AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 116 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The King of Northumbria is killed during a Viking raid led by the fearsome Ragnar. Because the king had died childless, his cousin Aella takes the throne, but his wife Queen Enid is pregnant with Ragnar’s child because he had raped her, and to protect the infant she sends him off to Italy with an amulet around his neck, Many years later, Lord Egbert, an Englishman who escaped death in Northumbria and who now draws maps for the Vikings, recognises the amulet around a slave named Eric, but tells no one. Eric and his half-brother and Ragnar’s son Einar become enemies, something only increased when they both fall in love with the English Princess Morgana who was to marry King Aella but is captured in a raid….
I sometimes think that my generation [I’m 47] was the last generation of kids to really enjoy watching old movies on TV. These days, they aren’t shown so often [in some cases, as with the Tarzan pictures we all used to love, probably due more to political correctness than anything else] and youngsters, seduced by the CGI and freneticism of much modern stuff, just aren’t interested anyway unless they’re lucky enough to have a parent who’s a bit of a movie buff. The Vikings was one oft-shown film that we’d always look forward to and go on about the next day. All that brutality [maybe mostly offscreen but we feel the impact of it], with three of the four main characters losing an eye, a hand and being thrown into a pit of wolves respectively – and boy did we love the way the person supposed to be thrown to the wolves jumps in crying “Odin” . Kirk Douglas’s Einar throwing those axes on the drawbridge so he can scale and open it was just the coolest thing – though it probably wouldn’t seem as cool now to kids used to all the stuff all our superheroes can do. We admitted that we flinched when a drunken Einar threw axes at a possibly unfaithful wife. We even liked and hummed Mario Nascimbene’s instantly catchy theme music. Times have changed and in some ways not for the better I think. But in any case The Vikings still holds up today and should still entertain any male from 8 [who hasn’t yet got partial ADD because of what he’s had to watch] to 80 lucky enough to see it. In some ways it’s dated far less than many of the other historical epics of the time because of its lustiness and its lack of solemnity. I recently reviewed Mario Bava’s viking saga Eric The Conqueror, a much more studio bound [but visually striking] affair which was very much inspired by the 1958 film, and enjoyed it so much that I wondered if this time around The Vikings wouldn’t seem so great. But no, it still rocked.
It was an adaptation of a novel called The Viking by Edison Marshall, which was itself based on material from the sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons. Though Richard Fleischer was the director, it was star Kirk Douglas, producing with his company Bryna Productions, who was really calling the shots, something which led to Douglas and Fleischer frequently falling out. Douglas even threw out a screenplay by Noel Langley which Fleischer loved and ordered a new one from Calder Willingham. Much of the film was filmed on location in Norway, mostly Maurangerfjorden and Maurangsnes, although Aella’s castle was Fort de la Latte in north-east Brittany in France all studio work was done in Munich. Of the 60 shooting days in Norway, 49 were rainy and dark and all were freezing. The entire Norwegian crew of oarsmen went on strike for more money, but Douglas and crew responded by just leaving, content that they’d obtained enough Norway footage. The three Viking ships in the film were designed using blueprints for an actual restored Viking ship, but it turned out that thay they were too accurate, because the modern actors were taller than their historical counterparts. Stuntmen had practiced for weeks for the oar walking scenes but then Douglas did it himself first time round. His character may lose an eye in the film but it was co-star Tony Curtis who nearly lost one in real life when a stray arrow hit him in the face. The Vikings was a big hit especially in the UK where it lost a few violent shots, and Bryna re-used its sets and costumes for the TV series Tales Of The Vikings.
I want this review to be mostly full of praise and maybe encourage any reader who hasn’t seen The Vikings to pick it up, so I’ll get any major flaws out of the way first. The most baffling one is something that even I noticed as a 7 or 8 year old. They did a great deal of research to make things accurate – no Viking helmets with horns on here – and there really was a kingdom called Northumbria which had a king called Aella who usurped the throne who was disposed by invading Vikings – but the depiction of England is a medieval one and therefore one several centuries later than the Anglo-Saxon country that was actually continually invaded by Vikings. It’s just such an oddly glaring mistake to make. And then there’s – well, it’s not neccessarily a flaw and it creates an interesting dynamic – but this film makes no bones about the fact that these Vikings like to rape women yet still seems to want us to have some admiration for them. The whole plot is driven by Ragnar, who’s often portrated sympathetically yet who says women often have to be taken by force, asssaulting and impregnating an English Queen, while Einar, who we’re meant to have some respect for, keeps trying to force himself on Princess Morgana and says that he prefers it when a woman resists. As I said, it’s not automatically a problem – the film sets itself a difficult job in trying to depict the viking way of life and admirably doesn’t skirt round certain things too much [though some recent historians have claimed that the Vikings were actually a peaceful, thoughtful race] theat the same time as it sets out to be family entertainment – but it’s something some more sensitive first-time viewers today may feel uncomfortable about and need to be made aware of.
Bayeau Tapestry-style animation and a portentuous Orson Welles voiceover neatly see the background to the story and then it’s straight into a Viking raid. The action is then held off for some time, but the plot brings in intrigue surrounding this possible heir to the throne of Northumbria immediately and thereafter moves forward at a good clip, with no scene dwelt on for very long except for maybe the Vikings returning home where the striking locations and that theme music help to make the sight of those ships quite awe-inspiring. It’s pretty obvious who Eric actually is as soon as you see him, but his first encounter with his brutish half-brother Einar is one nobody forgets. Einar, incensed that Eric’s falcon is better than his own, kicks Eric to the ground and Eric gets his bird to go for Einar’s face and we see the blood flowing as his eye has obviously been pierced. Eric is saved from immediate execution when the court Völva [seer] Kitala warns that Odin will curse whoever kills him. He’s left in a tidal pool to drown with the rising tide to avoid the curse, but after Kitala calls out to Odin [the only Viking god mentioned for some reason] making Erik himself to invoke his mercy, a strong wind shifts and forces the water away, saving him. Lord Egbert then claims him as his slave property, hoping to find an opportunity to take advantage of Eric’s unknown claim to the Northumbrian kingdom. Egbert, very well played by James Donald, is an interesting character, an intelligent though unscrupulous schemer amongst barbarians. I’ve often wondered whether his role was cut down especially as he disappears towards the end. Ragnar then sends Einar to kidnap Princess Morgana and immediately wants her, but back home Eric helps her escape and they flee towards England together. The rest of the plot may not be too surprising, though something that happens to Eric might be.
There’s a quick naval skirmish and an atmospheric pursuit through foggy waters, cinematographer Jack Cardiff soon after giving us an absolutely stunning shot of three longboats coming out of the fog, and plenty always going on though action-wise it’s mostly a big build up to the final reel with a fantastic castle assault, these Vikings constantly swinging their axes at their opponents, and a really realistic-seeming and rather vertiginous duel on the ramparts which must have been dangerous to film, the stars clearly up there and doing it all themselves with no back projection. If you think about it there’s very little physical brutality, but, after the first time you’ve watched it, it does feel like you’ve seen a much more vicious film than you have. The whole thing is treated fairly seriously but not solemnly – this film is really the middle ground between the heavy going epics of the time and the sillier matinee-type fare like Prince Valiant – nor without a sense of humour. There are some great lines. “Love and hate are two horns on the same goat” says Ragnar to Einar, who also says with newly found respect “Ah yes, the English are civilised” when told that the English like to throw people into a pit of starved wolves. And I love the contrast between the formality and staidness in the court of King Aella to the joyous drinking, eating, singing, lovemaking in Ragnar’s great hall.
Fleischer keeps things moving along yet uses a lot of long takes, plus admirable staging often giving a sense of depth of field. Everyone gets into the right spirit and judges things perfectly, though Janet Leigh [Morgana] was by now quite experienced in these kind of parts. Leigh would off course soon graduate from damsel in distress in costume pictures. Douglas had also perfected his brash, rather brutish screeen persona where he often seems to be challenging the viewer to like him, while Curtis tones down his Brooklyn accent and convincingly toughens it up a bit. Ernest Borgnine, playing Douglas’s father but actually six weeks younger then him, steals many of his scenes as Ragnar. Nascimebene’s score, possibly his best, has a great deal more to offer than that theme. There’s a plaintive love theme full of innocence [interesting how Nascimbene states it before Eric has even met her, it then followed by a visual transition from Eric on one side of the screen to Morgana on the other binding the two and enhancing the fatalism of the whole thing] and a musical feeling of tragedy throughout. It’s nice that he leaves the final duel unscored – all we hear is the air. The Vikings is a great example of a film that should be held up as an example of how entertaining and satisfying old movies can be, and should be shown to those who have trouble getting into them or who avoid them altogether because they think they’re boring and unconvinving. While for us fans who’ve grown up with it, it never loses anything with repeat viewings.
I can’t compare it this release with the Region ‘A’ Kino-Lorber Blu-ray release, but The Vikings looks pretty good on Eureka’s Blu-ray, though of course this is partly due to Cardiff’s fabulous Technicolour photography which shows every location, set and even costume to its best advantage. Apparently Kino’s disc was just an updated version of the source used for the DVD. I’ve been unable to find out whether Eureka’s is the same, but it seems like it may be, as there are a few blemishes which probably wouldn’t be there if a full restoration had been done. It’s still far superior to the DVD though, with certainly enough difference between the two to warrant fans of the film buying this release.
Eureka have also added a half hour piece of film historian Sheldon Leonard talking in depth about the film, and he packs a hell of a lot in, covering most things from production to motifs that reveal the film’s storytelling to be a bit more sophisticated than many critics said at the time. He’s especially good on the minor but interesting role of religion in it, and praises Fleischer, generally a filmmaker doomed to be never regarded very highly because of his diversity and the lack of links between his work, but one who was certainly very good at his job. Leonard also tells him a few things I didn’t know, such as the fact that Douglas was originally going to play Eric, then when Curtis got the part kept on beefing up his role of Einar without Curtis knowing. This excellent chat is followed by a featurette of similar length which was on the American DVD but not the UK one so I hadn’t seen it before. Fleischer talks about the making of the film and shows us lots of photographs and even the ship blueprints. While he unsurprisingly doesn’t go into the more unhappy aspects of the filming, he tells some good stories including two I didn’t know and seems rightfully proud of the film.
Still probably the best of all Viking films, The Vikings comes highly recommended.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
*Gorgeous 1080p presentation
*Original stereo PCM soundtrack
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Exclusive new video interview with film historian Sheldon Hall
*A Tale of Norway – a video piece about the making of the film, presented by director Richard Fleischer
*Original theatrical trailer
*A collectors booklet featuring the words of Richard Fleischer; a poster gallery; and rare archival imagery