Monday, January 9, 2012

The Vikings (1958) - Richard Fleischer

A Viking boat returns from a raid. 
During a Viking raid of the English coast in the Middle Ages, the Viking leader Ragnar kills the king of Northumbria and rapes the queen. Aella, the king's ambitious brother, assumes the throne. The disposed queen later gives birth to a son, Eric, and fearing that her brother-in-law will feel threatened by the rightful heir to the throne, she sends the child away to safety. He is captured and enslaved by the Vikings. In the meantime, Ragnar has had his own legitimate son, Einar, a warrior who aspires to follow in his father's wild footsteps. The half-brothers are destined to cross paths and become embroiled in a fierce battle over Morgana, a beautiful English girl, betrothed to Aella.

This is one of the best adventure films of the 1950's, a pure delight for young boys who love history (albeit confused as presented here) and authentic action. It is spectacularly shot by the great Jack Cardiff, a master of color photography. Cardiff understood the Technicolor process better than any cameraman of his day. Exotic locations with Norwegian fiords and English castles provide a luscious setting for the film's action.

The film opens with Orson Welles' unmistakable voice, giving general background on the life of Vikings and explaining the structure of England at the time, i.e., an unorganized group of competing kingdoms. The Vikings worship a pagan god of war, Odin, and regularly conduct raids along the English coast. Simple drawings of warriors in battle appear on screen. This cuts to the first action sequence: a quick one showing Ragnar's raid.

The film jumps forward twenty years with Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) returning from another raid. The Viking ship moves up a scenic fiord to the Viking village. It is gorgeously rugged, the narrow channel with rocky slopes rising on each side and a backdrop of snow-capped mountains in the distance. The film's epic theme plays over the scene, a mix of atmospheric French and English horns. The sail drops and the men extend long oars and begin to pull toward the dock as a high lookout alerts the villagers by blowing a gigantic horn. Purportedly an accurate reproduction of a Viking vessel, the ship certainly looks authentic with shields affixed to the side, the rowers tightly packed, and a tall dragon for a figurehead. It is a splendid scene. The water is a deep blue and the lookout's horn a perfect touch.

Borgnine as Ragnar. 

Ragnar has brought along Egbert, an Englishman and a traitor who can map the coast of England. He soon discovers the connection between the two half-brothers. The first, Einar (Kirk Douglas), makes his appearance. He's a chip off the old block, wild and full of debauchery. Besides fighting, Vikings enjoy nothing so much as guzzling ale and ravishing women, and Director Fleischer includes a couple of scenes where the Norsemen kickback for some fun. In one, they strap a girl to a large revolving wheel, her pigtails stretched out. Douglas throws axes, slicing the hair to drunken cheers.  

While hunting separately with falcons, the two half-bothers meet in the forest. Eric (Tony Curtis), annoys the Viking, and gets kicked to the ground. Provoked, he commands his bird to attack. It claws out one of Einar's eyes in a ghastly scene that looks amazingly real and dangerous, leaving blood pouring through Douglas' fingers. For the rest of the film he sports some very effective makeup, an opaque contact lens, with talon scars marring his handsome face.

Einar bears the scars of the falcon attack.
Instead of immediately killing the slave, Einar vows to make him suffer, saying: "The sun will cross the sky a thousand times before he dies, and you'll wish a thousand times that you were dead." Ragnar has other ideas though, and orders him thrown into the slop pool, expecting that either the crabs will eat him or he will drown with the rising tide. However, a storm comes up to push back the tide, causing Ragnar to take it as a sign from Odin to spare Eric's life.

With the aid of Egbert's map, Einar goes to England and kidnaps Morgana (Janet Leigh) with plans to exhort a ransom. The beautiful daughter of another English king, she is betrothed to the new king of Northumbria. But Einar is smitten with the girl. While drunk, he goes to have his way with her. Eric, also attracted to Morgana, prevents the rape, and helps the girl escape in a row boat. Alerted, the Vikings give chase, but their boat runs aground in the heavy fog and Ragnar falls overboard. He is picked up by Eric and taken prisoner to the English.

A highly entertaining aspect of the film is the pacing. Action sequences are never too far apart. The English king orders the Viking executed by dropping him into a pit of savagely hungry wolves. Ragnar asks to die like a Viking, with his sword in hand, believing that is the only way he can enter Valhalla. The king refuses, but Eric defies him by cutting Ragnar's binds and handing him a weapon. In the tradition of great scene deaths, Ragnar grins, then growls loudly at his captors and jumps into the pit, of course, without knowing Eric is his son. Here director Fleischer makes a good decision not to show the actual encounter with the animals. Instead, the camera focus on the faces of the men above the pit, looking down at the unseen action. This invokes the audience's imagination as the sounds of fierce gnashing and grunts fill the air. Eric pays dearly for his audacity. For going against his wishes, the king chops off his hand.

The film doesn't require the performers to do much; just the three men to look and act heroic, and for Janet Leigh to look lovely. They all do a fine job. Douglas likely had lots of fun on the project and gets to demonstrate his athleticism, once with a nice stunt running along extended oars, supposedly an actual tradition of returning Vikings, and later climbing up a closed draw-bridge on the handles of battle axes.

The spectacular climax.

The final battle scene is staged terrifically. The Vikings storm the English castle to avenge Ragnar and retrieve Morgana, smashing down the first barrier with a giant tree trunk on wheels. Archers fill the air with arrows and the king's men toss boulders from the battlements. Eric extracts his own revenge on Aella, then the two-half brothers meet atop a tower in a spectacular sword fight to see who wins Morgana. This is a wonderfully choreographed sequence and must have been an extraordinarily difficult shoot. Director Fleischer and cinematographer Cardiff pull it off beautifully. Fort La Latte in the Cotes-d'Armor region of France served as the actual location.

One of the great castles featured in the film, scene of the final battle.

Calder Willingham penned the screenplay, which relies on visuals and action rather than emotion. Willingham had just worked with Douglas on the excellent Paths of Glory and would later score an Oscar nomination for The Graduate. He also adapted Little Big Man.

The production design deserves a mention. The Viking village is appropriately comprised of log and mud huts, with moss and what appears to be lichen growth on the walls, and the costumes are leather and wool, just what you'd expect from the time period.

Fans of Biblical epics of the period will recognize Frank Thring as the English king, Aella. He also played Pontius Pilot in Ben-Hur and Herod in King of Kings. As Aella, he is similarly slimy and loathsome.

The film ends brilliantly with a Viking funeral. It is dusk. The body of one of the half-brothers is placed aboard a longboat and flaming arrows arc into the sky to ignite the sail. The credits roll.


  1. Girls like it too! You can't hear me, but right now I'm oo-oooing the theme. "The Vikings" is the perfect adventure film that, especially if seen when you are young, retains a magical aura.

  2. Caftan Woman, you are so right about it having a magical aura. Douglas often rubs me the wrong way but he's fine fun in this one. I also like his Ulysses.

  3. Well-done review of a highly-entertaining film. You're right: Cardiff's was a brilliant cinematograher and THE VIKINGS looks awesome (your pics nicely convey the color). Who forget that Viking theme? Like CW, now it's in my head for the rest of the evening!