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The Long Ships

by Glenn Erickson Aug 06, 2022

At the intersection of big-star international dealmaking, the 70mm epic, and the humble sword ‘n’ shield actioner, this comic book viking saga stacks one absurd, borderline bad taste action scene on top of another. It’s an irresistible mash-up of earlier successes, well directed visually by Jack Cardiff. Richard Widmark at forty must play the Viking action hero, Russ Tamblyn at thirty is still a physical dervish, and Sidney Poitier takes on the strangest casting of his career. Plus, low sexist comedy from a platoon of hearty Brit thesps!


The Long Ships
Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] 137
1964 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 126 min. / Street Date June 29, 2022 / Available from Viavision / Aus 34.95
Starring: Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Russ Tamblyn, Rosanna Schiaffino, Oskar Homolka, Edward Judd, Lionel Jeffries, Beba Loncar, Clifford Evans, Gordon Jackson, Colin Blakely, Paul Stassino, Leonard Rossiter, Jeanne Moody, Julie Samuel.
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Production Designer: Vlastimir Gavrik, Zoran Zorcic
Art Director: Bill Constable
Film Editor: Geoffrey Foot
Original Music: Dusan Radic
Second Unit Director: Cliff Lyons
Action sequences: Bob Simmons
Special Effects: Syd Pearson, Bill Warrington
Matte Artist: Ivor Beddoes
Mosaics: A. Benzon
Titles and prologue: Maurice Binder
Screenplay by Berkely Mather, Beverley Cross from the novel by Frans Bengtsson
Produced by Irving Allen
Directed by
Jack Cardiff

International filmmaking can be very strange indeed. After helping set the stage for the  James Bond series, Irving Allen (not to be confused with Irwin Allen) split from Cubby Broccoli after The Trials of Oscar Wilde and tried co-producing on distant locations, first at facilities in South Africa (The Hellions) and then in Yugoslavia for two big-scale costume pictures will all-star casts.

His first epic The Long Ships banks on the shaky proposition that audiences would flock to a 70mm follow-up to the 1958 hit The Vikings, but tossing in an untidy conglomeration of elements, some of them wildly un-PC by 2022 standards. It’s Beach Party 1020 AD, with harem raids by carefree Vikings and wince-inducing pansy comedy from a eunuch in blackface. Just to be extra- revolting, the Moorish villain employs a gruesomely sadistic execution device that gave a generation of school kids traumatic nightmares.

 

Poet and essayist Frans S. Bengtsson’s one novel, from 1941, is a sweeping epic of Viking adventures in the 10th century. Two young rogues are captured by ‘Andalusian Muslims’ and become bodyguard-retainers to Al-mansur, helping him raid the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. The story then moves on to more adventures in Scandinavia, England and Byzantium (where they steal a golden treasure). Much of the two-volume book is about the adoption of Christianity.

Only the title and some character names are retained from the book. The screenplay by Beverley Cross and Berkely Mather, reportedly from a story cobbled together by future TV ace Bruce Geller, melds elements from previous hits with a freewheeling adventure-comic vibe. Dead-serious content rubs up against comedy material that could be re-titled “Carry On Viking Rapists.” The grand episodic nature says ‘epic,’ while the goofy plot turns say ‘comic book.’

 

Viking Thane Krok (Oskar Homolka of Mr. Sardonicus) is deep in debt to the shrewd King Harald (Clifford Evans of Curse of the Werewolf). Krok hopes that the funeral ship he has built for Harald will put his tribe back in the black. Also, Krok’s oldest son Rolfe (Richard Widmark) has been away raiding the Berber Coast, and will hopefully bring back a fortune in stolen plunder.

Rolfe loses his ship and his crew in a storm, but survives and is nursed back to health by monks (in an elaborate title prologue by Maurice Binder). The monks tell him of a legendary Golden Bell called ‘The Mother of Voices.’ When Rolfe relates the tale in a marketplace (shades of The Thief of Bagdad) he’s arrested by Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier), a Moorish prince and local dictator obsessed with finding the Golden Bell. Rolfe escapes and returns to Scandinavia just in time to see his father Krok cheated by King Harald. Rolfe immediately steals the finished funeral ship to go after the Bell; his faithful brother Orm (Russ Tamblyn) kidnaps Harald’s daughter Gerda (Beba Loncar) as a hostage. Harald’s top man Sven (Edward Judd of First Men In the Moon) comes along as well, but plots mutiny at every turn.

Back on the Berber coast again, Rolfe loses this second ship too, in a great maelstrom at the Pillars of Hercules. After a battle they’re all captured by none other than Aly Mansuh (Oh no, not again!). Thus begins a strange alliance. Vikings and Berbers eventually unite to go after the Bell, but not before some bizarre scenes of comedy and torture. Aly Mansuh’s wife Aminah (Rosanna Schiaffino) seduces Rolfe, the noble Orm protects Gerda, and Aly Mansuh’s eunuch slave Aziz (Lionel Jeffries) clowns during a ‘frivolous’ Viking orgy in the harem quarters.

 

Thanks to Jack Cardiff and cinematographer Christopher Challis (The Tales of Hoffman), The Long Ships overcomes a shaky narrative. Class-A production values include Aly Mansuh’s impressive white stone city and that very handsome Viking ship. The Viking camp sequence perhaps copies the Richard Fleischer movie too much, but it looks good too. The miniature effects are variable but basically very well filmed. The filmmakers don’t scrimp on extras for the mass battle scenes. The stunt gags with falling horses and toppling riders show Cliff Lyons’ stunt direction at its most athletic. He choreographed the battles for Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee around the same time, and the action gags are very similar.

The interiors of Aly Mansuh’s palace are less impressive. When the Vikings have no trouble climbing walls and pussy-footing their way into the Hareem, we sudden feel transported back to the Universal ‘mellers’ of Jon Hall and María Montez. We almost expect to see Sabu, or Richard Eyer.

 

Richard Widmark works hard trying to make Rolfe into an impetuous dreamer, a fantasist. He experiences a great deal of frustration, and is grateful when good luck comes his way. It’s unclear whether or not Rolfe really knows how to get to the Golden Bell. Early on he claims to know, but is probably lying to save his skin.  He then tells Krok that he can find it, so maybe he does know after all. But when his sailors hear the ‘Mother of Voices’ pealing in the fog, Rolfe seems as surprised as the rest of his crew.

It’s presumed that Rolfe and the man-starved Aminah have sex in her boudoir, cuckolding Aly Mansuh. At several points Rolfe gives out with Widmark’s trademarked chortle-laugh. He may be a dreamer, but he’s also a generic indestructable action-hero stud, with a knack for talking himself out of tight corners. Harry Fabian in leathers and furs.

Sidney Poitier plays Aly Mansuh in a perpetual suppressed fury, as if steam were about to come out of his ears. Dead-set on reversing the tide of Christianity, Mansuh has taken a vow of abstinence until he finds the Bell. His Missus Aminah is understandably annoyed by this.  We soon realize that not having Poitier so much as touch Schiaffino is a commercial compromise, a concession to the American South’s obsession with mixed-race relationships. A few years earlier, Southern review boards wouldn’t tolerate Poitier and Schiaffino being in the same room together. Perhaps Poitier said yes to this script not just for a Yugoslav vacation, but to give the racist status quo a jab in the ribs.

 

Rosanna Schiaffino’s role is thankless just the same. The costumers jam her into exotic ‘belly dancer’ outfits that don’t at all look comfortable. Cheesy gauze cutouts imply bare skin. The Italian actress had a good Hollywood agent, as she scored a number of promising co-starring parts: Two Weeks in Another Town, The Victors, Arrivederci, Baby!  But none were breakouts, and she is now best remembered for her work in France and Italy.

The Scandinavian maidens are London actresses Jeanne Moody and Julie Samuel, and Yugoslav beauty Beba Loncar. They are at least given attractive, respectable garments to wear while being bruised, mauled and tossed about like sacks of flour.

Russ Tamblyn is always a delight, and his Orm is the closest the film comes to a standard hero. Why didn’t the acrobatic Tamblyn star in more action films, with choreographed stunts like Burt Lancaster?  Gordon Jackson always nabbed plum roles, especially any loose Scotsman part; here he’s a Viking merchant taken on the adventure by mistake. Edward Judd is excellent in The Day the Earth Caught Fire and his Harryhausen film but he was passed over for 007 and his career never took off. Here he fills the turncoat role played by Gary Raymond in Jason and the Argonauts.  The Brit actor we most enjoy seeing ‘go berserk’ as a Viking is Colin Blakely. Billy Wilder’s future Doctor Watson puffs up his chest to be bigger than life, and has a grand time glomming the harem girls.

 

A lot of effort went into filming that harem orgy. We’re so accustomed to the sight of women feeding men grapes and wine, the logical conclusion is that Greeks and Romans made babies that way. Here the widescreen frame is filled with writhing bodies, some of them cheated to appear nude — bare backs, etc. Stuntmen heft and tote women in ‘creative’ ways. But a censor searching frame by frame won’t find anything technically objectionable: one Viking paws the carpet next to a struggling harem girl. It’s at least better than what’s depicted in  Sodom and Gomorrah, where decoratively-arrayed, carefully covered women sleep off a night of censor-safe sin and debauchery.

In the middle of all this neutered revelry are a series of ‘woo woo’ homosexual gags with the clownish eunuch Aziz. Lionel Jeffries kisses at least two Viking and ends up in a big jug with two of them, material that’s funny only because it’s so stupid. Jeffries’ topknot and blackface makeup don’t seem to bother Sidney Poitier . . . or maybe that’s why Aly Mansuh looks so serious.

 

An attraction NOT coming to Two Flags Magic Mountain.

The asinine comedy dries up the moment we see Aly Mansuh’s execution device,  dubbed The Mare of Steel. This is rough stuff, one of the most gruesome and sadistic inventions ever seen in the movies, and in a family attraction. Impressionable kids would definitely be traumatized. It’s doubly troubling in a political-racist way. Aly Mansuh’s city is more advanced than the primitive Viking town, but the inference is that Islamic barbarism is beyond human tolerance.

Europe practiced its own gruesome executions, and we don’t see victims drawn and quartered in movies about Merrie Olde England. The Mare of Steel is in a class by itself. How can our heroes even stay on their feet contemplating this kind of death?  Several contemporary reviews don’t even mention this scene, but it certainly bothers me.

The Long Ships is a fast-paced collection of fanciful episodes, some lame and some pretty darn clever. Jack Cardiff’s direction keeps it moving, even if some of the scene transitions try our patience. Rolfe dives from a parapet in Aly Mansuh’s tower, and we next see him emerging from the water right back home at Pa’s place, a thousand miles to the North. Unless he found an airplane ticket in his pocket, wouldn’t it take a penniless fugitive quite a while to get back home?

 

The Golden Bell is a terrific focus for the adventure, and the way it is hidden is too good to spoil here. But it’s also hilariously impossible. The artful prologue depicts the bell’s casting, reminding us of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. But it’s supposed to be solid gold!

Would a golden bell that size even ring? It’s so heavy that any attempt to move it would fail — turned on its side, its own weight would cause it to fold on itself. If it were forged on that hill, how could it be a secret?  If it were forged somewhere else, how’d they ever get it up there?   The movie doesn’t show how the bell is transferred to the raft, or how it is moved from the raft to the dock back at Aly Mansuh’s. Each operation would be a major engineering feat, especially for the 10th century. No small raft or Viking boat could carry it, one would think.

When the bell crashes down the mountain, it drags twenty men with it to their doom, an awful spectacle much like a traumatic murder of chained refugees in the old T-Man noir To the Ends of the Earth (1948). Yet nobody seems particularly concerned by the loss of life. We don’t have much time to contemplate the horror either — when this impossibly heavy bell hits the water, it floats.  It takes five or six minutes to get our minds back into the story.

 

Yes, yes, picky objections get in the way of simply accepting a fun movie at face value. But some things did honestly confuse us kids, like the sight of ice sinking in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I know, I know, it’s best to leave little Glenn home on movie days . . . he gets so upset.

Actor memoirs referencing The Long Ships do not paint it as a good experience for the filmmakers. By all accounts most everyone signed on for the $$ payday, and then wondered what in blazes they had gotten themselves into. Jack Cardiff was presumably tapped to direct because he’d photographed The Vikings. He was trying to build an artistic directing career, not be a traffic cop in what turned out to be a less-than prestigious action film. It’s possible that Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Edward Judd were steered to the picture to fulfill contractual obligations with Columbia (?); Widmark and Poitier would soon star together in an excellent Cold War thriller, The Bedford Incident.

We’re told that the show performed splendidly in England, and just okay in the U.S., where action pix with Romans, Vikings and Arabs were equated with dubbed Italo shows for Saturday kiddie matinees. American critics just couldn’t take Sidney Poitier’s role seriously.  Despite its klunky aspects and infantile comedy detours I’ve been able to enjoy The Long Ships every six years or so. SEE Richard Widmark trying to be Kirk Douglas!  SEE Sidney Poitier struggling to maintain his dignity!  Entertainment is where you find it.

 


 

Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of The Long Ships is a good encoding of Columbia’s file HD transfer, in good shape if perhaps a little faded. That really classy opening prologue preps the audience for a much more serious movie. Dusan Radic’s ‘epic’ score is more than a bit repetitive. The same evenly-paced fanfare cue plays during the final battle. The movie uses a lot of Day for Night shooting, some of which looks okay — it probably looked great in 35mm Technicolor.

One reason this movie won’t eclipse the ’58 Vikings is the Yugoslav location … this Norway looks as dry as Southern California: no woods to speak of, no big trees at all. Welcome to Trondheim-on-the-Adriatic.

 

Columbia and Irving Allen really committed to the movie’s epic appeal — it was filmed in large-format Technirama, just as was The Vikings. Although not a Road Show release, it was further enlarged for some initial run situations: behold Technirama 70. Those 70mm prints would not be in Technicolor, of course.

[Imprint]’s extras begin with a commentary by Phillipa Berry, but she’s augmented by video lectures from both Kim Newman and Sheldon Hall. All three tap the same finite sources and take different directions with their analysis.

The two disc interviews locate surviving UK talent from the show. Two actresses spent months in Yugoslavia playing Viking women, and doubling for slave girls in Aly Mansuh’s harem. Jeanne Moody has a relevant part to play as Orm’s ‘girl back home;’ she comes across exactly as needed. Julie Samuel takes just a couple of minutes to describe earning a fortune as a teenager. Sixty years later, they both have aged extremely well.

The trailer included is not in the best shape. The disc artwork is a nice new composite piece. The slipcover carries the generic U.S. poster image that doesn’t reflect the film’s huge expense — its central graphic reminds us of the 99¢ Aurora Viking Ship models we assembled as kids. I must have glued and painted three of the things.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Long Ships
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements:
Audio Commentary by Phillipa Berry
Two interviews with actresses Jeanne Moody and Julie Samuel
Two video essays, with Kim Newman and Sheldon Hall
Original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed:
July 31, 2022
(6773long)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.