The Vikings (1958)

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Film review of the Richard Fleischer directed action adventure with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and Janet Leigh.

Director: Richard Fleischer. Bryna/Bavaria/United Artists. (PG).

Historical/period/epic

5stars-Excellent-genius-a-classic

Cast & credits

Producer: Jerry Bresler.
Writer: Calder Willingham.
Camera: Jack Cardiff.
Music: Mario Nascimbene.
Sets: Harper Goff.

Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh, James Donald, Alexander Knox, Maxine Audley, Frank Thring, Eileen Way, Orson Welles.

Synopsis

Einar (Douglas) is the vain, high spirited and brave son of Viking warrior King Ragnar (Borgnine), a man who sees nothing but praise in his offspring. Unbeknown to them both, the slave-boy in their midst Eric (Curtis) is the result of a union between Ragnar and an English Queen (Audley) many years before. When Einar captures the beautiful Welsh Princess Morgana (Leigh) who is betrothed to unscrupulous English King Aella (Thring), she falls in love with Eric and the stage is set for an epic battle for the English crown.

Review

Historically, the Vikings were a cosmopolitan race, trading far and wide with many cultures and were probably not the marauding, murdering, boozing, rapacious thugs that films such as this portrayed them as being. They were also (again, if we believe this film) highly proficient in speaking the English language in conveniently American accents.

But historical accuracy is a strange and distant bedfellow to Hollywood producers, even when one of the financial backers is the main star, for Douglas’ Bryna Productions (named after his mother) scratted around for most of the cash to make this riotously fun and supremely entertaining film.

Welles provides the mellifluous narration during the ingenious opening credits that use a Bayeux Tapestry to set the backstory. A coy technique, considering then only 1 minute in to the actual film we have our first battle and rape.

Thankfully Fleischer steers us away from such depravity and opts instead for a tone of rambunctious, lusty high-jinks. There’s plenty of it about too, especially in the meticulously constructed Viking city, filmed on location in Maurangerfjorden and Maurangsnes, Norway. It’s these scenes that are the most impressive, raucous fun and games with ale, axes and wenches flying across the screen with an impressive regularity.

Flesicher also teases out a clutch of pitch-perfect Hollywood performances from his starry cast. Douglas grins and grimaces as only he could in a muscular and energetic turn.

Real-life husband and wife team Curtis and Leigh made five films together before their divorce in 1962. This was the third and certainly the best one and you can see that their chemistry off-screen transferred well on-screen. Even if Leigh is a ridiculously over-bosomed Welsh Princess, less monarch and more MGM sweater girl, spitting and clawing at Douglas in a most unladylike manner, she is luminously pretty and spirited. Curtis probably had the most disconcerting stare in movies and uses it on Douglas with unsettling effect throughout the film.

But Borgnine gets the better role as Viking King Ragnar, riotously raping and rampaging across northern Europe. In real-life, he was actually a few weeks younger than his screen son although the film’s style team ensure it looks like there are a few more between them.

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