Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Across a Sea without Conversation

There are so many great elements to Richard Fleischer's 1958 film The Vikings. It's an incredible and unique looking movie, shot by Jack Cardiff. It features an energetic and interesting performance by Kirk Douglas, a stunningly gorgeous Janet Leigh, narration by Orson Welles, and amazing, copious location shots in Norway, Croatia, and France. Which makes it all the more a pity that the movie as a whole doesn't hold together due to limply constructed lead characters.

Tony Curtis stars as a Viking slave who also, unbeknownst to him, is heir to the English throne. It's his total lack of personality that mostly sinks this film. There's one scene where some attempt is made to inject some flavour, where he rips Janet Leigh's dress so she has an easier time rowing after he's rescued her, but it feels forced and awkward.

Kirk Douglas' character, the Viking Erik, son of the Viking leader Ragnar, is more interesting--he's at the centre of a curiously sympathetically portrayed, for the 50s, bloodthirsty pack of Vikings. It's maybe these tricky moral waters that led to a lack of focus in Erik's characterisation, as he switches at times from petty villain to a man whose conscience is struggling to come out. Off screen conflict between Douglas and Fleischer on how the character ought to be portrayed may also have led to some muddle, but Douglas' performance keeps your attention.

The Vikings are unambiguously established as murderers, rapists, and thieves and when Janet Leigh's English princess Morgana is captured, we fear for her as Erik seems a very real and present threat even though the plot weakly establishes a need to keep the hostage undamaged.

The scene where Erik's longboat attacks Morgana's cog is terrific, even though one suspects a single longboat would have greater difficulty taking out a well armed cog; the Vikings were throwing spears against English longbowmen at the higher elevation and better defended position afforded by the cog. But the scene is great simply for the fact that the people are clearly on actual ships.

The look is the real star of this movie. I wish I'd seen it while I was making Venia's Travels--this is so close to the look I was going for. The costumes are gorgeous, and of course Jack Cardiff's cinematography is great as always. Cardiff and Fleischer also made Conan the Destroyer, almost thirty years later, and there's certainly a similar feel though The Destroyer's budget was clearly much smaller. Conan the Destroyer is the better film for characters rendered far better, but The Vikings definitely wins on visuals.

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