A Viking expedition led by Rolfe (Richard Widmark) came to grief on a distant European shore, but as the only survivor he found out about a legend of a huge golden bell which was located somewhere between the so-called Pillars of Hercules. It was said this creation was fashioned from the pillaged precious metal of many civilisations, and its value was far beyond any other artefact, so this set Rolfe's mind racing about how he could get ahold of it. This entailed travelling the Continent as a beggar, gleaning all the details he could until one day he was captured by a Moorish King, Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier), who had also heard of this bell...
Funny how yesterday's embarrassment can be today's entertainment, as it was with The Long Ships, patently an attempt to cash in on the huge success of the Kirk Douglas epic The Vikings from half a decade before, but so poorly thought out in its historical setting it was regarded as ludicrous at the time it was released, especially because no one in the cast seemed too sure of how serious this was supposed to be. The result of that was a fatal mix of styles, with Widmark apparently believing he was in a spoof and Poitier lending every line undue gravitas.
Needless to say, neither star thought this their finest hour (quoth Poitier: "To say it was disastrous is a compliment"), and perhaps they felt it would be better consigned to the past where their better achievements would overshadow it. Yet it didn't quite turn out that way, because films like these have a habit of turning up on television and certain of their scenes sticking in the mind, as they did here. And it's true there is a trashy verve to the enthusiastic throwing together of the Moors and the Vikings here, with some full-blooded action and even lustier playing from the actors that says, come on, how can you not enjoy this?
The script was actually based on the writings of Frans Bengsston, who was a big success in Scandinavia with his novels of the Norsemen, but somewhere on the translation from page to screen the intelligence leaked out, leaving a very silly story for us to appreciate. Memorable lunacies include Widmark (or his stunt double) leaping to escape Poitier's torture chamber from a fifty foot high window into the sea below and apparently swimming back to Norway from Iberia, and the fact that most of the Vikings sport the most awful blonde wigs, not to mention Poitier's apparent borrowing of Jackie Wilson's hairdo for his own ends.
Yet the thing that everyone recalls about The Long Ships is an execution device called The Mare of Steel. Rolfe has sailed his way back to Southern Europe on a stolen funeral barge and with a reluctant crew, and they're even more reluctant when they are captured by the Moors. Aly Mansuh demands that they take him to the Golden Bell, and to teach them a lesson in obedience sets up the execution of Rolfe with a huge blade, constructed with a large horse's head at the top, that the unlucky victim has to slide down on his belly, thereby killing him. Rolfe doesn't actually meet his maker this way, but a hapless guard is ordered to take a ride on it for demonstration purposes, and so a million vague but pressing memories of the "What was that film where...?" type were born. Otherwise, this may be pretty ridiculous, but it is put over with uncommon gusto. Music by Dusan Radic.