Review for The Vikings
I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘The Vikings’ before, although it’s entirely possible that I have. It’s a gloriously epic, technicolor-infused historical extravanganza where everything is ‘big’ – from the sets, to the locations, to the stars, to their over-the-top performances; it’s frankly everything you want from such a film and more.
Director Richard Fleischer, who has made countless brilliant movies (including ‘Soylent Green’ and ‘Fantastic Voyage’, a couple of personal favourites), gets somewhat over-looked these days; possibly because he covered so many genres and therefore never quite created the personal brand of an ‘auteur’ director. He was a gift to the industry though – a safe pair of hands who would make the film the producer’s wanted, rather than his own. On ‘The Vikings’ he paired with legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff to create a near perfect fifties epic.
Made in 1958, primarily as a self-produced star-vehicle for Kirk Douglas, it was only pressure from backers that pushed the idea that a co-star was required; cue twinkle-eyed Tony Curtis (‘Some like it Hot’) and his wife of the time, Janet Leigh (perhaps best known for ‘Psycho’, made a couple of years later).
It was written, or ‘adapted’ from an original book, by Calder Willingham, a friend of Douglas’s with whom he had recently worked with on the excellent ‘Paths of Glory’ and who would go on to pen the screenplay for ‘The Graduate’ and it has something of a storytellers feel about it, perfectly rattling through a tale of adventure, love, the supernatural and double-dealings aplenty. It’s one of those films that exude cinema; you can easily imagine sitting poised and ready with a plastic cup full of Kia Ora, as the Westlers hot dog ads make way for the Pearl and Dean sting which in turn crashes into the spectacular opening sequence of ‘The Vikings’.
When the King of Northumbria falls to a Viking raid, led by ferocious Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok (Ernest Borgnine), he is succeeded by his somewhat self-appointed cousin, Aella (Frank Thring). After all, the king had no children so what was he to do but step up and seize the crown as his own? But things are not quite so simple. The king’s widow reveals that she was raped by Ragnar during the raid and is with child. In order to save him from the murderous Aella, she sends him to safety in Italy. But on route, his boat is intercepted by Vikings and he is pushed into slavery.
Years later, the boy (now a man called Eric and played by a strangely subdued Tony Curtis) is still a slave to the Vikings and is entirely unaware that Ragnar is his father. He picks a fight with Ragnar’s brutal son, Einar (played to the back-seats by chest thumping Kirk Douglas), allowing hi strained Hawk to pluck at Einar’s eyes. Now blind in one eye, and permanently scarred, Einar condemns Eric to death. However, it seems that a Norse God intervenes at the eleventh hour when the tides literally turn, saving a tied up Eric from drowning. A disgraced English nobleman, who has joined the Viking invaders, recognises the stone around Eric’s neck and guesses his true identity. Thinking he may prove useful, he requests that Eric becomes his personal slave and Ragnar agrees – much to the wrath of his son.
Eric and Einar cross swords again over the love of a captured Princess (Morgana, played by Janet Leigh). She falls in love with Eric the slave when he helps her escape who Aella has machinations on too.
It’s not long until Einar is on his way to England to claim Morgana as his own, which will inevitably bring the half-brothers into mortal combat.
It’s all wildly entertaining with both Douglas and Borganine stealing the show as barbaric Vikings, leaving Curtis to moodily twinkle his eyes and Janet Leigh to generally just look beautiful.
In the meantime, there are many breath-taking scenes of Viking long boats floating through the Norwegian Fjords, filmed superbly by Jack Cardiff, using Technicolor (as opposed to ultra-wide Cinemascope) but making every frame a thing of beauty.
Janet Leigh redresses the innate and questionable sexism throughout by being quite feisty, despite never quite understanding that her sense of entitlement is quite out of place as a prisoner. But we also get a dark understanding of Einar’s sexuality where he discusses with his Father his preference for girls who fight back; biting, screaming and kicking, which his father endorses. It’s rape or nothing for these barbaric men. So when Morgana senses this, she actually refuses to fight back on Einar’s advances – a curious piece of reverse psychology that we never fully get the root of. Strange and dark subject matter for an otherwise typical historical action adventure.
All in all though, it’s a wildly entertaining film and this release, with a flawless transfer in HD, is exactly what such a film deserves.
This edition also comes with a few illuminating extras, not least being an exclusive, new video interview about the film with film historian Sheldon Hall, who seems to know his onions.
Also included is a featurette entitled ‘A Tale of Norway’ a 30-minute documentary about the making of the film, presented by Richard Fleischer.
The only other on-disc extra is the original theatrical trailer, though the set comes with very nice reversible artwork as well as a booklet featuring some words from Richard Fleischer, a poster gallery and some rare archival imagery.
If you’re the kind of person who likes a really big, epic cinematic experience as well as a good, old -fashioned mix of adventure and romance, then this is for you. Highly recommended.