Erik the Conqueror
In “Gli Imatori”, a visual essay featured in an uncharacteristically spartan selection of arrow video features, Michael Mackenzie comments on Italian cinema’s propensity to copy (escape from New York becomes 2019: After the Fall of New York, for example) as this latest Mario Bava title released under the now transatlantic label is an unofficial remake of Richard Fleischer’s [the] Vikings. That film is Erik the Conqueror.
Set in the 9th century, Bava’s film follows the violent lives of King Harald’s offspring, Erik (George Ardisson) and Eron (Cameron Mitchell) as they are separated as children after an unsuccessful Scandinavian raid on the British isles. Erik is raised as the adoptive child of Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe), and Eron climbs to power in his native Scandinavia. 20 years later both men attack each other oblivious to who they are declaring war on. As Mackenzie concludes in his essay, Bava adds an Italian flavour to tale of vikings and knights in the shape of the Kessler twins (Ellen and Alice) who play a pair of distinctly Roman vestigial virgins. With this mix of Italian touches, remake and history we already have a plenty convoluted picture, and it goes even further with a series of twists and turns that sees the two brothers reunited and ready to face the British army in their mountaintop castle for the melodramatic climax.
Mario Bava is renowned for making great use out of minimal resources and budgets, through his Giallo films it would be an easy to conclude that the Italian legend is of the greatest masters of lighting a scene. As we are introduced to Eron and his compatriots, the film heads for what looks like a deep underground cavern amidst the roots of a great ancient tree. By using deep purples, green’s and an elaborate dance number it transforms this establishing scene from something found in a historical epic to something with more resemblance to fantasy or sci-fi (think Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet). A solidly entertaining if played-out 1960s viking movie becomes a expressive and unpredictable playground for one of cinema’s greatest visual stylists.
Contrast is one of Erik the Conqueror’s key platforms, the quietest and most interesting of which is how close Erik and Eron’s societies are. In theory the world of knights and royalty is classical, humble and thoughtful especially when compared to the savagery of a race of warriors who sacrifice and kill their own in the name of the gods. Now whether this is intentional or it only comes to the fore when the world is stylised to such an extreme remains to be seen, but these worlds are opposite side of the same coin. References to Christian iconography as being more significance than the sum of their parts or the unusual election process dictated by the throwing of axes, the likenesses accentuate the bullheadedness that pushed both these forces to declare war on one another. Its the closeness that helps the brothers reunion work rather than being a rushed beat of character development – which it would be without it.
When you talk or write about Arrow Video releases as much as we do, one of the most common compliments paid is in regards to the mastering. And while that is as true here as it ever was, with all the natural aging to ensure it maintains its personality – think audio purists and their preference for Vinyl – however as much as that quality gives to Erik the Conqueror it takes away in what is possible the most important scene in any film. Despite the campiness of the genre, music and costumes, the film reaches its emotional peak then ends all too suddenly. Head over to the extras and you’ll find the reason why, the original ending was deleted as the only version that remains of it is from a burned out VHS tape. Abrupt it may be but it is explainable.
The typical Mario Bava film is more of a vehicle for practical effects and style than narrative, and when someone was as masterful as he was it is perfectly understandable why he loaded his work in such a way. The story of two siblings separated by violence and fate may be as old as time itself, nonetheless Bava handles it with supreme ease and turns out an undeniably shallow film but one that is consistently entertaining, romantic and ultimately rather moving. It may not appeal to the typical audience but for a company with such a strong ethos of bringing the cult, oddball and forgotten to the world – expanding their appeal rather than narrowing it is no bad thing.