The rough and rowdy world of the ancient Norsemen comes to life both vividly and brutally in Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings.
The Production: 3.5/5
The rough and rowdy world of the ancient Norsemen comes to life both vividly and brutally in Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings. Filmed on an epic scale with a huge cast, several top stars in showy roles, and some of the most breathtaking scenery on the globe photographed by a legendary Oscar-winning cinematographer, The Vikings is one of the more fondly remembered popcorn movies from the 1950s.
Viking king Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) returns from a raid on Northumbria having killed their King Edwin and impregnated their queen (Maxine Audley) who secretly gives birth to a son who is spirited away to Italy to escape discovery by the new tyrannical king Aella (Frank Thring). Twenty years later, the young man Eric (Tony Curtis) is captured by the Vikings as a slave to serve Ragnar’s legitimate son Einar (Kirk Douglas). Also escaping from Northumbria is Egbert (James Donald) who had been giving the Vikings inside information on vulnerable English territories in exchange for his lands being left unharmed. Now in Norway, he offers to draw detailed maps of all of the strategic weak points on the Northumbria coasts and strongholds and also furnishes them with information on how they can take captive Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh) from Wales who is to be King Aella’s wife. Once in the Vikings’ hands, however, both Einar and Eric decide they can’t live without her, a rivalry that must eventually play out once the Vikings have finally subdued the English in Northumbria.
The film takes quite a long time getting started as Calder Willingham’s screenplay (based on the novel by Edison Marshall) must establish all of the key players in the drama and show the tangled relationships that exist between them (and never addresses the fact that the Norse and the English understand one another’s languages). Key to the conflicts between the principals working dramatically is that for most of the film, only two people are in possession of the knowledge that Douglas’ Einar and Curtis’ Eric are half-brothers: Egbert and an English priest Father Godwin (Alexander Knox). So the murderous relationship between the two really carries tremendous ironically dramatic weight even into the final showdown between the two men, staged and filmed beautifully in one of the more realistic battles between stars in that particular era of filmmaking. Throughout the film, however, director Richard Fleischer has allowed cinematographer Jack Cardiff to capture both the astounding beauty of the Norwegian fjords as well as the brutality and violence that was part and parcel of the life of the Norsemen. We see a vicious hawk attack (which gives Kirk Douglas’ Einar his signature look for the movie), a possible death in a crab pool, ax throwing as a means of determining guilt or innocence, a typical Viking burial, and all of the brawling and brutality incumbent to those people and their way of life. Fleischer also handles the final attack on the English adroitly with the hundreds of extras shooting and dodging arrows and boulders galore and some impressive shots of Douglas scaling the outside castle walls (occasionally with the camera above shooting downward showing us it’s really him doing the stunts). It’s big and burly and almost completely captivating only occasionally losing its pacing in the middle sections as Morgana struggles with her feelings in the romantic interludes which can’t possibly match the interest drummed up with the various action set pieces like sea battles and suicide by jumping into a pit of ravenous wolves.
Working with director Richard Fleischer for a second time after their experience with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kirk Douglas gives a robust performance though allegedly it was not a harmonious shoot (Douglas was the producer here and thus felt free to exert his power frequently). Tony Curtis handles the action stuff quite skillfully and certainly gains audience sympathy enduring the taunts from his rival throughout the movie. Ernest Borgnine throws himself into the film with gusto tossing his head back continually with hearty laughter as he beams with pride over his aggressive son Einar. Frank Thring makes a fittingly sneering yet spineless tyrant while James Donald as the pragmatic Egbert offers reliable support. Janet Leigh is certainly beautiful as the center point of the movie’s love triangle, but the script doesn’t present her with much in the way of dramatic opportunity. Eileen Way has some wonderful scenes as the soothsayer Kitala.
3D Rating: NA
The film has been framed at 2.35:1 and is presented in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. At its best, the images are bright, crisp, and startlingly beautiful, and close-ups reveal nice detail in facial features and hair. Color is generally excellent with realistic and appealing skin tones. Black levels, however, aren’t the transfer’s strongest element, and there are dust specks and little bits of debris off and on throughout the presentation. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The sound mix offered here is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Dialogue has been expertly recorded and comes through loud and clear, and Mario Nascimbene’s memorable music themes add another layer of class to the production even if the low end is occasionally lacking a bit in impact. Atmospheric effects also blend nicely with the other elements without dominating them for a well-balanced sound mix. No age-related problems with hiss or crackle make themselves known.
Special Features: 2/5
A Tale of Norway (28:16, SD): director Richard Fleischer shares many of his behind-the-scenes photos of the production as he reminisces about the arduous two years of pre and post production work on the movie. Numerous film clips are also used as he recalls memorable moments from the filming.
Trailer Gallery: a series of trailers from Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray releases featuring the stars and director of the movie: The Vikings (3:26, SD), The Devil’s Disciple (2:56, HD), Taras Bulba (3:34, SD), Marty (2:59, SD), and Mr. Majestyk (1:33, SD).
One of the most fondly remembered and most popular of the 1950s screen epics, The Vikings comes to Blu-ray in a fine looking high definition transfer that was worth the wait.