“And On The Eighth Day Bava Created Color.” That’s my sentiment with every new quality restoration of a Mario Bava picture. This amazing new disc of Il Maestro’s teeth-clenched Viking epic delivers stunning action scenes and eye-bending widescreen fantasy visuals. Arrow’s Blu-ray is spiked with a new Tim Lucas commentary.
Erik the Conqueror
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Video USA
1961 / Color / 2:35 widescreen (Dyaliscope) / 90 min. / Street Date August 29, 2017 / Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Alice & Ellen Kessler, George Ardisson, Andrea Checchi, Françoise Christophe, Raf Baldassarre, Joe Robinson, Folco Lulli.
Cinematography: Mario Bava, Ubaldo Terzano
Film Editor: Mario Serandrei
Original Music: Roberto Nicolosi
Written by Oreste Biancoli, Mario Bava
Produced by Ferruccio De Martino
Directed by Mario Bava
Far too good to be slammed as a mere imitation of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings, Mario Bava’s exciting Erik the Conqueror is one of the best of the Italian-made sword ‘n’ shield costume epics that became big export items after the huge success of Pietro Francisi’s Hercules and Hercules Unchained. Mario Bava handled the special cinematography and visual effects on those two pictures, giving us our first look at his deliriously stimulating approach to screen color — watching a color Bava picture on the big screen was practically a physiological experience.
Sergio Leone’s borrowings from other directors have verged on plagiarism, but Bava doesn’t attempt to go one-on-one with the massive Kirk Douglas Bryna production’s major stars, giant ships, real castles and a distant locations in Norway. Armed with a high-momentum story and a dynamic performance from Cameron Mitchell, Bava again delivers prime matinee entertainment out of much more modest production values and a great deal of brilliant creative input.
The show has three credited screenwriters instead of the Italian average of six. In the Ninth Century, ambitious Brit Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi) defies his King and attacks a Viking settlement on the English coast. Viking chief Harald (Folco Lulli) falls, and his two sons are separated. One escapes back to Denmark and the younger is adopted by Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe). Years later, older brother Eron (Cameron Mitchell) defeats Garian (Joe Robinson) to become the Viking commander on a new raid on the Britannic Isles. Raised by Queen Alice and re-dubbed the Duke of Helford, younger brother Erik (George Ardisson) fights on side of the Anglos. Several battles later, the two brothers are in love with beautiful Viking maiden twins Daya and Rama (Ellen and Alice Kessler) and still unaware of their common heritage. The real villain is the wicked Sir Rutford, who murdered the previous king. He’s intent on taking the throne from Queen Alice, even if he has to turn traitor to do it.
From descriptions by James Ursini decades before I saw Erik the Conqueror, I expected a minimalist effort on the order of a Roger Corman production, with ten costumed extras, a prop to serve as the prow of a boat and maybe an oxcart or two. Bava’s picture is instead an impressive surprise, a reasonably large-scale sword ‘n’ axe bash-o-thon dripping with Mario Bava’s striking visuals — dazzling color effects and energetic, expressive direction. Bava doesn’t have real Norwegian fjords or a full castle to play with, but he makes excellent use of a castle set, several Viking boats and a sizeable number of extras. There’s no lack of energetic battles and sword duels, even if some of the better set pieces are borrowed from Richard Fleischer’s playbook. Kirk Douglas assaulted a castle by climbing a ladder of axes hurled at a raised drawbridge; Bava’s Erik does the same on a wooden tower, using arrow-hits as handholds.
Sword ‘n’ sandal costume pictures frequently suffer from dull passages: pinched-face bad guys plot against the feeble old king, or the writers try to take up slack with goonish comedy relief. Erik the Conqueror’s exposition, conspiracy and kissing scenes benefit from Bava’s seemingly unlimited visual resourcefulness. A sleek craning shot rises past a cluster of skulls, revealing a pair of unlucky lovers chained back-to-back to a post and wrapped in barbed wire. The shot continues up to reveal a chorus of dancing beauties fanning out behind them, to entertain at their trial! Bava’s camera circles a Viking love embrace, finding new contrasts between skin & fur, and the cold blues and electric greens of rock walls. Visually, the movie is a candy store — there’s always an arresting new sight to ‘taste.’ What motivates the phantasmagoria of color? Try undiluted fantasy imagination.
As in his delirious Hercules in the Haunted World, Bava’s visuals still do the heavy lifting. But the cast is much better overall, in characterizations defined by externalized action, not interior logic. Run ragged from playing cowboy rapists, gangsters and wife stealers in ’50s Fox CinemaScope productions, Cameron Mitchell fills the role of a heroic brute, looking masculine as all get-out in an abbreviated leather outfit and blonde crew cut. He also acts up a storm, taking the fighting and the kissing seriously. When the shoe finally drops on the issue of mistaken identities, and Eron re-discovers the brother he thought he’d lost, the emotional effect equals that of Kirk & Tony in the highfalutin’ United Artists picture.
Giorgio Ardisson’s Erik has the shoulders and neck of an ox, topped by a terrific head of blonde hair. His face is a morph of Buster Crabbe and Dirk Bogarde. He’s also convincingly idealistic, a necessary quality for a fantasy pitched at this storybook level. The knockout Kessler twins, cabaret performers-turned actresses, are more than an invitation for audience hecklers to sing, ‘double your pleasure, double your fun.’ They carry themselves with the poise of Grace Kelly and exhibit a modicum of acting ability to back up their graceful Nordic looks. As the beleaguered queen, Françoise Christophe has very expressive eyes. Add Andrea Checchi as a supremely perfidious villain, and Erik the Conqueror’s acting ensemble is complete.
The majority of Italian sword ‘n’ sandal pictures at this time were produced in the half-frame Techniscope format. But Bava filmed almost all of his pictures flat-widescreen, using his personal cameras and lenses. Erik the Conqueror is said to be in anamorphic Dyaliscope, as were the original Hercules pictures, but it maintains Bava’s typically deep focus and exhibits little or no anamorphic distortion. Bava’s camera tricks give the violence an edge, changing camera speeds and shooting in reverse now and then. Although HD allows us to see a few arrow-wires, the effects overall are pitched at a fairly realistic level. Sure, most of the scenes aboard boats are done dry-for-wet, but Bava never lets the screen go stale for a minute. A few zooms are used, but his camera moves add regal authority to the throne room proceedings, wicked trials and a pagan dance scene under a giant purple tree that the Vikings use as a gathering hall.
The wonder of Mario Bava is the way the colors come alive. Rooms hung with fabrics and tapestries exhibit multiple levels of texture. A sword on a Viking table appears to rest on a blue plaster surface, formed by hand. Daya and Rama’s flaring green eye shadow reminds us of Bava’s ‘special effects’ lighting for the exotic women of the Hercules movies, especially Sylvia Lopez in Hercules Unchained.
Erik the Conqueror’s emotional storyline is clear and uncomplicated. These fantasy barbarians have human flaws, as seen when Eron is shown committing the same sacred sin for which another couple is executed. But they do believe in fair play and have a great sense of camaraderie. When things go bad for Eron, we want to ask, why not a happy ending, like those Hercules movies we loved? Why not make room for a sequel, Eric & Eron in the land of the Dragons?
Arrow Video USA’s Blu-ray + DVD of Erik the Conqueror is all that we want from a Bava Blu-ray and more. Anchor Bay’s old DVD was nice job, but it only approximated the theatrical experience. Arrow’s transfer comes from original elements in excellent condition, and might look better than most release prints. The image is flawless, with nary a scratch. When I thought I saw speckles in one sequence, they turned out to be falling glitter, an on-stage visual effect. The one flaw is a missing final shot, which we are told was simply not with the original negative. The show simply fades out one shot early. The last scene, preserved on a VHS tape collected long ago by Tim Lucas, is presented as an extra. The show carries an Italian title sequence, but an early inter-title is in English.
A choice of audio tracks gives us the dubbed English, which isn’t bad, with the original Roberto Nicolosi score — we don’t find out what Les Baxter’s A.I.P. re-score sounds like. English subs are removable. The well-mixed Italian soundtrack carries a great dub job. Speaking in Italian, the Nordic Eron can sounds very Mediterranean-emotional — when he discovers his lost sibling, he shouts for joy, Mio fratello!
The strong extra is Tim Lucas’s learned audio commentary, which regards the film from multiple perspectives — the Bava family heritage working on costume pictures, Mario’s work on the Francisi Ercole pictures, etc. Its interesting that, after Black Sunday, Bava doubled back to costume epics before resuming his gothic horror spree. Lucas can detail Bava’s relationship with all of the main actors, one of which was a school chum and others that he picked up from his previous pictures. We’re told that the beautiful Françoise Christophe came along with French production money.
Tim gives us a full analysis of Bava’s camera tricks, showing how some of the film’s most impressive illusions shots were accomplished. Tim got these explanations straight from good sources, explaining the in-camera mattes and excellent foreground glass tricks — no unwanted glass reflections! I see two persistent mysteries. The first is that in-camera effects requiring extreme deep focus — from a couple of feet away to infinity — is normally not practical with an anamorphic lens. But if Bava shot them flat and let the lab enlarge them to ‘scope, we’d see the increase in optical grain. The second is the issue of traveling mattes and opticals in general. Bava almost always created his effects in the camera. I see no trace of lab opticals in the effects shots — no increase of grain, and not a single hint of blue screen fringing. I readily believe that Bava knows in-camera, multiple exposure tricks that completely fool me, because I don’t think he composited any effects shots here with lab opticals.
[I offer these observations at the risk of sounding like the kid at the drive-in in Joe Dante’s Explorers, the ‘expert’ who shows off by pointing out the matte lines in the sci-fi parody Star Killer.]
The information Tim provides still gets the benefit of the doubt. In 2007 I showed the Anchor Bay transfer to the accomplished matte painter / effects master Rocco Gioffre, whose eye normally misses nothing. Rocco concurred on the wide shot of the castle, but even he wouldn’t commit himself on how the tighter shot was done, the one with Mitchell occluding the image of the castle.
Tim Lucas’ commentary provides the ultimate service of connecting the dots between personalities, filmmakers, and pictures we love. It’s fun being reminded that King Harald is played by the Italian Folco Lulli, the nice-guy bricklayer in H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. I never would have spotted Joe Robinson, with his flowing Viking hair, as the beefy muscleman in Carol Reed’s whimsical A Kid for Two Farthings.
We also get to hear Tim Lucas’ entire audio interview with Cameron Mitchell, recorded in 1989. Cameron muses on Bava’s resistance to filming anywhere but in Italy, inside his zone of comfort with language and overall control.
Finishing up is a video essay comparing elements in Bava’s Viking film and the more lavish epic by Kirk Douglas and Richard Fleischer. This dual format Erik the Conqueror disc set continues Arrow’s series of Euro fantasy pix in superb presentations — Blood and Black Lace, Caltiki The Immortal Monster. Now will those pesky rights-holders Do The Right Thing and come forward with multiple original versions of Hercules and Hercules Unchained?
A final note: the actual images on the disc look MUCH BETTER than the still images I found online to illustrate this review.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Erik the Conqueror Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Sound: Excellent – Italian and English dubs.
Supplements: Full, new audio commentary by Tim Lucas, full phone interview with Cameron Mitchell, by Tim Lucas from 1989; Gli imitati, a comparison of Bava’s film with Richard Fleischer’s; alternate ending.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD in Keep case
Reviewed: September 18, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson