30 Days, 30 Classics – Day 23: The Vikings (1958) starring Kirk Douglas
Posted on October 25, 2012
The Vikings was one of my favourite movies growing up and so I revisited it today with some trepidation. Would it be as good as I recalled? Back then I saw The Vikings as a rip-roaring adventure filled with danger at every turn. The battles were epic and the locations mesmerising. But would it live up to my expectations?
Based on Edison Marshall’s novel The Viking, the film was the third most popular movie at the British box office in 1958. It was also the second collaboration between director Richard Fleischer and actor Kirk Douglas who had previously worked together on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
“An epic adventure with stunning locations… thrilling and action packed”
The Vikings begins with narration from Orson Welles, offering light background on the history of the vikings and their reputation as brutal invaders. Set to animated medieval drawings, this prologue perfectly sets the tone for the story that follows. The live action then opens on a viking raid. The English King of Northumbria is slaughtered and his Queen defiled. She bears a child, the son of a viking, but sends him away to be raised in Italy. Twenty years later, this child, Eric, is living as a slave to the vikings who are plotting an invasion of Northumbria. When the vikings kidnap Welsh Princess, Morgana (Janet Leigh), who is betrothed to the King of Northumbria, viking warrior Einar (Kirk Douglas) and slave Eric (Tony Curtis) are pitted against one another in a vicious feud.
What makes The Vikings so gripping is that it’s never clear cut whose side the audience is supposed to be on. The Vikings are presented as brutal, hot blooded and cruel – they tie a man up in a tidal pool to let him be eaten by crabs, and decide whether a wife has been unfaithful by throwing axes at her head – but they also have a warmth and unity that makes them appealing. The Northumbrian King, on the other hand, is cold, suspicious and ruthless – dispatching his enemies in a pit full of hungry wolves. Frank Thring plays him as fantastically wicked – narrowing his eyes and pursing his lips at every opportunity. Eric’s mixed heritage – half British, half-viking – adds an interesting dynamic, especially as he is not aware of his own background.
The cinematography from Jack Cardiff (The African Queen) is incredible. Filmed on location in Norway, Cardiff captures the natural beauty of the Fjords and the savageness of the landscape. The attention to detail in the creation of the sets and props is immense. A whole norse village was built in the middle of the Fjord and the three life-size, replica long boats provide a magnificent spectacle as they sail below the mountains. The Vikings is visually impressive and the quality of the locations, sets and props make it as immersive as any modern CGI historical drama. The choice of locations is exceptional. The final battle takes place on the turrets of a spectacular castle, perched on cliffs high above the sea. As the last showdown plays out, the camera is angled high above the characters, capturing the untamed ocean waves below.
Yet The Vikings is not without an impression of Hollywood. The viking characters played by Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine have American accents and Eric cavorts about in super short tunics for the majority of the film. While the battle scenes are not as gory as I remembered – arrows through the neck are ten-a-penny these days in historical fantasies such as Game Of Thrones – they still convey the brutality of the medieval world. The battle scenes are also well directed by Fleischer who begins creating eerie suspense during the voyages and takes time to build tension, resisting the temptation to leap straight into the action. Before the final battle, the camera tracks down the line of viking assailants, all fixed with resolute expressions and ready to attack. There is silence and the tension builds. Then an overwhelming war cry breaks the suspense and the final action sequences begin.
Today, The Vikings is every bit as exciting and mesmerising as I remembered. It’s an epic adventure with stunning locations that captures the imagination of children and adults alike. Thrilling and action packed, there’s also something eerie about the longboats and their journey across the misty North Sea. In the words of my Dad, The Vikings is ‘just brilliant’. And I mustn’t sign off from this feature without mentioning the simple but haunting theme music from Mario Nascimbene – my favourite theme of all time.