ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Vikings (1958) Blu Ray (Eureka!) starring Kirk Douglas
A period adventure
This medieval historical adventure is set during the time of the Viking raids on the British Isles. James Donald plays Egbert, a Northumbrian lord who defects and joins Viking leader Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) to help him to conquer the nation with the help of his insider information and map-making skills. When they reach Norway Ragnar introduces Egbert to his boorish but brave son Einar (Kirk Douglas).
When Einar takes the Northumbrian hawk hunting, the pair encounter a slave named Eric (Tony Curtis). After a disagreement, Eric lashes out by setting his hawk upon Einar, resulting in the latter being disfigured when the bird scratches across one of his eyes. Ragnar and Einar have him sentenced by being tied up and left in the tide at the edge of the fjord, so that the crabs will slowly devour him. However, he is spared when Odin smiles upon him by causing the tide to go out. Egbert also notices a trinket around his neck which reveals him to be the long-lost son of the previous Northumbrian king. Since this makes Eric a useful tool in opposing the current king Aella (Frank Thring) - whom Egbert opposes - he persuades Ragnar to make him his own slave.
Einar, Ragnar and Egbert hatch a plan to abduct Aella’s bride-to-be, Morgana (Janet Leigh) in order to shame him. When they succeed in raiding her ship, Einar immediately falls in love with her. However, the feeling is not mutual and she puts up a fierce resistance to his aggressive (read: rapey) advances. Moreover, when Eric and her set eyes upon each other they both fall for each other. The rest of the film follows the love triangle as well as building up to a climactic showdown between the Vikings and Aella.
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A nostalgic favourite?
The Vikings was a huge hit back in 1958 and has remained a favourite from TV showings and home viewing releases ever since. Some aspects are rather dated, in particular the film’s rather un-PC treatment of women. Okay, so this wasn’t exactly a period of history well-known for its positive treatment of the female gender, but Janet Leigh’s character is little more than a prissy, dainty object for the competing affections of the two leading men. All of the warriors here are male despite the fact that evidence has been uncovered to suggest that a fair number were female.
Admittedly, this was accepted wisdom back in the 1950s - but even so, most of the female roles here are reduced to to those of mere extras for the men to paw over. There’s also an ongoing debate over how much the Viking “raping and pillaging” stereotype perpetuated here holds true. Oh… and let’s not get started on the fact that these are the most American-sounding Norsemen in film history.
Despite these issues (when seen with modern eyes), however, the film succeeds as rollicking action-adventure entertainment. It’s a classic Hollywood studio historical epic - one part swashbuckler, one part romantic melodrama. Director Richard Fleischer has a solid handle on making the fights and battles genuinely exciting, particularly during the climactic castle raid and tower-top swordfight - the latter of which is shot in a thrillingly vertiginous manner. The level of brutality is also surprisingly strong considering its era; we get an eye being scratched out, attempted rape, a hand-chopping, a man being fed to ravenous dogs, a man being crushed under the wheel of a battering ram, an arrow through the neck an impalement on a broken sword and more. Of course, this being 1958, there’s nothing explicit (bar some minor blood and scrapes here and there), but the intensity with which the scenes are played still makes an impact when watched nowadays.
The story moves along at quite a deliberate pace and it takes a long time before we get to the real meat of it. Despite this, however, the proceedings are never dull. The acting is certainly rather spirited, none more so than by Kirk Douglas (who also produced). His character is rather brutish; he’s not an outright villain but he’s not exactly a hero either - being that he attempts to rape Morgana on a number of occasions. However, he plays him with an undeniable swagger and bravado that makes him compelling to watch. While Tony Curtis - who plays the film’s closest character to a true hero - is solid, it’s definitely Douglas who’s the star. Ernest Borgnine also gives us one of his broad, scenery-chewing performances as a Viking patriarch.
It’s a well-mounted production, featuring spectacular locations (in Norway, France and Croatia) and colourfully-detailed sets beautifully captured by legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Richard Fleischer may have been a journeyman who crafted films of wildly varying quality within a wide variety of genres, but here he shows a keen knack for keeping the audience entertained. During the lulls between battles the proceedings are generally kept lively via rowdy drunken banquets, a playful competition involving jumping from one long ship oar to another (a tradition known as “The Running of the Oars”), a contest involving throwing axes to chop an adulterous woman’s braids and a beautifully-orchestrated sequence where Odin gives his sign by parting the clouds. The opening narration by Orson Welles, taking place over tapestry-like graphics, is also quite classily executed.
All in all, The Vikings is a lot of grandiose old-fashioned fun. It’s very much a film of its time, but it is one geared towards colourful and rousing entertainment. It succeeds admirably on that level.
Runtime: 116 mins
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Script: Calder Willingham, Dale Wasserman, based on a novel by Edison Marshall
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh, James Donald, Alexander Knox, Maxine Audley, Frank Thring, Orson Welles (narrator)
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The image looks warm and rich most of the time. However, some of the foggy, night-time ship sequences are rather too soft and there are a few specks visible at times, particularly during the opening credits. It sounds good too, bar some bass rumble on the music track.
The booklet contains a section from Richard Fleischer’s memoirs related to the production of The Vikings. He describes the challenges of working with producer-star Kirk Douglas as well as a few events that occurred both on and off camera. Of particular interest are the sections when he discusses the burning of the Viking ship (it was meant to be simulated via gas jets - only for the ship to catch fire for real) and “The Running of the Oars” sequence (one of Douglas’s attempts resulted in him accidentally falling in the fjord - but this take was used in the final cut anyway as the star felt it would look great on film).
Sheldon Hall on The Vikings
Sheldon discusses a variety of aspects of the film. He reveals that Kirk Douglas originally wanted to play Eric - but United Artists insisted on imposing a second major star to sell this big-budget production. Hence, Tony Curtis got cast as Eric, while Douglas played Einar - albeit with his original role as a simple antagonist expanded into a full-blown star turn. He discusses key themes such as the nods to pagan mythology and the central relationship triangle, as well as running through Richard Fleischer’s career and taking a look at how true to history the film is (many elements are accurate, while others have been clearly embellished for the sake of entertainment). A worthy accompaniment to the film.
A Tale of Norway
This archive documentary is even more enjoyable than the other more modern one. It features Richard Fleischer himself discussing the production with the help of numerous behind-the-scenes photos. He talks about how he researched with the help of the Viking Museum and Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, right down to using historic blueprints for creating the film’s Viking ships. He discovered that they worked successfully with one exception: the oar holes were too close together for the contemporary rowers (who were considerably taller than the Vikings of old). He also discusses the logistical challenges he faced shooting a number of scenes, along with providing production photographs detailing how he resolved them. A must-see.
A trailer and subtitles round out the extras.
The film is a lot of old-fashioned fun and the extras - while not as numerous as those on some other discs around - are very worthwhile. Recommended.