Riding in the car with a friend talking about King Arthur myth movies, I described a movie that I saw as a teenager only once but that left a lasting impression. Called The Warlord, it featured Charlton Heston as an exhausted warrior charged with enforcing structure on a wild, Druidic-styled village. In short order, he has defended a young woman from his own men and fallen for her himself, claiming droit de seigneur (the supposed “right” of the feudal lord to take a bride on her wedding night and return her to her new husband the next morning) — but not actually forcing himself on her. The beautiful young woman shows him caring, compassion, and mercy. He shows her scars from years at war as well as a view of a world far beyond her miserable, misty swamp. He frees a young boy that he was supposed to hold for ransom. Complications ensue — there is a jealous brother and everyone from the villagers to his leaders wants him out of the isolated tower where he is living with the young woman. Ultimately, he rides off with her sitting on the horse behind him. They are in love and committed to one another. Delightfully dark and moody with strange, long shots of birds taking flight, high stakes, and powerful emotion, the story was perfect. I smiled at the memory.
My friend was horrified. Droit de seigneur, are you kidding me? I hate stories that justify abuse.
Abuse? I racked my brain. I didn’t remember anything remotely like that.
As soon as I got home, I researched the movie. I roamed the internet, learning more. It was indeed as complicated and twisted as it sounded. Apparently, it was the first film to show the middle ages as hard, nasty, brutal, and dirty as they no doubt were. The scant historical fact that may have helped structure the story was so larded with fantasy and fancy that the story was incoherent, blithering mess.
But that is not the movie that I saw. No movie would so capture my imagination that I could overlook abuse. The sweet, wide open, innocent kid that I was wouldn’t and couldn’t merrily skip past horror to get to the happy ending.
Then it came to me. The movie was shown on 1970s commercial television — cut to fit around commercials and constructed to satisfy the censors. Whoever rip roared through this movie created a romantic epic, dropping out the horror, the abuse, the complexity that even Hollywood struggled to handle.
That is the movie that I saw and remember. The post-release artistry wielded to meet censor and commercial interests made a great story. I adamantly support artistic integrity and I also love fan fiction. I’m going to believe this is that, done early and done so enduringly, memorably well.