Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Vikings (1958)

A couple of years before making Spartacus together, Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis played the rival leads of this period piece.  They're joined by Curtis's then wife Janet Leigh, and a scarily young Ernest Borgnine.  The latter plays the father of Douglas's character, despite Douglas actually being older than Borgnine in real life.  Ahh, the movies.

Not many films can be a Spartacus of course, and this isn't one of them.  Borgnine is pretty entertaining as the bluff viking chief Ragnar, and Douglas has all the swagger necessary to play his bloodthirsty son, Einar.  But things are not so rosy on the 'white helmet' side of the equation.  Curtis and Leigh are capable enough performers, but the script gives them nothing much to work with.  In particular, their romance is laughably thin.

The movie begins with the crowning of a new king in Northumbria.  The previous king was killed by the vikings, and his queen raped by Ragnar.  She is secretly with child, and after the boy is born she sends him off to Italy to be raised.  Then twenty years go by.

The current Northumbrian King, Aella, arrests one of his nobles as a spy for the vikings, but the man escapes and - his treachery being real and not just the king's imaginings - runs off to Ragnar.  There he meets Einar and the slave, Eric, who he recognises as the former Queen's missing son due to a stone the young man carries.

Einar and Eric don't like one another very much, of course, and that rivalry escalates to attempted murder in very short order.  It escalates still further, if such is possible, when the vikings kidnap King Aella's intended bride, Morgana.

I've already identified one of the weaknesses of the film, which is the blandness of Eric and Morgana.  There are two more.  The first of these is the relative weakness of the climactic battle scenes.  There's a lot of 'I will stand here awkwardly with my sword raised until you turn around, and then I will attack you'.  It's probably harsh to criticise the film for this, given its age, but if you're used to the much more slick choreography of modern films, you'll notice it.

The other weakness is a lot less excusable: the film can't decide who its bad guy is.  It starts out as Aella, becomes Ragnar and Einar, then just Einar, then Aella again, before Einar gets a last hurrah as the antagonist ... followed by a heroic burial.  I guess if you squint you could see this as an attempt to portray a more complex ethical situation than we normally see in films, but it comes across as a muddle in execution.

This isn't a bad film by any stretch, but there's really nothing especially memorable or interesting about it.  Not something you need to seek out.

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