Richard Fleischer’s Viking saga is a great star showcase for the grinning one-eyed Kirk Douglas, sullen one-handed Tony Curtis and the heavy-breathing, two-breasted Janet Leigh. Jack Cardiff gives us the fjords of Norway, lean and mean Viking ships, and a brain-bashing acrobatic castle assault designed to out-do Burt Lancaster. With Ernest Borgnine (“OHHH-DINNNN!!”), James Donald and Alexander Knox. And as the old song goes, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got Frank Thring.
KL Studio Classics
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 114 min. / Street Date March 8, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh,
James Donald, Alexander Knox, Maxine Audley, Frank Thring.
Cinematography Jack Cardiff
Production Designer Harper Goff
Film Editor Hugo Williams
Original Music Mario Nascimbene
Written by Calder Willingham adapted by
Dale Wasserman from a novel by Edison Marshall
Produced by Jerry Bresler
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Kirk Douglas began producing with 1955’s The Indian Fighter and soon tried a more artistically ambitious film, Stanley Kubrick’s impressive Paths of Glory. He wound up at Universal making Spartacus just as that studio’s value was plummeting — Kirk’s movie was worth more than the rest of the company, which gave him to ability to finish the picture with less oversight and opposition. Two years earlier Douglas was in Norway making another huge, lusty action picture set in the distant past. The Vikings is a rip-roaring adventure that emphasizes exciting battles, blood vendettas and pulpy violence over any particular depth of theme. Free of pretense and blessed with peerless production values, it fares much better than many more solemn period epics. With all that real scenery, real ships, and ‘real’ stunt work, it’s a prime exemplar of the sentiment, ‘they don’t make them like that anymore.’
The story could be a missing chapter from the tale of Prince Valiant. With the help of the cynical English turncoat Egbert (James Donald), Viking prince Einar (Kirk Douglas), son of the hearty, savage Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine), pulls off a successful, bloody raid on the English coast. Einar kidnaps the beautiful English noblewoman Morgana (Janet Leigh) and develops a serious lust for her. But slave Eric (Tony Curtis) is in love with Morgana too, and she prefers him over an arranged marriage with the slimy King Aella (Frank Thring). Using a newfangled magnetic compass given him by a witch, Eric spirits Morgana back to England, hoping for a reward. The ungrateful Aella instead seizes Morgana and Eric ends up losing his left hand, “the one that has offended the King.” Eric returns, to be blamed by Einar for Ragnar’s death. Yet the two bitter enemies join up to assault Aella’s formidable castle and reclaim Morgana. They’re guided again by Egbert, who doesn’t divulge a vital secret he knows about the two warrior rivals, and the departed Ragnar.
The late 1950s was a breeding ground for huge, overproduced Road Show epics, but The Vikings was given saturation bookings in normal theaters. The Academy at that time respected big flashy spectacles only when lumbered with religious themes, as in Ben-Hur. Producer-star Kirk Douglas was established in Westerns but not as an epic hero, unless one counts the almost forgotten Ulysses (1954), when he was one of the first big American stars to make a movie in Italy. Douglas assembled a crack production team for this expensive, difficult-to-shoot outdoor spectacular, filmed on location in Norway.
As shown on this disc’s informative illustrated interview with director Richard Fleischer, the research into Viking lore was extensive. Harper Goff, the creator of the Nautilus for Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, built three impressive functioning Norse raiding ships. An entire Viking village was constructed, and a real castle totally refurbished. When Curtis and Douglas fight to the finish on the castle ramparts, the background provides a clear view of miles of coastline and horizon — all of it clear of telltale shipping or other anachronisms. We were always told to look for an extra in The Vikings wearing a nice, shiny, modern wristwatch, but I’ve not seen it yet.
The acting is actually quite good, starting with the much-maligned Tony Curtis, who manages to tone down his Brooklyn accent. Curtis’s then-wife Janet Leigh repeats the heavy-breathing damsel in distress act she had done so well in the previous swashbucklers Scaramouche, The Black Shield of Falworth, and Prince Valiant. It would seem that Douglas wanted to avoid Valiant’s corny opera Norsemen in their horned helmets, along with the ‘thee and thou’ chivalry talk. Fleischer’s Vikings are marauding pagans, nothing more, and the fights are all short and savage. The supernatural element is toned way down to just a few incantations from a hag-like seer, and some nice frissons from Mario Nascimbene’s excellent music score.
To the joy of little boys everywhere, the violence quotient is way, way up. A number of the male stars suffer some form of gross dismemberment, none actually onscreen but certainly not downplayed. Douglas reserved the most striking gore for himself, by having his eye torn out by a hunting falcon. He spends the rest of the picture snarling behind facial scars, with a dead white eye (a painful contact lens) staring nowhere. Douglas: dramatic star, action hero, and now Lon Chaney with muscles!
Things do get a bit campy. Leigh’s demure femininity gets kicked all over the fjord. The snarling Douglas attempts to rape her more than once, an odd choice of material for a kiddie show. When Curtis’s Eric needs to encourage Morgana to pick up an oar and help row to safety, he rips the back of her dress open. It’s too tight, you see, a factor no healthy kid could miss, with all those drop-dead sexy, form-fitting dresses Leigh wears.
Douglas even seems to be asking for laughs now and then, as when he smashes through a stained glass window and wards off priest Godwin (Alexander Knox) with a grunted, “Keep your magic to yourself, Holy Man!” The earnestness of the situation and the eerie beauty of Nascimbene’s score put the drama back on track in a microsecond… I should think that the matinee crowd would cheer. But in general the laughs are well earned, and we’re never laughing at the movie.
The scene where Einar and his raiders run and skip on their ship’s extended oars, showing off for their tribe as they pull up to the dock, fully expresses the crazy Viking attitude toward danger. According to director Fleischer, it was a custom ‘back in the day’ – a thousand years before. Kirk Douglas insisted on performing that stunt himself, even with the ice-cold water. Ah, the barbarian ethos! Life is short and sickness can drag you down at any time, at any age. Plus there’s a glorious afterlife awaiting the most bold and daring. Let’s go give hell to those stupid Normans down South!
There’s no way to overstate the appeal to adolescents of the sex factor contributed by Janet Leigh. Morgana must want every king and raider to be chasing her broadcloth-embroidered skirt, because her dresses give her a figure more exaggerated than that of Lili Ct. Cyr. Maybe the marriage with Curtis didn’t last forever, but Ms. Leigh became immortal by landing in several of the best pictures of the decade: Touch of Evil, Psycho and The Manchurian Candidate.
Like many modern movies, the main titles don’t appear until the finish, along with the rest of the credits. A clever animated prologue by UPA launches the film accompanied by a portentous Orson Welles narration communicating some Viking lore and a few important exposition points that we ignore. It sets up the world quite nicely, so that the first live-action shot, Ernest Borgnine’s kill-crazy helmeted face, isn’t so much of a jolt.
The Vikings’ series of great physical set pieces climaxes with the assault on Aella’s cliffside castle, a classic sequence that bests a similar scene in the fine Ivanhoe of several years before. This is the kind of knuckle scraping, shield-bashing violence that males love. The English lines of defense are battered down one after another, and Kirk Douglas breaches the main door to the final tower with an acrobatic stunt that might make Burt Lancaster jealous. Once inside, there’s little of the slack sword clacking of similar film fare. The Vikings fight like insane berserkers, hacking away with axes. Careful angles allow them to look as if they’re holding nothing back.
Equally uncompromised are the one-on-one duels. Curtis and Douglas’s clash atop a castle turret looks all too real; there can’t have been room up there for much more than the two of them and a camera. They slide down the ragged stone and crash onto the hard floors like it’s really gotta hurt. Adding to the feeling of real pain is the idea of being stabbed with a broken sword instead of a sharp one. Modern action films certainly know how to pour on the effects, but after a few hundred obvious knockout blows, or other forms of physical overkill, they usually lose their edge. The Vikings makes us feel the athleticism, as if we too can leap a ten-foot gap to climb up a drawbridge gate, while rocks and spears rain down around us. What fun!
The big asset I’ve so far not mentioned is the inspired photography of ace cameraman Jack Cardiff. A man’s man for shooting in remote locations, Cardiff not only gets the expansive exteriors right but paints the colorful interiors of castles, Viking lodges, and chapels with pools of colored light. Slight fog and haze add character to dank galleries and lonely fjords. There’s even room for muted expressionist touches. Not for nothing was Cardiff the Technicolor master of Black Narcissus. Cardiff makes The Vikings as visually classy as any giant screen epic ever.
The Vikings does shoot itself in the foot a bit, story-wise. It avoids pretention, but also avoids deepening its themes beyond a couple of snappy plot twists. Much screen time is expended on the significance of Eric’s talisman, the one he gives to Morgana. Both Godwin the Priest and Egbert the turncoat (an excellent James Donald of The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai) take pointed notice of it. It all comes down to Morgana blurting the secret to Einar, to try to cool off the inevitable fight. But when Einar hesitates during the duel, we have to assume he’s suddenly struck by a realization of his true relationship to Eric… a sensitivity that his character and the tone of the film haven’t really prepared us for. It’s no great fault to a basically action-oriented story, but the feeling remains that The Vikings could have reached a slightly higher level of ambition, had it wanted to.
Note that the Egbert character is always reacting ironically to mentions of the talisman. It looks as if he might spill the beans to Einar just before the assault on the castle… but changes his mind. At that point Egbert simply drops out of the story. Savant feels the twinge of an arc not completed, a circle not closed. I wonder if an early shooting script has more to divulge about ol’ Egbert. He’s quite a character, a rational man trying to subsist amid all these sword and axe maniacs.
The Vikings ends in a tangle of unforeseen relationships — father and sons, brother-to-brother — that tilt the overblown violence into saga-like dimensions. In his autobio, Fleischer said that Douglas threw out the original screenplay and concentrated on action: “Goodbye semi-classic, hello comic book.” That leaves us with an advertising sell and original poster art that aim The Vikings squarely at an adolescent audience.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Vikings is a stunning, colorful encoding of this gem in the United Artists library. The transfer isn’t new, but it is indeed an HD encoding from the same master used for the very good 2002 DVD. There is still some dirt present but the upgrade is very noticeable in sharpness and definition. My information is that the transfer was sourced from an IP struck from the original Technirama negative, to take advantage of the higher-resolution format.
Technirama is VistaVision, given a slight squeeze to fill out a full anamorphic image when reduced to 35mm. The original negative goes through the camera sideways; the negative looks like 35mm still film. In his interview, director Fleischer mistakenly remembers the film as being in 70mm, as were the later Super Technirama 70 attractions Solomon and Sheba, Spartacus, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking and Zulu. When producer Irving Allen decided a few years later to make a Vikings– like story called The Long Ships, it also was filmed in Technirama.
Mario Nacimbene’s good score sounds fine; older distorted elements have been cleaned up or replaced. Nacimbene’s music becomes mysteriously touching when the score shifts suddenly to the love theme — even the savage Einar seems capable of some tenderness.
A special extra carried over from the old DVD is an extensive interview with Richard Fleischer, by Greg Carson. Not mentioning the fights he and producer Douglas had on the set, the director covers the whole making-of story, especially the research and production design. It’s illustrated with interesting diagrams and photos, including a lot of behind-the-scenes coverage of the set. We see the stars on the deck of the sleep-aboard boat that took them from location to location and served as production headquarters. We wonder, was it cold and miserable up there, or a dreamy working vacation? The positioning of a still in the featurette suggests that designer Harper Goff was given a bit part, as he had in the musical drama Pete Kelly’s Blues a couple of years before. Fleischer also says that Jack Cardiff’s Norwegian vistas looked so good in industry screenings, that audiences burst into applause.
A stack of trailers from other epics is also included.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Richard Fleischer interview eaturette, trailer; several extra trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 15, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson