“The curse of Odin waits on him who kills the slave.”
By 1955, Kirk Douglas had formed his own production company called Bryna and for his first production, took few risks by choosing a western with Andre de Toth as director. The completed film was called The Indian Fighter and turned out to be a competent and action-filled, if not particularly inspiring, item. Douglas then became interested in a novel called “The Viking” by Edison Marshall and over the next year or so would try to develop a production based on it. Financing was difficult to arrange and it was only by finally managing to persuade another star (Tony Curtis) to appear in the film that sufficient funding was forthcoming. Director Richard Fleischer spent a year preparing for shooting. Locations were chosen in Norway and on the coast of Brittany, with interiors to be done in studios in Munich. The completed film proved to be an expensive production, but the results were certainly evident on the screen and the film when released through United Artists in 1958 did pretty reasonable business even if some critics turned their noses up at it. MGM has now released the film on DVD in quite a pleasing package.
It is the 9th century and the Vikings are intent on conquering England, which at that time was comprised of small, divided kingdoms. Ragnar, a Viking king, attacks part of the English coast where he kills one of the English Kings and rapes the Queen, leaving her pregnant with a son she will name Eric. Years pass and Ragnar now has his own Viking son Einar who is heir to Ragnar’s kingdom. Through a series of coincidences, Einar and Eric (now a slave) find themselves together in Ragnar’s Viking village, even though they are unaware of their relationship.
Meanwhile, the new English King Aella plans to wed Princess Morgana of Wales in hopes of strengthening English defenses against the Vikings. On her way by sea to join Aella, the Vikings capture Morgana, but she soon becomes the object of desire of both Einar and Eric. Morgana finds herself drawn to Eric and the two manage to escape from the Viking encampment. They find no warm welcome for themselves in England, however. Morgana is imprisoned and Eric loses his hand before being cast adrift in the North Sea. He manages to make his way back to Norway where he explains to Einar what has happened. Together, the two make plans to attack Aella’s kingdom.
Talk about being surprised! I’d never seen this film before and the idea of a film about Vikings starring Kirk Douglas, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh, and (gasp!) Tony Curtis didn’t sound too promising to me. I mean, I’ve seen The Pride and the Passion with Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra trundling around 19th century Spain, and The Conqueror with John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and believe you me, those sort of castings don’t work. So to expect quintessentially American actors such as Douglas, Borgnine, and Curtis to be at all believable as Vikings seemed a bit much to swallow. Yet the proof is in the watching, and I defy anyone to watch The Vikings and not come away feeling they’ve been royally entertained. Yes, maybe the stars don’t persuade you they’re really Vikings, but they try hard and they treat the material with earnestness and respect. Kirk Douglas shows his usual intensity throughout, but there is also an exuberance about his performance that comes through. One particular sequence where the victorious Vikings return home shows him jumping from one oar to the next as he goes the length of the boat. The expression on his face shows that he’s having a whale of a time. Ernest Borgnine really gets into the spirit of things too, and dressed up with a great bushy beard and period costume, he really conveys what one might imagine to be the look and gusto of a Viking chieftain.
It doesn’t hurt that Jack Cardiff was lined up as the film’s cinematographer. The Technicolor images of the Norwegian fiords with the Viking boats are stunningly beautiful. Shooting carried on in all weather, including rain, of which there was apparently plenty. Although the colours are muted in those scenes, the compositions are still breathtaking including some wonderful shots of one of the fiords with a waterfall in the background peaking in and out of wisps of fog passing in front of it.
Much of the film’s final success must be attributed to director Richard Fleischer. Feeding off Kirk Douglas’s enthusiasm for the project, Fleischer became quite involved in ensuring the film’s authenticity. Viking ships were constructed based on actual ships at the Norwegian Viking Museum and careful attention was paid to period costumes and other props, particularly weaponry. This really pays off in the action scenes, which are well staged and exciting. The siege and capture of Aella’s castle, with the final sword fight between Einar and Eric, is superior to many of the fights in more current films where literally dozens of killing blows are shrugged off as so many bee stings. You feel every blow and fall as Einar and Eric fight on the steps high above everything else, and the ending to the fight is satisfying. The conclusion of the film is also satisfying and involves a very fine set-piece that I won’t ruin by saying more about it.
MGM provides a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that does full justice to the efforts that went into making this film look so fine in the first place. Colours are bright and clean, blacks are deep and glossy, and shadow detail is very good. Cloudy, foggy, or rainy scenes are just as well rendered as sunlit ones. There is no evidence of edge enhancement; in fact, this is a very film-like transfer. There are only very minor instances of age-related speckles. Well done!
The audio consists of Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks, available in English, French, and Spanish. The sound is confining as one would expect, but it is clear and free of hiss or distortion. The action sequences have a slight punch, but suffer the most of any parts of the film due to the limited mix, as one would expect. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
In a change from just a lonely theatrical trailer that comprises the supplementary content that we normally get with MGM’s releases of its earlier United Artists holdings, The Vikings includes a very interesting featurette running almost 30 minutes in which director Richard Fleischer provides reminiscences about the making-of the film while we see a montage of production stills and clips from the film. Fleischer takes us through all the pre-production planning as well as the shoot itself and we learn many interesting tidbits along the way. One particular item that fascinated me was the fact that the authentic construction of the Viking ships included creating the oar holes in the sides. When it came time to row, however, it soon became apparent that each oarsman could not pull his oar without hitting the person in front of or behind him. Obviously, the Vikings were much smaller men than nowadays. The solution for the film was to use only every second oar hole and seal up the others so they wouldn’t be noticed. The featurette is a very fine adjunct to the film.
Every so often, you run across something that delivers much more than you expect. The Vikings is such a film. Despite a story that’s a little banal, it’s blessed with good acting and is expertly directed by Richard Fleischer and beautifully photographed by Jack Cardiff. Rousing entertainment is as good a description as any. MGM has taken a great deal of care with the image transfer and also provides supplementary content of real value. Recommended.