The Vikings
"Big on drama, action and shouting, The Vikings is the sort of tale that Norsemen themselves would have appreciated."

In 1958, getting Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis on the same bill was a triumph. The Vikings achieved it by letting each of them think he was going to be playing the lead, but really it's the relationship between their characters that gives the film its power. Add Janet Leigh as the object of their mutual desire and you have a dream cast. Though relatively humble in its origins, The Vikings became one of the biggest films of the year - and it has stood the test of time.

Douglas plays Einar, a Viking prince. Curtis plays Eric, a young slave whose only connection to his unknown family is an amulet he wears. When English nobleman Egbert (James Donald) seeks sanctuary in Einar's court, he recognises Eric's amulet and realises that the youth is in fact a potential heir to the English crown, and Einar's half brother. Keen to use him for his own purposes, he keeps this secret but begins to move against the English king, Aella (Frank Thring), engineering a raid in which Aella's daughter, Morgana (Leigh) is taken prisoner. Einar quickly becomes obsessed by this exotic beauty who won't succumb to his advances, and when Eric steps in to defend her - falling in love with her himself - the stage is set for fraternal as well as international conflict, the tragedy being that the half brothers, both loyal to the concept of family, don't realise their connection until too late.

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Big on drama, action and shouting, The Vikings is the sort of tale that Norsemen themselves would have appreciated - a family saga told with respect for both the material and the metaphysical aspects of their lives. Although Morgana is presented as a devout and virtuous Christian (appropriate enough for an Englishwoman in the period), the film is otherwise Pagan in character, with Eric calling upon - and apparantly receiving - Odin's help in a key scene. Although no apologies are made for them, the Vikings are not presented as thugs, with Aella's court every bit as barbaric as Einar's. Considerable effort was made to reproduce the details of their world authentically, even down to the building or real longships on which Douglas - refusing to let the stuntmen have all the fun - peforms one of the most audacious stunts of his career.

Although based on Edison Marshall's novel of (almost) the same title, which itself drew on period writings the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and the Tale Of Ragnar's Sons, the film underwent a lot of story development before it reached the screen and the result is a narrative with enough depth and complexity to make it feel like a recreation of well known recent events. Whilst the potential offered by Curtis and Leigh's roles is limited, Douglas clearly relishes the chance to play a character who, though ostensibly the villain of the piece, is morally complicated and adrift in a time when the ideas and values he grew up with are in a state of flux. Despite the ugliness of some of Einar's actions, there's a heroic quality to him that adds to the thrills the film has to offer.

The Vikings also benefits from cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff, making it one of the most impressive colour works of the period. Shunning the gaudy approach many DoPs then favoured, Cardiff instead focuses on the relationships between colour and mood and colour and light, creating a look that's well ahead of its time. The skill with which he handles scenes at sea in a storm is also remarkable, though its impact has diminished somewhat with time, that being much easier to do now.

All this is held together by Richard Fleischer, a director whose diversity of output and flexibility of style have perhaps contributed to him missing out on the recognition enjoyed by many of his peers despite some very impressive work. Here he takes a simpler approach than in many of his other films, knowing when to stand back and let his talented cast and crew do their thing, but his skill is clearly visible in the apparently effortless way the action scenes fit together and in the stunning final shots.

An enjoyable adventure film that benefits from first class work all round, The Vikings is a must for film historians and a pleasure for the rest of us.

Reviewed on: 13 Oct 2017
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A slave ignorant of his Viking heritage challenges a powerful Viking lord after falling in love with the English princess he intends to marry.

Director: Richard Fleischer

Writer: Calder Willingham, Dale Wasserman

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Ernest Borgnine

Year: 1958

Runtime: 116 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, West Germany


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