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Cinema

Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective

FILM RETROSPECTIVES

A nostalgic (but not blindly nostalgic) look back at some cult and classic movies. Are they worth checking out once you take off the rose-tinted glasses? Find out in this retrospective section.

Erik the Conqueror (1961) directed by Mario Bava

What’s it about?

This historical peplum commences with the betrayal of a peace pact between the Viking King Harald (Folco Lulli) and English King Loter (Franco Ressel) by the latter’s emissary Rutford (Andrea Checchi). His forces cut down the Scandinavians in battle, finishing off by killing Harald. The furious Loter tells Rutford that he will be tried in court but is assassinated by the latter’s lieutenant before he can carry this out. Harald’s two infant sons, Erik and Eron, manage to survive the slaughter. However, while Eron is returned safely to his homeland, Erik is found stranded on the beach by Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe). She believes that God has sent him as a replacement for the lost life of her husband and decides to adopt him as her own son.

Move forward 20 years later, and the fully-grown Eron (Cameron Mitchell) is in love with Daya (Ellen Kessler), one of two beautiful identical twin sisters - the other of whom is Rama (Alice Kessler). He also longs to avenge his father’s death and, after winning a deciding fight against his rival Garian (Joe Robinson), gains the mandate to lead an invasion force towards English shores.

Erik (George Ardisson), meanwhile, lives in the royal castle in England with the Queen and Rutford. When they hear that the Vikings are about to invade, he sets sail in order to intercept them. However, the scheming Rutford secretly wants him dead and gets his right-hand man to sabotage the ship by starting a fire on board while it is at sea. During the sea battle between English and Viking forces, Erik’s ship is decimated and sinks beneath the waves.

George Ardisson and Alice Kessler in Erik the Conqueror

Eron succeeds in his invasion and reveals that he has been in league with Rutford all along - without realising, ironically, that it was the latter who ordered his father to be killed. Erik, meanwhile, washes up on Scandinavian shores where he is found, by chance, by Rama. As a result of their meeting, the pair soon fall in love. However, this sets the ball in motion for further confrontations between the two estranged brothers.

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Why is it significant?

Cult Italian director Mario Bava is heavily associated with his giallo and gothic-influenced horror output. Contrary to popular belief, however, he did direct (or perform uncredited co-directing work on) a considerable number of films in other genres: science fiction, historical adventures, comedies, westerns and action thrillers. A couple of these have gone on to gain cult followings in their own right: the 1968 comic strip adaptation Danger: Diabolik and the 1974 crime thriller Rabid Dogs, the latter of which remained unreleased until the 1990s due to its producer going bankrupt shortly prior to its completion. Most of the rest, however, have either been relegated to footnote status or have been more or less forgotten about.

During the 1950s and early 1960s he was, in fact, heavily instrumental in the Italian peplum craze (a cycle of action-heavy historical and mythological epics), albeit without receiving as much public credit for his labours as he undoubtedly deserved. In 1953, he performed cinematographic duties and some uncredited directorial work on Mario Camerini’s Ulysses, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. Later on in the decade, he lensed and created special effects for the hugely popular Steve Reeves-starring adventures Hercules (1958), Hercules Unchained (1959) and The Giant of Marathon (also 1959). He also directed some reshoots for the last of those three films (apparently because some of the initial footage showed extras smoking on camera!) when the original director, Jacques Tourneur, was no longer available.

The production company behind The Giant of Marathon decided to thank his efforts over and above the call of duty by allowing him to direct his first fully-credited feature: the horror classic Black Sunday (1960). However, he still clearly had some interest in the peplum genre at that time since he returned to it for his subsequent two films: Hercules in the Haunted World and Erik the Conqueror (both 1961).

The latter of the two is a thinly-veiled unofficial remake of Richard Fleischer’s popular big-budget 1958 historical epic The Vikings and thus can be held up as an early instance of an Italian filmmaker blatantly cloning a major international box office hit. Later examples of this trend in the country’s genre cinema output include Ovidio Assonitis’s Beyond the Door (1974) which ripped off The Exorcist (1973), Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash (1978) which was heavily influenced by Star Wars (1977) and Enzo G. Castellari’s The Last Shark (1981) which put Universal’s legal representatives on the case as a result of its striking resemblance to Jaws (1975).

How does it hold up?

When Italian genre cinema buffs discuss Mario Bava’s best films they very rarely mention Erik the Conqueror. Hopefully, however, this retrospective will help to rectify the undeserved neglect in which it languishes. Sure, it’s unashamedly derivative, yet it’s also one of those rare low-budget Italian knockoffs of a successful Hollywood film to give the original a genuine run for its money.

The Vikings is undeniably a solid example of its type: a lavish historical melodrama with scenic multinational locations, a (comparatively) realistic depiction of Viking life, spirited performances by a stellar cast and plenty of thrilling swashbuckling action. On the other hand, its inclinations towards being big, grandiose and epic mean that it feels a little flabbier than necessary. Viewers with true 21st century sensibilities may also find that there’s a bit too much wallowing in that rapey business involving Kirk Douglas and Janet Leigh.

Erik the Conqueror, by comparison, features a rather more fantastical depiction of Viking life; they all live in a huge cave and perform elaborate dances which appear to have been lifted from an Arabian Nights adaptation. It doesn’t have the same star power; while Cameron Mitchell does a decent job filling in for the rough-edged Kirk Douglas he doesn’t manage the same swaggering charisma, while George Ardisson is more of a finely-chiselled oak than a serious rival to Tony Curtis’s romantic heroism. In lieu of actually shooting in Norwegian fjords, the filmmakers have clearly opted to use anonymous Italian coastal locations and castle sets. Unlike Fleischer’s version, however, the story has been whittled down to an economical and fast-paced 90 minutes, where the pedestrian interludes of dubbed dialogue prove to be only fleeting irritations amid the succession of crowd-pleasing setpieces.

An artist with a movie camera

As with most of his other films, Bava displays a genuine artistic flair for colour and composition which is driven, in part, by an imperative to create impressive-looking onscreen images on a severely limited budget. There’s an emphasis on colourful skyline shots, sparsely dark sets brightened up by spot lighting and tightly-staged action sequences which make the screen look like a spectacular flurry of activity even when there are only a dozen or so extras on screen. The practice of frequently shooting scenes in silhouette against brightly-coloured backdrops, while undoubtedly a ploy to disguise the cheap production values, lends the film a feel akin to Lotte Reiniger’s wondrous 1926 animated fantasy The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The castle seen near the end of the film was a cutout of a photograph from National Geographic magazine pasted onto a sheet of glass. It was then strategically placed in front of the camera in during exterior long shots in order to make it look like it was a genuine part of the filmed landscape. I only knew of this fact after viewing and was certainly fooled by the illusion! The film’s period ships, meanwhile, were (in Bava’s own words) models made from “Buitoni pasta twisted together”.

Erik the Conqueror (1961)

The action sequences are also excellently handled. The opening battle is a dramatic melee which displays a considerably bolder attitude towards showing the more graphic side of combat onscreen than The Vikings and most of its contemporary Hollywood ilk tended to. A baby and her mother are impaled together on a spear. Men die pierced with multiple implements, their clothes sodden with blood. Bodies on the beach are washed over by a reddened incoming tide. Later on, there’s an atmospheric fog and smoke-shrouded sea battle complete with a classic stunt involving one character sliding down a ship’s sail via tearing it with a knife. The climax features the inevitable vigorous one-on-one fight between the two brothers, a scene of torture involving a tarantula which wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of Bava’s gothic horror films, and a tension-filled climb up a wall involving using a precarious ladder of arrows fired into the wood. As if all that wasn’t enough, at various points in the film we also get a pair of colourful dance routines, various daring rescues and a silly comic relief character who escapes a sinking ship by tying air-filled bladders to himself.

Erik the Conqueror is typically Bava, which is to say that it is a quintessential and highly entertaining example of how sheer in-camera ingenuity and imagination can triumph over the kind of financial constraints which would cause most other directors to run away screaming.

Runtime: 90 mins

Dir: Mario Bava

Script: Oreste Biancoli, Piero Pierotti, Mario Bava

Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Alice Kessler, Ellen Kessler, George Ardisson, Andrea Checchi, Jean-Jacques Delbo, Françoise Christophe, Folco Lulli, Franco Ressel, Joe Robinson

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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