Hollywood has always loved an epic and the great conflicts of history offer the spectacle necessary for grand storytelling while also allowing a perspective on the events depicted which allowed the films to be sold to an wider international market than might a narrative inspired by more recent events.
During the golden age of the fifties and sixties the preferred subjects were westerns and Biblical epics, their production facilitated by relatively cheap location shooting in Spain and Italy to recreate the required visual template, but there were exceptions to this trend such as Richard Fleischer’s 1958 Norse saga The Vikings.
Inspired by Edison Marshall’s 1951 novel The Viking, that had been optioned for production by Paths of Glory‘s Kirk Douglas with a view to starring in it himself but the distributors United Artists felt that additional star power was required to justify the budget and so Tony Curtis joined the cast and the singular novel became a plural motion picture.
With an opening narration provided by Orson Welles over animation inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, “dedicated to a Pagan war god, Odin,” so it is told, through the eighth and ninth centuries the Vikings raided England with a view to conquest. The King of Northumbria killed by Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine), his cousin Aella (Frank Thring) takes the throne, unaware that the widowed Queen Enid (Maxine Audley) is pregnant.
Though in fact the child belongs to Ragnar he would still be an heir and a threat to the scheming Aella, so Enid sends him into exile, a concealment which is uncovered a generation later when a traitorous English nobleman seeks sanctuary with Ragnar and recognises the talisman worn by the slave Eric (Curtis) as the pommel of the holy sword Requitur.
Already hated by Ragnar’s son Einar (Douglas), Eric interferes with Ragnar and Einar’s plan to claim a handsome ransom from Aella for the return of his kidnapped bride Morgana (Janet Leigh) by rescuing her and stealing a longship on which he flees into the night and the fog…
Now released on Blu-ray as part of the Eureka Classics range, The Vikings is a tale of blood, vengeance, betrayal, sea battles and stunning scenery which although tame by the modern standards of Game of Thrones and Vikings remains far fresher than its near six decade vintage would suggest, the picture and sound flawlessly restored.
The second watery collaboration of Douglas and Fleischer after 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the aim was for authenticity with location filming in the Norwegian fjords and longboats modelled the specifications of genuine wrecks recovered from the sea bed, the production design handled by Harper Goff who had previously designed the iconic Nautilus for Fleischer.
A contrast to the mannered performances of the English characters, Douglas and Borgnine know their roles call for bold and brash behaviour in both revelry and battle and their presence is as wide as the screen which captures the frosted fjords, the snowcapped mountains and the final siege on Aella’s stronghold, filmed at Fort de la Latte in Brittany.
Arguably more beautiful than his leading lady to whom he was married at the time, Curtis is largely upstaged by his co-stars, the ostensible hero of the piece Eric as much a victim of circumstance as he is a master of his destiny, and there are elements of the supernatural as the spirit of Odin and his daughters apparently intervene to save him at the behest of the seer Kitala, Mario Nascimbene’s soundtrack invoking a Christian angelic choir somewhat at odds with the Norse themes.
Despite their roles being largely supporting, the three principal women of the film are all interesting and atypical of the period, Leigh, two years before the release of Psycho, defiantly refusing to allow Morgana to become a helpless princess awaiting rescue, her unflappable maid Bridget (Dandy Nichols, later to become famous for Till Death Us Do Part) and the mystic Kitala (Eileen Way, Old Mother of the Tribe of Gum on Doctor Who) who weights the odds towards preferable outcomes with her prophecies.
Accompanied by a newly filmed interview with film historian Sheldon Hall who discusses the broader context of the film his knowledge cannot compare with the archive interview with Richard Fleischer who provides first hand recollections of the production, describing a very happy shoot despite the frequent bad weather with Douglas in particular enjoying himself, insisting on performing his own stunts such as “the running of the oars,” a good sport even when one oar snapped causing the star an unexpected dunking in the freezing waters of the fjord.