Truly Epic: The Vikings (1958)

The VikingsNo earthly power could have saved the videocassette, its coppery bowels mangled and limply hanging out of its ruptured belly, like the entrails of a dying warrior.

This now-useless object had enlivened more evenings with my family than I could possibly count. My father remembered The Vikings from his boyhood. He recognized the movie and insisted on acquiring it when we went to buy a bundle of orphaned videotapes at the closing sale of a local video store, as the VHS format was rapidly expiring.

I didn’t know it at the time, but The Vikings had been one of my grandfather’s favorite films. I never met my grandfather, so hearing that he had loved this movie—to the point that he would even imitate the haunting sound of the Viking trumpets—made me feel close to him.

I clutched the tape. My parents looked at me with sadness. “On the count of three,” I said. They knew what to do. “One, two, three…”

“OOOOOOODDIIIIIIINNNNN!” We cried in unison, invoking out the name of the Norse King of the Gods, in ardent hopes that the spirit of this VHS cassette would go straight to the video store in the sky.

Why do I love The Vikings? Passionately, ardently, unreasonably? Because it’s in my blood. I will fight anyone who deprecates this saga.

The Vikings

For instance, the film editors of The UK Guardian, whom I usually respect, brought down a vendetta on their unsuspecting heads with their take on this classic. The article in question didn’t even mention that the legendary Jack Cardiff served as the DoP. The Guardian‘s reviewer gave The Vikings a C+ overall grade for being too silly.

(UPDATE 2016: Wow, I was kind of a bitch at age 22, huh?)

Whoa, now, 99% of movies, from Casablanca to Manos: The Hands of Fate could be accused of being silly or unrealistic. And the other 1% are usually pretentious and dry as dust. Seriously, if you want to downgrade a film on that basis, you will not find a single A+ among narrative cinema, I attest.

Here are 10 reasons to watch this masterpiece that dances on the line between sublime and ridiculous. And, just a warning, there are some spoilers in reason number one.

10.  Tony Curtis in leather hotpants and proto-UGGs boots.

Tony has breached court etiquette, I’m assuming. (This is where the silly comes in.)

9. A superb prologue voiced by Orson Welles… over credits styled like the Bayeux Tapestry.

8. One of the most strikingly violent scenes in cinema history up to that time.

Not much is shown, but there’s something so primordially frightening about a man losing his eye to a hawk.

The Vikings

7. The script, full of so-obvious-it’s-genius wisdom along the lines of:

“We’ll talk this over later—when you’re more drunk or more sober.” (Borgnine as Ragnar to his son, Einar.)

“Love and hate are two horns on the same goat.” (Spoken by the soothsayer Kitala)

“Take your magic elsewhere, holy man.” (Spoken by uber-viking Einar as he crashes through a Christian church window)

6. An astonishing, symphonic score by Mario Nascimbene.

Lots of male choir chanting, soprano wailing, and epic horns—perfect to accompany grandiose shots like this one below. Music like the love child of Richard Wagner and Ennio Morricone.

5. You’ll witness the resurrection of an ancient custom.

This stunt, jumping along the oars of a Viking ship, hadn’t been done for over a thousand years before the making of this film. Stuntmen were queued up and all ready to go when Kirk Douglas insisted that he go first. The cast and crew expected him to fall, but, to their amazement, as the camera rolled, Douglas leapt from oar to oar with flawless technique. It’s caught on film. It’s uncanny.

4. Because it’s so raw and… male.

A certain fantasy world (not mine, since I have two X chromosomes) comes alive. And, hey, I’d rather you watch movies like this than be like this.

3. Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine gnawing the scenery—to brilliant effect.

2. Cinematography by Jack Cardiff

Largely filmed on location in Kvinnherad, Norway and on the Hardanger Fjord. Pure Technicolor rapture.

1. Because the film has an irresistible mythic power.

A man loses a hand to give a clean death to an enemy—who turns out to be his father.

Brother versus brother, each ready to hack each other apart for a kingdom and a woman—in a climactic fight of dizzying high angles.

I give director Richard Fleischer (of The Narrow Margin and Armored Car Robbery talent) a lot of the credit for this moving work, possessed of a virility and splashy poetry that doesn’t exist in any other big-budget film I can think of.

He gave this story a soul—it’s about a cruel barbarian who becomes human at the exact moment before he dies. He cannot bring himself to kill his brother, and so dies at his brother’s hand. All that depth is communicated without a word in the film’s climactic fight scene. The Vikings revives the brutal, direct beauty of the silent cinema.

You must give this film a look. Movies can be great in many different ways. The Vikings is great—though, not in the same way as Citizen Kane or —because its colorful, rough-hewn spectacle and stripped-down plot tap into some primal part of human nature. Melodramatic, operatic, and grand, The Vikings entertains and serves up moments of pure cinema.

Whatever you do, though, you will probably not have the solemn pleasure I had in grieving for a VHS of The Vikings so loved that it cracked into pieces and ascended to Valhalla.

Nevertheless, I still encourage that you cry, “ODIN!” when it’s all over.

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3 thoughts on “Truly Epic: The Vikings (1958)

  1. The Vikings fight scene in the castle was filmed at Fort La Latte on the north Brittany, France, coast. I visited it on a recent holiday. Visitors can still climb those steps on the curved roof of the Keep!

  2. I suppose it would come as little surprise to know I loved this film as a child – indeed still do. And Nascimbene’s sound track is one of the greatest in its genre – and rather “catchy.”

  3. After wanting to watch this for a long time due to your review, I finally did this morning and it was awesome! Walking the line between sublime and ridiculous is the best way to put it. I usually dislike the Hollywood historical epics of the 1950s, but The Vikings is something else entirely. Thank you for writing this analysis, otherwise I never would have watched it. ODINNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!

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