It’s strange, on the face of it, that there aren’t more movies about Vikings. Television has exploited this gap in the market with shows like – well, like Vikings, obviously – but there’s still a puzzling absence of Norsemen on the big screen. Puzzling because this should be obviously cinematic stuff: big, burly men called things like Bloodaxe, setting villages on fire, laughing heartily and wearing historically inaccurate horned helmets. As it stands, between Terry Jones’s farcical Erik the Viking and Nicolas Winding Refn’s psych-out Valhalla Rising, there are more revisionist examples of the genre than there are traditional examples to revise.
Richard Fleischer’s 1958 film The Vikings, released on Blu-Ray by Eureka Classics, is maybe the closest thing the Viking subgenre has to a John Ford movie. It’s full-throated, trad, Sunday afternoon stuff shot in Technicolor by the legendary Jack Cardiff. Nowadays when we talk about journeyman directors we often mean studio-system hands whose personality is fairly easy to discern in the finished work, like Robert Aldrich, but Fleischer was the real deal. It’s hard to know what to say about someone who could make Barabbas, one of the most thoughtful and haunting of Hollywood Biblical epics, then follow it up with Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Doolittle and The Boston Strangler. Even the most dedicated auteurist couldn’t tease out many connections between those films – best to say Fleischer just enjoyed telling a solid yarn, and have done with it.
Here your reviewer has to confess a bias. I don’t often enjoy these ancient-world epics, and the opening scene to The Vikings reminded me why. I find the line of succession in fictional dynasties as boring as I find the line of succession in Britain’s real-life monarchy, which is a shame, as the whole set-up for Fleischer’s film concerns an illegitimate child’s claim to the throne. The child was conceived through rape, and this backstory is treated in the kind of offhand way even Game of Thrones wouldn’t get away with these days. There is, admittedly, some entertainment value in the throne in question being that of the King of Northumberland, though the cast doesn’t sound like any Northumbrians I’ve ever heard. They wouldn’t get an audition for The Pitmen Painters sounding like that.
Things pick up a bit once we get out to Norway, and the child grows up to be Tony Curtis. Curtis’s then-wife Janet Leigh turns up as well, and his violent father is Ernest Borgnine. Better yet, his half-brother and chief rival in these parts is Kirk Douglas, star of perhaps the only sword-and-sandal epic I’ve ever truly loved. That was partly thanks to Stanley Kubrick but partly thanks to Douglas. He is one of those actors who is inexplicably easy to take seriously in roles which should be utterly absurd. Fleischer introduces him jumping straight out of a blonde maiden’s bed, jumping straight onto a definitely not stuffed horse, and going down to the seafront to laugh heartily with his clansmen about how feeble Englishmen are. It’s not subtle stuff, but you don’t giggle. With performers like Douglas and Borgnine, it all makes a kind of sense.
Curtis trains his falcon to pick out Douglas’s eye – Valhalla Rising fans may smile wryly at this point – and Cardiff goes in close on the jam-like Technicolor blood. There are a few surprisingly vicious moments like this in The Vikings, moments which didn’t harm its box office at all. It sparked a miniature trend for Norse epics, one of which, The Long Ships, was directed by Cardiff himself. It’s a pleasure seeing his work restored here, particularly in the genuinely powerful final act. As the longboats cut through the dense mist and the arrows fly, The Vikings comes close to Valhalla – or, at least, close enough to quell my misgivings about this genre. Maybe we could do with a few more films like this after all.
A small but enjoyable set of extras include interviews with the film historian Sheldon Hall and Fleischer himself, as well as some more words from Fleischer in the booklet. There’s also an archival trailer, which gives it the old hard sell in true 1950s style. Then again, even if you could assemble a subtle, understated teaser for a movie like this, why would you want to?