Inevitably, The Vikings has dated. Acting styles were more theatrical and less naturalistic in the 1950s, but compared to the drawn-out Biblical epics that were hugely popular back then, its well-paced plot and clear narrative seem quite modern. Though the personal and political interplay is complex, these aspects are kept in focus by a tight script, which contains exuberant dialogue that avoids melodrama.
Eric (Tony Curtis) has been raised as a slave in the Viking court of Lord Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) and has no idea that he is the rightful heir to an English kingdom. By a twist of fate, Ragnar is actually his father, though neither are aware of the fact. Eric soon earns the animosity of Einar (Kirk Douglas), Ragnar’s other son. Later, the rivalry between the half-brothers escalates when both fall in love with the same woman, Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh). It’s not as EastEnders as it sounds, as an epic tale unfolds with the fabled feel of an Old Norse Saga.
Being both star and producer, Kirk Douglas had a vested interest in the movie and surprised audiences by playing against type for the most part, being the villain of the piece. This was a brave step for a hunk of reactionary ’50s America. Both he and Tony Curtis were superstars and to have them sharing top-billing would’ve been remarkable.
Though they both did great jobs, their parts were not too demanding in terms of character. What clearly was demanding is the physicality of the roles, as both did most of their own stunt work. After confirming that the camera would be close enough to show it was him, Douglas volunteered to do the oar-walking scene himself, which was a stunt he hadn’t rehearsed until the take that made it to the final cut!
The famous fight scene between Douglas and Curtis high on a castle tower was, apparently, even more risky. It recalls the days when Hollywood actors were required to be genuine ‘action men’, often risking life and limb in pursuit of their public image.
Janet Leigh does a fair job as the fair maiden, Morgana. There’s genuine on-screen chemistry with Eric, likely because Leigh and Curtis were married at the time. She’d already practiced a similar medieval English princess role in Prince Valiant (1954), which was another film involving Norse-English intrigue.
A more interesting character is the pagan priestess, Kitala (Eileen Way), whom we last see casting her runes on the rocky shore as the three-ship armada leaves the home fjord to attack England. After turning in this memorable performance of a pivotal character, Way went on to become one of the most hard-working actors in British television, building on her cult success in popular shows like Poldark (1977) and Doctor Who in the 1960s and ’70s, with her final appearances coming in Russell T. Davies’ children’s miniseries Century Falls (1993).
It’s great to see Ernest Borgnine at the height of his powers as Ragnar. I remember him being the ubiquitous character actor for much of my childhood, and here he demonstrates his talent for playing tough guys with an emotional dimension. It’s all in the careful counter-play between his rugged countenance and the sparkle of his gentle eyes. Interestingly, although he plays Einar’s father, he was actually two months younger than Douglas.
For me, the real stars of The Vikings are the production design and cinematography. Production designer Harper Goff had previously worked with both Kirk Douglas and director Richard Fleisher on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and was responsible for the design of The Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s classic steam-punk submarine. For The Vikings, he worked from extensive historical research to create a very convincing Norse settlement with plenty of beautiful knot-work all over the sets, props, and ships. Sets, costumes, and the breath-taking locations were shown off to their best effect by gorgeous Technicolor photography in the capable hands of Jack Cardiff… and this crisp and clear Blu-ray edition from Eureka just about does it justice.
The new Blu-ray also includes a 30-minute illustrated talk given by film historian, Sheldon Hall, which puts the production into context and shares the kind of information one might have expected from a commentary. He rightly dwells on the talent of Jack Cardiff, pointing out the variety of cinematographic challenges that are dealt with – spectacular natural locations, expertly lit interiors, marvellous sets, filming on the open seas, bright sunny days, dark stormy days… adapting to capture each unique atmosphere that was thrown at the crew.
The interview with Richard Fleischer, also included as an extra, is essential. In his unassuming manner, he recalls the two years he spent making the film. Singing the praises of cast and crew, he really highlights the difficulties of filmmaking back then, and the dedication, care, and effort it took to overcome them and produce a solid classic. His pursuit of historic authenticity is admirable; not only did he seek expert advisers from universities and museums, but his team reconstructed three longships as life-size sea-worthy replicas of museum pieces. He also used descendants of the small, rather rotund horses used by Vikings, that he tracked down to a single surviving herd.
Of course, there’s plenty of artistic license, but this is probably the first time we see a mainstream portrayal of Viking culture as anything other than a mindless rampaging horde. Instead, they’re seen to operate a form of democracy where lords can be questioned, and consensus must be sought for any major project that affects the clan. In contrast, the English and the Welsh are portrayed as cruel and paranoid, with their kings ruling through force and fear. But don’t worry, the Vikings still get chance to indulge in plenty of raucous, mead-fuelled romping, drunken axe-throwing and liberal battle cries in the name of Odin…
The Vikings was spectacularly successful, holding on to the number 3 box-office position in 1958 and earning back its budget of $3.5 million more than twice over. It was responsible for creating a whole new genre of Viking action dramas, particularly popular in Italy through the 1960s. Mario Bava essentially remade this movie with Erik the Conqueror (1961).
At the time, it earned a reputation for being brutally violent, but for today’s audiences, it’s all rather tame. The slaying is mostly kept off-screen, and only one scene involves any blood, just for a few seconds. I’ve watched episodes of Horrible Histories that are more explicit! The Vikings is a fine example of the classic Saturday matinee movie and, providing the children aren’t too young or squeamish, still good fun for sharing a family-sized tub of popcorn. You’ll be yelling “Odin!” and humming Mario Nascimbene’s rousing main theme long after it’s over…
Cast & Crew
director: Richard Fleischer.
writers: Calder Willingham (adapted by Dale Wasserman, based on ‘The Viking’ by Edison Marshall)
starring: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Ernest Borgnine, James Donald, Alexander Knox & Frank Thring.