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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: "The Long Ships"



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#1 of 7 OFFLINE   StuartGalbraith

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Posted June 19 2003 - 05:10 PM

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DVD Review – The Long Ships
Director, Jack Cardiff; Producer, Irving Allen; Screenplay, Berkely Mather and Beverley Cross, based on the novel by Frans Bengtsson; Director of Photography, Christopher Challis; Art Directors, Vlastimir Gavrik and Zoran Zorcic; Editor, Geoffrey Foot; Music, Dusan Radic; Assistant Director, Michael Reeves.
Cast: Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Rosanna Schiaffino, Russ Tamblyn, Oscar Homolka, Edward Judd, Lionel Jeffries, Beba Loncar, Clifford Evans, Colin Blakely, Gordon Jackson.
A Warwick / Avala Production. A Columbia Pictures Release. Color (prints by Technicolor). Super Technirama 70. 125 minutes. No MPAA Rating. Released (in the U.S.) June 24, 1964.

DVD: Released by Columbia / TriStar Home Entertainment. Street Date June 24, 2003. $24.95
2.20:1 / 16:9.
Dolby Digital Mono. Subtitles in English, French, Japanese, Korean.
Special Features: Trailer (matted, non-anamorphic).

Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV

Entertaining but often inexplicably goofy, The Long Ships is a cliché-ridden adventure yarn about Vikings and Moors vying for a mythic and gigantic bell made of solid gold. It's a very odd picture, from its offbeat though not very successful casting of actors not usually associated with such films, to the weird shifts in tone, from earnest historical adventure to oddball slapstick. Perhaps most strange is the fact that the director had previously shot the best Viking movie ever, only to direct this peculiar Yugoslavian-British co-production.

One of the all-time great cinematographers, Jack Cardiff had a long and impressive list of collaborations with the likes of Powell & Pressburger, Hitchcock, John Huston, and others before turning his attentions to directing in the late-1950s. Cardiff had shot The Vikings (1958) for director Richard Fleischer, and that film, like The Long Ships, was shot in the horizontal Technirama process. The Vikings, which MGM released to DVD last May, was one of the year's best-looking DVDs; a beautiful transfer, the film represented Cardiff at the top of his form. His cinematography, combined with Fleischer's great skill with large-scale, complex productions, resulted in a vividly exciting epic, one that is both unpretentious yet thrillingly made.

With The Long Ships, Cardiff was returning to much the same territory, but the results are singularly flaccid. Neither Cardiff's direction nor the photography of Christopher Challis (who had served under Cardiff on several films) are very inspired. And where The Vikings somehow successfully immersed viewers into the world of Norse life, the script for The Long Ships (co-written by Beverley Cross, who wrote several Ray Harryhausen films) is hopeless, with lines even the actors seem to be openly smirking at.

Richard Widmark is as Richard Widmark nearly always does, saying all his lines with a kind of well-enunciated contempt. As a wily rogue in search of treasure, he's about as believable as Lionel Jeffries' blackface eunuch. Worse still is Sidney Poitier, playing Widmark's Moorish rival, encumbered with a giant wig that makes him look like James Brown. Where Widmark overacts, Poitier underplays every scene by stoically looking around the room and counting to ten before every line. And he does this constantly. Rather than create any intended intensity such acting instead becomes comic. It's one of Poitier's few bad performances.

This is not to say The Long Ships is terrible. Hardly. There is a lot of action and a neat twist near the climax. But where those who don't normally watch old movies can still enjoy The Vikings, The Long Ships appears clumsy and dated. It's not even as good as that other Vikings and Moors epic, The 13th Warrior (1999).

How is the Transfer?
Another problem with The Long Ships is the transfer. MGM's DVD of The Vikings looked sensational, but Columbia's release here is unimpressive. I suspect they didn't / couldn't access the original horizontal format negative. What was used may have even been a dupe negative, based on the graininess of the image and the lack of good contrast. The film looks fine during daytime scenes, but day-for-night shots look hazy, and the script's many scenes involving fog compound this. The contrast and general darkness of these scenes sometimes threaten to render Pointier nearly opaque.

The mono sound matches the image. It's okay for general dialogue, but once the music kicks in and battle scenes commence, the shortcomings of the soundtrack become sadly apparent. A 70mm release, The Long Ships was likely exhibited in six-track magnetic stereo; I can't verify this, but it seems highly unlikely to me that a stereo mix was never done. A similar controversy reigns with Zulu, also released in Super Technirama 70 at about the same time. Some insist it was always mono but, in the case of Zulu anyway, my Region 2 (Japan) DVD sure sounds like true stereo to me.

Special Features
The only special feature is a dog-eared trailer, presented very slightly matted (and cut off on the sides). It is not anamorphic, but at least has its narration and text intact.

Parting Thoughts
From its odd but ineffective title design and prologue by Maurice Binder (of James Bond fame) to its climatic battle scenes, The Long Ships is a real curio. A slapstick sequence midway through the film (fleeing Vikings throw caution to the wind mid-escape and literally leap into a harem filled with pretty maidens) suggests that at some point everyone realized they were heading for disaster and opted to bring a more light-hearted approach for the rest of the shoot. That may not be the case, but the film that was made is an inconsistent, though amusing hodgepodge.


#2 of 7 OFFLINE   Joe Caps

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Posted June 19 2003 - 10:24 PM

the Long Shipw ws certainly stereo when I saw it in New York. It didn't help a boring movie.
There is NO controversay about Zulu. this was a major stereo release and was a stereo laserdisc to boot.

#3 of 7 OFFLINE   alan halvorson

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Posted June 20 2003 - 12:24 AM

Yeah, it's a pretty bad and strange film, to say the least. But I'll still get it because these sort of films are right up my alley.
They're coming to take me away, ha-haaa!!
They're coming to take me away, ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-haaa To the funny farm. Where life is beautiful all the time and I'll be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats and they're coming to take me away, ha-haaa!!!!!
- Napoleon XIV

#4 of 7 OFFLINE   Bob Cashill

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Posted June 20 2003 - 12:42 AM

Of the film, Widmark once commented, "When I want to punish my kids, I make them watch THE LONG SHIPS."

#5 of 7 OFFLINE   Steve_Ch

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Posted June 20 2003 - 07:18 AM

I think I saw it in 65, really enjoyed it, now that I am almost 40 years older, probably just Netflix it for nostaglia Posted Image .

#6 of 7 OFFLINE   Terry Hickey

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Posted June 21 2003 - 04:26 PM

I first saw it when I was 11 years old. I will be getting it because I enjoyed it back then. No, it's not a "classic"
but I found it entertaining. Some may trash it, some may enjoy it, but it's different strokes for different folks.
 

#7 of 7 OFFLINE   Crosley Carpenter

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Posted June 22 2003 - 03:02 PM

Thanks for the review Stuart, I'm enjoying reading your reviews and your selection of sometimes less obvious titles for review.

My father took me to see The Long Ships when I was about 8 or 9, it's funny how you remember some things and not others. I'm fairly sure I saw it screened in 70mm, possibly why it made a big impression on me at the time. That was a long time ago, I hope I am remembering the correct film, but if so, it had some fairly spectacular scenes involving a big bell and a giant blade.

I'll probably buy the DVD, but after reading this review, wonder whether I'll be asking myself what I ever saw in the film in the first place !