A thousand years ago, or thereabouts, the Vikings were the scourge of Northern Europe and especially the British Isles, where they would carry out regular raids in an attempt to take over. During one such raid, Viking king Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) raped a Northumbrian Queen and killed her husband, leading her to bear his child. Yet she would keep this secret from the man who succeeded the dead King, Aella (Frank Thring), knowing the child was in danger. And so twenty years passed and very little changed: the Vikings still attacked, and Aella was still a tyrant...
Ha-har! Ha-har-har! Quaff that ale, brandish that axe, for it's time to spend a couple of hours with the Norse warriors, brought to the screen in what the filmmakers prided themselves on being as accurate a historical drama as they could possibly create. The Vikings was a very big deal at the time when such epics were in vogue, the perfect escapism when life might have been more straightlaced, in its country of origin anyway, and seeing all these roistering, manly men throwing caution to the wind and acting as they pleased must have been thrilling to audiences of the day.
Needless to say, the three main stars playing the title characters plunged themselves into their roles with abandon, fashioning the most vivid portrayals of the Scandinavian battlers that has ever been seen, and remains hard to beat even today. Kirk Douglas, who produced this, is our lusty lead, playing Einar who is described as vain because he does not wish to grow a beard (or maybe Douglas was reluctant in real life), but such regard for his features is cruelly punished when he meets slave Eric (Tony Curtis) who ends up setting his hawk on him and blinding Einar in one eye. What they don't know is that they are half-brothers thanks to Ragnar putting it about a bit.
There's much to relish here for fans of overbearing masculinity in the cinema, but it isn't just one long succession of pillaging and brutality, there is a story to all this. When Ragnar's man in Britain, Egbert (James Donald) is rumbled by King Aella, he flees across the North Sea to be welcomed by Ragnar until he can return, and part of the plan they draw up is to kidnap the young Welsh princess who has been promised to Aella in marriage. She is Morgana (Janet Leigh), and she didn't want to marry him anyway, but neither does she much fancy being forced to wed Einar who is very keen on her, but confused that she should be so hostile (a heart to heart with dad sorts out any doubts that he may have been having).
Jack Cardiff deserves a lot of credit for making The Vikings so opulent in its look, with the location photography absolutely superb whether it's an authentic Norwegian fjord or the climactic battle at a medieval castle that rounds off the action. And there is a lot of action, with plentiful sword fights, brawling and even Douglas "running the oars", a genuine pasttime of the Norsemen, part of the infectious energy of director Richard Fleischer's stylings. Perhaps the appeal is to judge between the civilised society we have now in comparison with the savages of yore, so that we can wallow in characters who made their own rules and didn't need to worry about speeding tickets and the like in their everyday lives. Yes, a time when men were men and women were nervous, somewhere that this film shows might have been fun to visit, but in the cold light of day be thankful you didn't have to stay there. Rousing music by Mario Nascimbene.