The Vikings (1958)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 April 2012 (3.15 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

With a respectful nod to Mad Men, my favourite show on TV at the moment is Game of Thrones, the lavish adaptation of George R R Martin’s historically inspired series of fantasy novels. HBO have done a fantastic job of bringing a complicated, adult narrative to the screen and doing so reverentially whilst introducing elements that weren’t in the text. The casting is almost entirely spot on, producing some top drawer acting. There’s a feeling of authenticity to its sets and locations; real care has been put into its production values, which reach easily the impeccable standards we’ve come to expect of HBO. If I have a small criticism of the show, it is the endless shoehorning in of nudity and sex. I’m no prude and Martin’s books are by nobody’s measure safe for the faint-hearted. Yet an episode can’t pass without a visit to the brothel, or a coupling of some kind, often a sex scene that is only implied as taking place in the text but here made clear and graphic.

It seems a strange thing to have a beef about, but then I’m not 14. Sometimes, I’d prefer it if this kind of thing happened off-screen, insinuated without the need to unfold before my eyes in messy detail. It makes me hark back to a cinema age when this is exactly how sex was dealt with, when the most we saw was a passionate kiss with all the promise it suggested. It makes me reminisce over a matinee classic like The Vikings, sort of a forebear to Game of Thrones with its culling of historical sources for the purpose of entertainment.

The Vikings is now more than fifty years old, and in places it feels like it. Some of the dialogue comes straight from that rotten stable of clichés and stilted hackneyism, the rotten nonsense you imagine the actors having to stifle the giggles whilst quoting. In an almost unbearable courtship scene between Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, the former has to come out with ‘Let’s not question our flesh for wanting to remain flesh’ and keep a straight face. Fortunately, the chemistry is intact thanks to the pair being real-life spouses at the time, but it’s arm-gnawing stuff.

Like all historical epics, there’s a certain obviousness to the plot that was utterly standard for this fare, yet otherwise The Vikings is a definite cut above. For one thing, there’s the trim running time. It sails home at under two hours, ensuring the padding that slowed many of these films down just isn’t there. Perhaps this was because Viking villages weren’t as costly to replicate as Roman sets, so the camera didn’t need to linger on them. The slowest it gets is during the scenes of merriment in Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) mead hall; elsewhere the pace is consistently nifty and dull moments are rare.

The research that went into The Vikings was impressive. Longboats were built to real historical specifications; it was gleaned almost too late that human beings were generally shorter and stockier a thousand years ago, which made being an oarsman on set a cramped experience. Village sets, costumes and weaponry were also designed to comply with what is known of the time. That’s a real Norwegian fjord the longboat’s sailing alongside, etc. The sense of and need for authenticity was practised as well as preached by the film’s star and co-producer, Kirk Douglas, who not only spent the majority of it wearing an enormously painful contact lens but also performed the famous oar run for real, several times, he and the stuntmen who were doing it alongside him.

Veteran action film director Richard Fleischer was drafted to do an economical job of helming the picture (which led to his nomination for Outstanding Direction by the Directors Guild of America), but the real credits belong elsewhere. Jack Cardiff was Director of Photography, churning out those wonderful, evocative shots of longboats cruising home, or disappearing into the mists. In one breathtaking scene,  Douglas’s character hears Ragnar’s ship approaching. He leaves his house to take a look, which just happens to be down a sheer cliff face, the boat a toy in the distance. I also fell in love with Mario Nascimbene’s score, which carried shades of Wagnerian grandeur and sweep but also seemed kind of melancholic. The arrangement as the Vikings leave their home for the Kingdom of Northumbria suggests the reality – not all of them are going to make it back…

After that, the rest of the film’s treats come in a generous shower. The Vikings has one of the loveliest credit sequences I’ve seen in any film, a series of animated scenes inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry as we are treated to a potted history of the people, which is narrated by the appropriately grandiose Orson Welles. That’s just the opening salvo, a promise of adventure, brotherly feuds, brilliantly staged sword fights with the music muted to let the satisfying clang of the blades ring true, Douglas and Curtis at their lusty best, Leigh at her most incredibly beautiful… There’s even a chance it could teach a thing or two to many newer productions.

The Vikings: ****

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6 Replies to “The Vikings (1958)”

  1. You like this film, don’t you Mike? 🙂
    Me too, as it happens. Douglas’ full-blooded bravado is given the perfect outlet, something that wasn’t always the case. Borgnine, Curtis and Leigh are all fine too, but you’re right about some of that godawful dialogue. I’m not sure that the problem lies in the age of the film – some of the best dialogue ever written can be found in much older productions than this one – as much as it does in the genre. The historical epic all too often fell prey to the writers’ tendencies to come up with unbelievably trite and unnatural utterances, seemingly in the mistaken belief that such flowery codswallop in some way added to the period authenticity.

    Good to see you highlighted Jack Cardiff’s artistry with the camera. His work turns a pretty good movie into something a bit special.

    1. Thanks Colin. Re. the dialogue, there’s a good comparison with the film you covered over the weekend, Criss Cross, and the noir genre in general. In that film, the dialogue crackles, especially the little barbs flying between Anna and Steve that hint at all the history they share, but then I guess dialogue really mattered in film noir. Similarly, I love the banter between the characters in Miller’s Crossing, a more recent noir made by people who clearly loved the genre. The Vikings on the other hand is far from alone amongst epics in its stagey scripting, indeed even more modern takes like Gladiator aren’t much better. Is it something to do with coming up with heavy, portentous dialogue to try and fit the scale of the overall piece? I don’t know, but it somehow seemed worse with Tony Curtis, especially considering his work outside the genre. Who talks like that anyway? I’m sure Vikings, the pirates of their day, were the last people to come out with such leaden nonsense.

      But as you say I do like it a lot, in fact it’s become one of my favourite historical epics over the years. Cardiff’s work is one, very significant part of it, but what really sticks with me is the score. There just seems to be a real sense of underlying lamentation about it, as though Nascimbene wanted to tease out the feeling that it’s a lost time in history and it’ll never return. Well, that’s what I got from it anyway.

      1. Oh yes, Gladiator, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander all have some shocking nonsense being spoken throughout. I do like a good epic, but it’s often necessary to have a kind of subconscious filter in place to deal with crummy dialogue. And yes, it does feel like the writers are overtaken by a sense that they have to convey that these are important events and towering figures on screen, and so mangle the words they give them to emphasise their stature.

        Hmm, hadn’t thought of the score in that way before. You do have a point though about it’s having a kind of mournful quality. It’s certainly quite different from the usual bombastically triumphant scores the classic epics seemed to employ.

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