Richard Fleischer’s barbarian spectacle is perhaps one of the more simple historical action films I’ve reviewed, but is a pleasantly brisk and fun affair. It indulges in all of the key aspects of Viking life, from the sailing, feasting, singing, pillaging, besieging of enemy castles and rivalries between hot-headed individuals within the community. Richard Fleischer’s keen direction, Kirk Douglas’ fiery performance, (mostly) top rate production values and excellent finale make the film worth checking out for any historical film lover.
The King of Northumbria is killed during a Viking raid led by the fearsome Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine). Because the king had died childless, his corrupt cousin Aella (Frank Thring) takes the throne. The king’s widow, however, is pregnant with what she knows is Ragnar’s child because he had raped her during that fateful raid, and to protect the infant from her cousin-in-law’s ambitions, she sends him off to Italy. By a twist of fate, the ship is intercepted by the Vikings, who are unaware of the child’s kinship, and enslave him.
The boy grows into a young man named Eric (Tony Curtis). His parentage is finally discovered by Lord Egbert (James Donald), a Northumbrian nobleman opposed to Aella. While seeking sanctuary with the Vikings in Norway, Egbert recognises the Northumbrian royal sword’s pommel stone on an amulet around Eric’s neck, placed there by Eric’s mother when he was a child, but tells no one. Eric incurs the wrath of Ragnar’s legitimate son and heir, Einar (Kirk Douglas), after the former orders his falcon to attack Einar, taking out one of his eyes. Eric is saved from immediate execution when the royal soothsayer Kitala (Eileen Way) warns that Odin will curse whoever kills him. He is left in a tidal pool to drown with the rising tide by Ragnar’s decree to avoid the curse, but after Kitala calls out to Odin making Erik himself to invoke his mercy, a strong wind shifts and forces the water away, saving him. Lord Egbert then claims him as his slave property to protect his rights, before Einar can return and finish him. They learn of the arranged marriage between King Aella and Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh) of Wales, and plot to kidnap the princess to ransom her in exchange for riches
Despite his position as one of the film’s several antagonists, Douglas is the most memorable and magnetic character in the film, and is clearly having fun as a dynamic, ferocious warrior with a twisted adventuresome spirit. Curtis is not particularly memorable as Eric despite being the main character, but does okay in the fight scenes and in his bitter rivalry with Douglas. Leigh does well as Morgana, and both she and Curtis go through the expected beats of romance between them. Borgnine does his best to give depth to the bloodthirsty Ragnar, and is similarly charismatic as Douglas is as his character’s son. Thring is suitably detestable and slimy as Aella, and an interesting contrast with his performance as Pontius Pilate in Ben-Hur. Eileen Way has a lot of good scenes as the eccentric soothsayer, and Donald is surprisingly engaging as Egbert, being quite likable and sharp-witted. Alexander Knox is also quite likable as Father Godwin.
While the action appears in short bursts during the first act and comes into swing in the third act, it feels more swashbuckling and spirited than anything you would associate with the most infamous raiders of the Dark Ages. The siege of Aella’s castle has good build-up and gets you excited for the battle to begin. While anachronistic, the use of the real Fort de la Latte in north-east Brittany, France is as good excuse as any to have a pretty well staged siege battle. For a PG rated film, there is still a fair amount of violence and a high kill count. The costumes armour and shields look pretty good, but the swords on the extras seldom look up to snuff. Fortunately, the final duel between Eric and Einar is a very satisfying sequence, with real swords, energetic editing and quickly mounting tension.
The elaborate set for the Viking mead hall with its timbered walls, tapestries, shields and messy banquet tables is a treat to behold. The use of real long-ships to sail the fjords, recreated in great detail, gives the film a sense of authenticity and realness. An animated sequence depicting the life and times of the Vikings in the vein of the Bayeux Tapestry, and while it’s a fairly simple piece of narration the visual communication still works.
The cinematography by Jack Cardiff frames the epic Norwegian landscape and the viking ships beautifully, the richness of colour is eye-catching without being as overwhelming as the technicolour spectacle of something like Quo Vadis. The world of The Vikings feels crisp, cold and raw, but nevertheless pure and filled with life. The film is at its most suspenseful when the Viking ships have to sail through fog, and the ominous string accompaniments and low trumpeting horns add atmosphere to the piece. There are many gorgeous shots of the Norwegian fjords and mountains, combined with Nascimbene’s music that successfully instils that sense of Nordic mythology. The film feels epic and operatic without any of the filmmaking tools we take for granted in modern blockbusters.
The score by Mario Nascimbene is a solid one; the main theme has a Wagnerian flavour to it, with complex strings and trumpet arrangements that echo that type of music. There is one sequence where the music develops into something more fun and upbeat, along the lines of the score to The Adventures of Robin Hood. However, there isn’t much variety and the main theme is used perhaps a bit too often.
The few truly morally good characters are powerless in this barbaric world, while the most powerful characters all display a shade of corruption and nastiness. Eric and Morgana are more or less the victims of the more manipulative or bloodthirsty characters, but are not very interesting. Still, the film does maintain an Errol Flynn sense of lightness and fun to its approach, certain scenes of characters mucking about (like Einar and his crew running across their ship’s outstretched oars) or the Vikings’ revelling in their mead hall.
The film takes a while to really get started, the scenes of intrigue in the Anglo-Saxon court are important to frame the rest of the plot but aren’t that interesting. It’s interesting that after spending much of the film at each other’s throats, Eric and Einar are willing to set their feud aside to deal with a common enemy, and is the most interesting aspect of the film that doesn’t involve Vikings doing what they do best. Such was the character of rivalries between the early medieval kingdoms, forming and breaking alliances. Ultimately, Ragnar and Einar’s Viking warriors come off as a more spirited and therefore marginally likable crowd than the scheming, grovelling characters in service to Aella, no different from their king.
Although Morgana is presented as a devout Christian and Eric seeks romance with her despite his belief in the Norse gods, the film is otherwise Pagan in character. There is even a sense that the Norse gods are watching over certain characters, with Eric calling upon Odin’s help when he is close to drowning, and seemingly the tides being pushed back by the wind. Even the dynamic of half-brothers coming to blows and not knowing that they share the same father feels very much in line with the Norse family sagas of old.
Ultimately, The Vikings is a fun, unpretentious and well-made film in its own right that delivers on what it promises and manages to evoke a sense of adventure from the period, albeit in a somewhat heightened lens. It does feel like a fairly typical old fashioned Hollywood adventure film but one with enough strong elements that make it worth a revisit. It isn’t high art like some of the historical epics I’ve reviewed, but it isn’t completely without something brainier under that strong, muscular outset.