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Norse Code: The Vikings vs The Long Ships

  There had been the occasional Viking sighted on the big screen before 1958 and the Kirk Douglas pet project The Vikings, but when the highest profile of them was a silent movie called The Viking from 1928, most notable for its colour photography, you get the idea that these historical peoples had not been exploited cinematically to their advantage. Robert Wagner had technically played a member of Norse royalty in the 1954 comic strip adaptation Prince Valiant, but that did not particularly bother itself with sticking too close to any facts or record as the historians knew it, so the Douglas production set in stone all the tropes associated with the race, though there were no horns atop their helmets, just to show they were not giving into cliché and pandering to any popular misconceptions that might compromise their integrity.

The historians found flaws in spite of that, but nothing to bother the general patrons any, and director Richard Fleischer made great play of conducting his research extensively, to the extent that an actual longship recovered from its watery grave and kept in a museum was recreated for the film, for yet more authenticity. This came in handy for the walking of the oars sequence, where Douglas and his fellow barbarians leapt from oar to oar as their vessel travelled up a fjord: you'll note that he achieved this most successfully, and while those others were seen toppling into the water, Kirk managed two or three runs before he struggled with his balance on such a precarious set of perches. Again, this activity was something the Vikings were known to have done (no television in those days), but comparatively mild when weighed up against their more violent business.

Yes, what your average Viking was best known for was murdering, raping and pillaging, to them it was a way of life, so how would you depict that and get away with pushing the boundaries of what was permissible within the Production Code which permitted nothing explicit to be shown of those things? The answer was to do them anyway, but use the excuse this was part of history and therefore you could regard it as informative, even educational, much as those Biblical epics could depict all sorts of terrible events and debauchery but nobody batted an eyelid since this was a matter of taking inspiration from a much-respected tome that every (Christian) family in the United States of America owned a copy of. Vikings were taught of in schools, after all, and any family audiences would be interested in checking out a realistic rendering.

Although what many of those audiences were thinking as they posed their intellectual engagement was "Brilliant! Sex and violence!", always an attraction in entertainment no matter what the era, or how explicitly or otherwise they were realised for the screen. There was certainly plenty to mark The Vikings out as one of the most bloodthirsty hits of the nineteen-fifties as the characters hacked and slayed their way through the plot, Douglas's Einar the chief antagonist who, for example, in one early scene is blinded in one eye by the claws of a hawk belonging to slave Tony Curtis, playing Eric, who has taken umbrage with Einar, a pattern that repeats throughout the course of the two hour movie. Later scenes saw others be torn apart by ravenous hounds or have their hand chopped off as punishment, all to underline the brutality of the Dark Ages.

Janet Leigh was Morgana, the English princess who becomes the focus of Einar and Eric's fascination, the seriously dodgy conversation between the former and his father Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine at his loudest) about how great it is to rape women not the kind of thing you would expect to hear from this decade's films, though again the sole reason they get away with it is down to the associated respectability of studying history. Also worth mentioning was Australian stage legend Frank Thring as the wicked English King who gives Einar a run for his money in evil, though with Douglas only the antihero by default thanks to securing himself the best stuff to do (Curtis thought he was the lead - not with Kirk around, Tone). It climaxed with a spectacular castle siege followed by the silver screen's definitive Viking funeral, whereupon everyone went home thoroughly satisfied.

You might have expected the floodgates to be opened and a deluge of Viking movies as a result of The Vikings' huge success, but it did not quite happen that way, as it was more confirmation that worldwide audiences were enjoying these historical spectaculars in general rather than the Norse variety in particular. In Italy, the heartland of the Hollywood cash-in, cult director Mario Bava made a couple of these with Erik the Conqueror in 1961 and Knives of the Avenger in 1966, both starring a blond Cameron Mitchell, but they are probably the best-recalled of the genre that never really took off in its own right, possibly because Douglas and Fleischer had crafted an entertainment that was more or less definitive and everything else would come across as an also-ran or pretender. This did not prevent Hollywood from giving it a try, however.

In Britain, Hammer attempted to sell Viking Queen to the masses in 1967, yet it was a low budget production and it showed (plus it was not strictly a Viking movie), but in 1964 The Long Ships demonstrated a far higher degree of funding and in a blatant move to concoct a new The Vikings for the nineteen-sixties, it followed Richard Widmark as Rolfe who travels from Norway to Spain and back again (apparently swimming the entirety of his return journey - tough bastards, these Norsemen) with news of a golden bell that represents all the riches beyond his King’s wildest dreams, never mind his own. But the Spanish scenes introduced a Moorish ruler, Aly Mansuh, played by Sidney Poitier with a permanent scowl, and he wants to get his hands on that treasure himself, willing to exploit Rolfe's knowledge to do so.

The plot and MacGuffin thus established, how did the Viking business unfold? With a heavier dose of hokum than its fifties predecessor had, that contained its roistering elements of humour, but The Long Ships was more willing to give into the broad laughs, therefore when Rolfe sails back to Spain with his men he sees to it that they stumble upon Mansuh's harem, leading to what was a borderline jokey gang rape sequence which was only palatable because the filmmakers were not taking it remotely seriously. In fact, the amounts of men kissing women and men kissing men were about equal, with blacked up and mute Lionel Jeffries acting as camp as you like as the resident eunuch, but these embarrassing shenanigans served to emphasise how Viking characters could behave as badly as they wished and the audience would forgive them in a "boys will be boys" manner.

All that in mind, there were interesting aspects that delineated a more open-minded take on the material than perhaps you would get in the twenty-first century, out of this source at least. Unlike just about every other historical epic save for The Conqueror, John Wayne's biggest cinematic mistake, there were no Christian characters as everyone we saw was either a pagan or a Muslim, and though they were at loggerheads we were not intended to be taught a lesson in whose Gods were the best. Even The Vikings had had Christians in it, though admittedly these were the English and while Janet Leigh was a goodie, it was her captors who were presented as having the most attractive way of life in that period of time, the Christian faith represented as wishy-washy in the face of the overwhelming power of the followers of Odin (who was invoked more than once).

But the most memorable part of The Long Ships was a scene that was seared into the memories of all who saw it at the time, and is edited out of just about every home entertainment release or television broadcast since: the riding of the Mare of Steel. This execution device was an elaborate method of separating one half of a body from the other, a ten-yard-long blade the victim would slide down to be impaled on spikes at the base, presumably just to be sure there would be no chance of survival. Called the Mare because of the "riding" motion and the big horse head model it had at the top, Mansuh threatens Rolfe with it if he doesn't speak up about the location of the bell, and demonstrates this with a hapless lackey chosen by his almost as cruel wife (Rosanna Schiaffino): if the thought of the Nantucket Sleigh Ride makes you squeamish, imagine what this does.

Backing up Widmark and Poitier were an international cast, from Serbian beauty Beba Loncar to ostensible Norse antagonist Edward Judd (think once, think twice, think Vike?) and least likely, Oskar Homolka as the father of Widmark and an unimpressed-looking Russ Tamblyn: they didn't even have the same accent. But The Long Ships had an audience who cared little for that, it was a hit in the same manner action-packed historical epics were at the time, and afterwards the style fell out of favour somewhat, much like pirate movies, though they had their own renaissance of course. The Norseman with Lee Majors in 1978 was not going to excite anyone other than those seeking unintentional hilarity, and intentional hilarity was thin on the ground in Terry Jones' comedy Erik the Viking. Pathfinder in 2007 did not exactly set the box office alight either, therefore for the Viking film fan The Vikings remains the greatest in a relatively contained field, not bad for a fifties production.

Eureka have released The Vikings in a special Blu-ray edition, with special features of a critic's expert, half hour guide, Fleischer's own reminiscences in a featurette, and the original trailer. You won't see a better version of the blockbuster-turned-cult favourite than this.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006