Richard Fleischer / US / 1958 / 116mins
Available on Blu-ray
Just as Hollywood was coming to terms with the talkies, suddenly along came another innovation: colour. Technicolor was the most famous brand of the process and many filmmakers didn’t know what to do with it. World War II shortages meant that colour films were largely put on the backburner, but come the 1950s, biblical epics and big MGM musicals loved studio colour. The Vikings, however, took the bulky three-strip Technicolor cameras on tour to exotic locations (Norway and France) to create a stupendous visual feast. The blue of the fjords and the green of the mountains make for a glorious backdrop.
The story involves Prince Einer played by Kirk Douglas and his nemesis and half-brother Prince Eric (Tony Curtis) who get into assorted scrapes, such as when Einer spectacularly loses an eye by way of Eric’s hawk. The film is less famous than the later Spartacus (which also starred Douglas and Curtis) but just as rewarding. The two films have many similarities; most notably, a respect for costume drama without the cheese. In The Vikings, there’s a princess in distress (Janet Leigh, then married to Curtis) and an un-recognisably bearded Ernest Borgnine and sonorous opening narration from Orson Welles. Hosts of extras complement gorgeously-framed and beautifully-photographed (by Jack Cardiff) landscapes, longships, guffawing warriors, pillaging villagers, and sorcery. There’s many a horned beaker of foaming ale and Douglas does a balletic running-the-oars routine that’s daring and fun. It will come as no surprise that much of the art direction (Harper Goff) was based on museum research.
With a damn catchy theme – a jingle for the god Odin – and plenty of action, there is also some vaguely sadomasochistic set pieces, as when Curtis is strapped to the rocks to be nibbled by crabs and a woman has her pigtails hacked off by flying axes for suspected adultery. Thanks to some superior acting, direction, location work and fight sequences (with one set vertiginously on a castle turret), this movie is elevated from the average sword’n’sandal epic to an extraordinary degree. Big budget movie hokum doesn’t get better than this.