OK, I like films and the sound of my own voice/keys so I’ll be doing some reviews. It may seem a bit of a tangent from my writing but for one thing, old films are so much a part of my psyche it definitely influences my writing, and for another I’m still waiting with baited breath for a response from agencies and I need something to occupy my time! (as a rule, if you see film reviews on this site, it’s a sign I’m getting twitchy waiting for something!)
The Vikings (1958)
I recently re-watched a film I’ve seen a few times and thought it would be a good one to review. Like a lot of my favourite films, I know it mainly because of my father’s long-established habit of ‘educating’ his children in classic film/TV/radio, also known as finding any excuse to watch them again himself! I’d comment but since I’ll be doing the exact same thing with my own kids I can’t really judge (also since I have in my time coerced my girlfriend into watching far more of Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn than anyone of our generation should!).
The film features Kirk Douglass and Tony Curtis and pre-dates their classic collaboration in Spartacus by two years. Ordinarily I get annoyed by American accents in historical films not about Americans but, like in Spartacus, they make it work in this to a degree by having the Vikings speak like Americans (except for Bjorn) and the Saxons speak like Englishmen (except for Morganna but then she’s supposedly Welsh and I think I’d actually cry if I heard an American attempting a Welsh accent). The same trick is used in Spartacus by giving the Romans English accents and the slaves American ones, it means the jarring effect is lessened because there is at least a consistency within the groups.
Plot-wise the film is pretty solid, I blush to admit I’ve not read Edison Marshall’s book so I can’t say how it compares, but overall it’s not bad as an adventure story. If you already know the film feel free to skip this bit, but here is the story in short: Erik, the forgotten bastard child of the Viking King Ragnar and the Saxon Queen Enid is raised as a slave, unaware of his parentage, alongside Ragnar’s legitimate son, Einar. An English lord, who’d been helping the Vikings to fight Aella, the Saxon King of Northumbria, recognises him by a stone given to him by his mother and thinks to manipulate him to gain power back in his home land. Erik, after being sentenced to death for setting a hunting hawk on Einar, is rescued by this lord, who is also planning the abduction of the new king’s bride-to-be, Morganna.
For the sake of spoiler avoiding, I’ll leave it at that. Only other thing I’ll add is that it ends with a classic ‘Ibn Fadlan-style’ Viking funeral.
OK, here we go. The first thing I have to say about it is how visually impressive it is, especially when you remember how much this film pre-dates CGI. The ships are real, the fjords are real and the final fight scene on top of a castle tower is incredible, especially when you remember the size of cameras in the late 50s. As a man who loved the LOTR films, I have to say that Peter Jackson would have his work cut out duplicating that. The same is true of the majestic shots of the ships in the fjord, the beautiful landscapes and the scene where the Vikings are hopping along the oars (a great scene that sums up the fearless but fun-loving side of this otherwise scary group of people).
This nicely leads us on to music, since the same triumphant theme that is heard over the opening credits is played in the oar-hopping scene in a jaunty, light-hearted sort of way, keeping the theme of who the Vikings are, but changing it to suit the mood. The same thing is done when the music is played/sung with a strong but sombre feel at the climactic funeral. Mario Nascimbene, composer, did a very good job on that one.
Despite loving the music, the story, and the action, I have to say it’s difficult to find a character that is really ‘likeable’, and the closest I’ve found is Ragnar – the man who opens the film by killing a king and raping his queen! Ragnar comes across as a hard man but a man without any real malice in him, who acts as he does because it’s in his nature and he makes no apologies for it. For the record I’m not an active supporter of rape and pillage, but Ragnar clearly loves his son and his people and lives by a certain code of behaviour (even when Erik maimed his son his first response was to kill him quickly because he’d been a good slave up until then, and when he saw that Einar had fallen for Morganna, he turned down a small fortune in ransom money to make his son happy). Not exactly an admirable man, but certainly not a despicable one either and I found myself liking him.
Unfortunately, for all their on-screen presence, neither Einar nor Eric are especially likeable characters. Both do daring things and have some good lines and I can sympathise with their positions to an extent, but there are only a couple of really good character moments for them in the whole film, and it’s only really at the end that we start to feel for them. Einar is a good example of your typical roguish Viking and Eric shows more than once that he has high moral character but I wasn’t really drawn to either protagonist until the last battle. Oddly, the first time I saw this film I came in about twenty minutes from the end, not really understanding it, and when I watch it now I realise that as far as these two are concerned at least, I saw the best of the film then. Kitala, who helps Erik, might be likeable if we had a bit more of her interacting with him and a bit less of her throwing her runes about, and Morganna is sympathetic, but I just can’t find myself warming to her (and the oddly pointy padding they put in Janet Leigh’s dress didn’t help!).
Action-wise I enjoyed it very much, the battering-ram/bridge tactic being very nice, as was the ‘axe-ladder’ at the second gate. The fighting was about as gritty as 1950s mainstream was allowed to be and a combination of that and the music made for some exiting stuff. The only pang of irritation (and I know this is a me thing) is that we have 9th century Vikings laying siege to a 13th century castle (Fort la Latte in Brittany – that’s right, I checked!), filled with what look like 11th century Normans protecting 9th century Saxons. Nit-picking, I know, but when so much effort clearly went into getting the details of the Viking homeland, ships and warriors correct (no horned helmets here!) it is a bit of a let-down when you see stock Hollywood ‘swords-and-castles stuff’ thrown in with them, it just cheapens an otherwise well-researched film.
Overall I’m probably watching this with my usual bias of nostalgia but think it’s a good film to sit and watch for an evening, with plenty of spectacle, stirring music and exciting fights along with a bit of good character stuff as well. Don’t expect to be glued to your screen but expect to find it an engaging and impressive bit of cinema and, as my sister put it; ‘the butchest you will ever see Tony Curtis!’