Director: Richard Fleischer
Screenplay: Calder Willingham
Based on the novel by: Edison Marshall
Producers: Jerry Bresler
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Ernest Borgnine
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 116 mins
Though he is rarely discussed in lists of great directors, Richard Fleischer was a prolific and more-than-competent journeyman director whose diverse catalogue includes revered classics such as Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage, 10 Rillington Place and The Boston Strangler; high profile studio pictures like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Doctor Doolitle, taut film noirs (Armoured Car Robbery), exploitation pictures (Mandingo) and trashy, laugh-along-at-home cult adventures (Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja). Amongst this smorgasbord, several films that were very popular at their time of release have been swallowed up in the maelstrom of Hollywood history, dimly remembered by veteran cinema-goers but rarely screened or discussed. 1958’s historical swashbuckler The Vikings is one such film, the third most popular release of its year at the British box office, filled with major stars, scripted by an excellent writer (Calder Willingham, fresh from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and soon to co-write The Graduate and Little Big Man) and shot in sumptuous colour by legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff… and yet, hands up all those of you who’ve seen it? Hopefully Eureka’s new Blu-ray release will do something to correct that dearth of raised extremities.
When the King of Northumbria is killed during a Viking raid led by the infamous Ragnar Lodbrok (Ernest Borgnine), he is succeeded by his underhand cousin Aella (Frank Thring) because he had no children. However, the King’s widow secretly reveals that she is with child having been raped by Ragnar during the raid. In order to protect her child from Aella’s murderous ambitions, she sends him to Italy but his boat is intercepted by Vikings who enslave him. Years later, the boy (now known as Eric and played, unfortunately, by a stiff Tony Curtis) is tracked down by disgraced nobleman Egbert (a drolly sardonic James Donald), identified by the pommel stone placed around his neck by his mother. Eric is despised by Ragnar’s brutal son Einar (Kirk Douglas) and, after he sets a falcon on Einar blinding him in one eye, Eric is condemned to death. Escaping through a possibly divinely-influenced piece of good fortune, Eric crosses swords with Einar again when both of them fall in love with Princess Morgana, Aella’s intended bride who is kidnapped by the Vikings at the suggestion of Egbert. Though intended to jointly bring shame on Aella and incur a healthy ransom, Morgana’s kidnapping sets in a motion a chain of events destined to bring down Ragnar’s family.
With soapy plot, epic scenery, period costumes and chest-beating performances in place, the stage is set for the type of adventure film for which I’m an absolute sucker. Eureka’s new Blu-ray release of The Vikings comes with a reversible sleeve, one side of which features a dramatic, doomy portrait of the half-blinded Douglas looking anguished while the other bears an altogether more colourful image of mid-action, sword-wielding warriors looming over a glorious longboat. The sleeve perfectly encapsulates the duality which makes The Vikings such a compelling experience. It takes its storytelling seriously and yet in portraying the repulsive hedonism of its subjects Fleischer employs aptly excessive imagery drenched in sumptuous colour and a rousing, ethereal musical score. There is no shortage of action, with battering rams deployed, axes hurled and swords wielded all over the place, and yet there is also a surprisingly delicately-handled approach to the amorality of the piece. After all, the film’s titularly-proclaimed focus is a pack of violent thieves, murderers and rapists and, while they are ultimately pitted against an unscrupulous English despot, he can hardly be called worse than them, even if he does forsake beer-sodden merriment for a lascivious, oleaginous manner designed to make audiences take an instant dislike to him.
There is a disturbing moment early on in The Vikings where it looks like Fleischer might be about to glorify the actions of the despicable Ragnar and his gang. At this stage, we already know them to be murderous rapists and so when their return home is accompanied by a stirringly sentimental score and gorgeous images of their homeland, it can seem initially incongruous. Fortunately, what initially seems like a tonal mismatch proves to be an introduction to the film’s laudable complexity. It reflects the joy of Kirk Douglas’s Einar at the return of his father, showing the human side of a character whose bestial impulses are so often the driving force behind his actions. As we are properly introduced to the Vikings, Willingham’s script does not shy away from the full horror of their lifestyle, as we are shown their callous, unmerciful treatment of Curtis’s condemned slave and the joy they take in enacting a superstitious and humiliating ‘test’ on a potentially adulterous wife. For the most part, women in the early scenes of The Vikings are seen as ruddy-cheeked wenches and willing participants in drunken orgies so the arrival of Janet Leigh’s Morgana is something of a relief, allowing a more well-rounded depiction of a woman to have some screentime. While she serves mainly as a plot device to drive on the hatred between Einar and Eric, Leigh is suitably stoic and virtuous, providing a counterpoint to her captors debauchery. But Willingham is smarter than to merely employ such a simple juxtaposition and, instead of making Morgana into a symbol of unsoilable purity, he also includes scenes in which her reluctance to row a boat even at the expense of increasing the likelihood of recapture is used satirically to criticise British royalty’s sense of entitlement and its sheer idiocy in the face of real peril. Another scene in which it appears The Vikings may be about to lapse into the Christian preaching that was so rife in the Hollywood of the 50s slowly reveals itself to be more open minded, as Eric questions Morgana’s assertion that religious differences should stand in the way of their growing love for each other.
If Tony Curtis’s largely emotionless performance as Eric somewhat scuppers the romantic subplot, it matters little in a film that focuses its efforts more strongly on action and character anyway. While Curtis may be the nominal hero, The Vikings is far more interested in (and interesting for) the tangled amoral philosophies that govern the actions of Einar and his father Ragnar. There is one particularly striking sequence between the two of them in which their horrendous attitudes to women are shown through a frank discussion of sexual preferences. Einar declares that he wants Morgana to constantly fight against his carnal advances, essentially implying that he is only turned on by unwilling sexual partners, and Ragnar confirms that this is an attitude handed down from himself, as he reminisces fondly about the bite and scratch marks inflicted on him by Einar’s mother. It’s a truly disturbing exchange and yet Douglas and Borgnine play it perfectly, tapping into the loathsome, selfish carnality of their characters while also managing to show their approximation of humanity through their obvious fondness for each other’s company. Borgnine is particularly excellent at walking this tightrope in what quickly emerges as the film’s best performance. Generally cast as the bully boy character in a string of Hollywood hits, Borgnine visibly relishes the opportunity to get his teeth into a character who, while even more repugnant than his usual creations, is also significantly more layered. His repeated proud declarations of “What a son!” whenever Einar commits an atrocity show his capacity to feel deep love for another man, a quality rarely admitted to lightly in the macho world of the Hollywood epic. This is why Fleischer’s direction, free from any distinguishable personal touches, is far more suitable for crafting a film like The Vikings than a more auteurist approach. Had the film been directed by John Ford, for instance, I feel sure the main characters’ debauched beer-guzzling violence would have been tinged with a sour ‘boys-will-be-boys’ subtext.
With its luscious locations, sumptuous cinematography and powerful performances, The Vikings lives up to its billing as a terrific adventure. While it is frequently stated in relation to the film that the production values are the real star, I’d say that the moral ambiguities of Willingham’s script and the suitably bold performances of Douglas and Borgnine are just as crucial, otherwise we’d have just another picture postcard bore like so many historical epics that followed. Fleischer should also be congratulated for his subtle direction which allows room for viewers to draw their own conclusions about characters and events. While some may see the fiery climax as elevating a loathsome villain to unearned heroic stature, this is certainly not made explicit and for me, the ending was a perfectly judged moment in which the multiple layers of an irredeemable but complex character were pulled together while a refreshing subtext about respecting different religious beliefs from Hollywood’s favoured Christianity gently flickered in the background. In The Vikings I found another great rip-roaring adventure to place alongside some of my favourites of the genre but I also found a lot more to think about than the film’s reputation for preposterous pageantry led me to believe I would.
The Vikings is released on Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment on 16 October 2017. Special features are as follows:
-Exclusive new video interview with film historian Sheldon Hall
– A Tale of Norway – 28 minute featurette about the making of the film, presented by Richard Fleischer
– Original theatrical trailer
– Booklet featuring the words of Richard Fleischer, a poster gallery and rare archival imagery