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Monday, July 18, 2016

The Vikings

By the time Kirk Douglas made The Vikings in 1958, we was a very big star and produced his own movies, as he did with this one. He also wasn't afraid to play an anti-hero, as he did here (although some could see him as simply playing the villain).

Directed by Richard Fleischer, the creative team sought accuracy in everything about the Viking society, from clothes to ships to rituals. That all rings true, even if the standard '50s melodrama weights things down. It could have been more a boys' adventure than a romance, but I suppose they wanted women to see the picture, too.

In some narration by an uncredited Orson Welles, we learn that Vikings have been raiding the English coast for decades. Britain, at that time, did not have a central king or capital. A Viking raiding party, led by Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) kills the king of Northumbria and impregnates his wife. The supercilious Aella (Frank Thring) takes the throne. The baby is sent to Italy, with the pommel of the king's sword around his neck.

Flash forward twenty years. Ragnar is still king, and he has a manly son (Douglas--though he was a few months older than Borgnine in real life). He is showing an English spy the sport of falconry when they come across a slave (Tony Curtis) with the best bird. Douglas accuses him of stealing it,so Curtis sics the bird on Douglas, blinding him in one eye. From then on the two will cross paths and be enemies and allies, and of course it is revealed early on that Curtis is that baby, and that he and Douglas are in actuality brothers.

The Vikings is full of interesting history, such as that the Vikings didn't sail in open waters because a compass had not yet been invented and they were afraid to get caught in fog so they couldn't navigate by stars. They were also a macho bunch, determined to die with a sword in their hands so they could get to Valhalla, the place of rest for warriors.

That's all fine, but the other major character, a Welsh princess played by Janet Leigh, is the plot mechanism and it just isn't interesting. Douglas lusts after her, Curtis loves her (he and Leigh were married in real life) and Leigh just spends the film looking frightened.

The scenery, filmed in the fjords of Norway, is spectacular, with great photography by Jack Cardiff, who later made his own Viking picture, The Longships.

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