Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas #2 - The Vikings (1958)

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two feuding Vikings …

                “The Vikings” has been called a “Norse opera” because it combines Western elements with a soap opera feel.  It was directed by Richard Fleischer with much input from his star Kirk Douglas.  It was filmed in Norway to take advantage of the lovely fjords.  The film makes efforts to throw in a greatest hits of Viking warrior culture - for entertainment purposes.

                The story begins with Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) raiding England, killing a king, and impregnating the queen.  The new King Aella sends the baby off into exile and years later Erik (Tony Curtis) arrives in Norway as a slave.  Ragnar’s legitimate son Einar (Douglas) is a vain playa, but great warrior.  He and Erik take an instant dislike to each other which is aggravated by the fact that Erik’s falcon takes out one of Einar’s eyes.  Ragnar sentences Erik to death-by-high-tide, but Odin saves him.  Later, Erik rescues the kidnapped princess Morgana (Janet Leigh as Aella’s bride) from the lusty Einar.  Strike two.  Erik sails to England using a magic metal that points the way through a fog which causes Ragnar’s ship to crash into rocks.  Strike three.  Erik rescues Ragnar and turns him over to Aella for death-by-wolf-pit (but Erik gets major Viking props for slipping Ragnar a sword so he can die a Viking’s death).  Erik is kicked out of England sans left hand and forms an awkward alliance with Einar to get Morgana back.  They’ll figure out who gets her later.  This leads to the big castle-storming scene and inevitable duel.  Both of which are rousing.

                Before I go any further, this is not really a war movie.  With that said, it is entertaining, if implausible.  Lots of things have to fall into place to reach the action-packed finale.  The acting is okay, but Douglas is not his usual outstanding self.  He tries too hard, as does the movie which vainly tries to reach epic status.  This includes the pompous epic wannabe score.  Borgnine has a fine time, Curtis is handsomely noble, and Leigh is ravishing (and ravish-worthy).  Speaking of out-standing: Leigh’s breasts.  (see below)  The locales are awesomely scenic and we get a lot of local color in the form of manly Viking activities.  Fleischer crams in as many as the film can hold.  The Vikings are caricatured.  They spend most of their time getting drunk and engaging in manly contests like “Running the Oars” (that’s really my man Kirk risking his life!) and cutting the braids of an adulteress with throwing axes.  These are the same carousing berserkers who are so afraid of the fog they always sail within sight of land. The Vikings were such wimps.  Unless they have a magical metal England-finder.  Kudos for the accurately constructed longboats and for not putting horns on their helmets.  Beware:  this movie has extreme violence for a 1958 movie.  (Some critics were shocked by the wolf pit scene and Ragnar was not even shown in the pit!  Quaint.)  So if you are a grandma, you should avoid it.
                Merry Christmas?  It’s so fluffy, it’s more Easterish.
Grade =  C-


  1. I really enjoyed the movie, and I am looking forward to reviewing it whenever I get around to the Viking period. Yeah, the plot is a bit convoluted but I liked Douglas as a hard-ass who understandably becomes harder when he loses an eye. Borgnine clearly had fun. After watching the Vikings tv show, I have a more respect for men who sail the ocean on such tiny ships.

  2. They don't make movies like this anymore. Douglas looked cool with that eye. I read where the contact he had to wear was very painful so he only wore it if it would be visible on screen. He wasn't the director, but I got the impression he was very hands on. He insisted on doing the running on the oars and was quite good at it. Did the Vikings in the TV show have a magical metal that allowed them to sail out of sight of land?

  3. No magical metal, but a version of a sun dial and a magic rock to let them see the sun through clouds. According to recent research it is plausible. It is a good show, worth watching.
    Yep, they don't make movies like that anymore.

  4. Thanks. My basic point is the Vikings did not have any such "magic" when they sailed across the Atlantic to Canada. They were the most fearless sailors of the Middle Ages and saying they were afraid of the fog is ridiculous.

  5. I'm puzzled to see historyonfilm liked this. Your review read like parody.
    "Speaking of outstanding: Leigh’s breasts. The locales are awesomely scenic and we get a lot of local color in the form of manly Viking activities. Fleischer crams in as many as the film can hold." Hmmm .... You wrote that and in that order. Without a paragraph. Lol.

  6. I think I meant to write "out-standing". I'll have to fix that and maybe find a picture. LOL If you watch the movie, you'll see what I mean. I have to admit Christmas has brought out more snarkiness than usual. Plus I'm trying to limit the size of this series so I have to cram in those kinds of remarks. Thanks for noticing!

  7. I am not sure that your dismissal of their fear of fog is fair. They were fearless, no doubt, but I doubt that they were reckless. Sailing in fog with GPS is one thing, but with just ears for navigation, pretty scary, I would imagine. We still do not really know much about Viking navigation, but like I said, recent research makes it plausible that they had some kind of navigation aid. There is a great scene in Thirteen Warriors where the Vikings are stuck in fog, and their fear made sense.

    I may seem strange that I like the movie, but I honestly enjoyed it when I watched it, and the historical record is pretty vague, so it is hard to be critical.

  8. I'm not saying the fear was implausible, I'm just saying it is used as a plot device to get Erik back to England and Ragnar crashed on the rocks. My argument is that the fear of fog would not have stopped the Vikings from going out of sight of land. The movie implies that only Jennifer Leigh's breasts could get them to take that risk.

    You don't have to excuse liking the movie. It is entertaining in an epic-wannabe way. It comes closer to reaching "Spartacus" status than "Wild Geese" does to matching "Guns of Navarone".

  9. On this side of the pond Vikings are remembered as a warrior culture, so even without Christmas it makes sense to review the movie. It's very enjoyable. Of course, there is little to learn about History but the natural settings and some attention to the boats and costumes make it reasonably watchable in this regard (the construction of the boats was supervised by Douglas with several experts... but they had to be rebuilt since they were too accurate, ie they were first made for IXth or Xth Century men, which were much smaller than XXth Century ones).

    Beyond the cinematographer's, director's and stars' many qualities (Leigh's pointy breasts were her trademark in those years, and actually she mostly plays Janet Leigh, as much as as Curtis, Douglas and Borgnine mostly play themselves as movie stars), it is a perfect illustration of how 'History', and particularly pre-modern History, can be used as a cover for presenting contemporary passions - in this case, sex and violence (and violent sex). Though the film was heavily censored in many countries, it still got away with a considerable amount of those two ingredients because of its historical posture.

    No way the exact same scenes in a contemporary setting would have passed the PCA in 1958... but we know that since the Ancient Greeks 'Barbarian' others have often proved very convenient for telling stories about ourselves.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.