The Vikings
directed by Richard Fleischer
(MGM, 1958; 2002)

This 1958 adventure period piece featuring big names (Kirk Douglas as Einar, Tony Curtis as Eric, Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar and Janet Leigh as Morgana) is based upon a book, The Viking by Edison Marshall. In a way, the story was just a good Hollywood vehicle to make a fun, high-action adventure film that was not set during World War II, the Wild West, ancient Rome or ancient Egypt.

In the opening scene, Viking chieftain Ragnar raids a small English kingdom, kills the king and rapes Queen Enid (Maxine Audley), who hides her resulting pregnancy. With no direct heir, the kingship passes to the sneering, haughty Aella (Frank Thring), who allows Enid to live. When Enid secretly gives birth, the baby is sent off into exile, safe from the jealous King Aella.

Years later, Aella arranges a political marriage to the beautiful young Princess of Wales, Morgana (Janet Leigh). He also banishes one of his lords (James Donald as Lord Egbert) out of suspicion that Egbert is collaborating with Viking raiders, in exchange for the Vikings ignoring Egbert's domain. Aella is actually right, but Egbert escapes and seeks refuge with Ragnar, who is now a Viking king, and Ragnar's son, Einar. In a convoluted and somewhat forced plot, Einar and Egbert go to kidnap Morgana before she marries Aella. This leads to lots of fighting with swords, spears, bows and arrows, and a lot of yelling (Odin!). Einar (Douglas) and the slave Eric (Curtis) both fall in love with Morgana and despise each other. Several main characters end up dead, one loses an eye, one loses a hand and the wolves get some choice food.

There are some definite flaws in the film. I have already mentioned that the plot seems contrived and forced at times. In addition, during the big sword fights you can tell, from the sounds alone, that some of the swords are quite fake. There is a scene, where the Vikings are storming Aella's castle, in which a Viking shoots an arrow up at an English defender that goes horizontal and sideways through the Englishman's throat. And, when the Vikings go to make their big move on Aella, you only see three longboats crossing, yet an awful lot of Vikings end up on the English shores. The fights scenes are not well-orchestrated, with the Vikings looking disorganized and the Brits looking hapless.

While I like Curtis in many of his roles (e.g., Operation Petticoat), he never seems to fit here. He did not speak or act like an angry slave. While Leigh made a beautiful Morgana, she also seemed stiff and out of place. I think she is much better at portraying a city girl.

But I still like this film. Why? Well, both Douglas and Borgnine look like they're having the time of their lives portraying father-and-son barbarians. Douglas's performance reminds me of the way Johnny Depp immersed himself in the Captain Jack Sparrow character of Pirates of the Caribbean. Douglas looks like he started off with the attitude of "Let's see how much fun I can have being Einar the Viking!" Borgnine was not far behind.

There are not many locales used in this film: Aella's castle, boats at sea and a fjord in Norway with a Viking village. Despite the lack of variety, the beauty of that fjord provides some truly stunning shots. I also enjoyed the glimpse we got into the Viking way of life, especially as it might have even had some bits and pieces of accuracy to it.

By the way, I have not read the book upon which this movie is based, but I have read a few versions of this tale. So far, the best variation that I have found is Harry Harrison's alternate history fantasy, collectively known as Warriors of the Way, and individually known as One King's Way (Hammer & the Cross) and King & Emperor (Hammer & the Cross).

review by
Chris McCallister

8 December 2007

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