rest of her life there. We stress, purely coincidence, and no room for conspiracy theories. For more about the Frisian god Fo(r)site, read our post The Thing is...

Note 2 - The Frisian prince is never called by his name. That's a pity because it would have given us more leads perhaps as to how Schaffner or Stevens came up with those Frisian pirates. Who knows his name was Corsold. Corsold was also a leader of a band of Frisians that had established themselves in nearby Brittany, which must have been at the start of the sixth century. At the beginning of that century Corsold and his fellow Frisians were driven out by the Celtic king Riwal from Britain.

Note 3 – For those readers who want to have a more realistic impression of how Frisians looked like in the Middle Ages, check our post Haute couture from the salt marsh.

Suggested music

Moross, J., Theme The War Lord (1965)

Rolling Stones, (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (1965)

Credit roll

Crowther, B., Battle Scenes Enliven Medieval Romance: Several Other Movies Begin N.Y. Runs (1965)

Dickerson, M.T., The Finnsburg Encounter (1991)

Hicks-Jenkins, C., The Tower (2014)

Larsen, A.E., The War Lord: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (2014)

Richard, J., Swordsmen of the screen (2014)

Stevens, L., The Lovers. A play in three acts (1957)

Wijngaarden, A., The War Lord (1965) (website)


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