Kirk Douglas apparently produced 1958’s The Vikings to fulfil a childhood ambition to play a Viking. This seems entirely appropriate when you view the movie, which is a lot of escapist fun with plenty of action sequences, derring-do and opportunities for Douglas to be bloodthirsty and mean, but nobody in the production team can call it their most mature work.
The plot of The Vikings is quite involved, though most of it is tied up in backstory (in part explained in narration by Orson Welles at the start of the film) and in over-long opening sequences that hold up what everybody’s waiting for: the sword fights, raging battles and stormed castles. It sees Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis (who would go on to star together again in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus) as half-brothers, though Douglas is a Viking prince and Curtis is a slave. When an incident with a bird leads to the loss of an eye, Douglas develops a lifelong enmity towards Curtis, which deepens when they both fall in love with the same woman (played by Janet Leigh). But can outside forces bring them together to fight a common enemy?
The Vikings is certainly a very colourful film, shot as it was in Technicolor and looking stunning in high-definition Blu-ray; though the vividness of the palette lends it a curious artificiality. If the film was made now, the characters would be humanised and their everyday struggles made credible, but The Vikings has only broad, blustering stereotypes. Nor can it be described as a history lesson.
To be fair to the film, it isn’t aiming for high-brow, and hopefully not for historical accuracy either, but for sheer escapism and entertainment, and there are parts of it that succeed. Ernest Borgnine is always fun to watch, and he’s on scene-stealing form as King Ragnar. Tony Curtis never looked more beautiful – a point clearly not lost on the costume department, who ensure that every inch of his legs (and occasionally a bit more too) are on display at all times. He smoulders his way through, burning star quality.
Kirk Douglas is less successful. I’ve never considered him a good or especially convincing actor, even when well-directed (Paths of Glory is excellent despite him), and he mugs his way through The Vikings too, never looking like anything other than an actor in costume having fun. Janet Leigh, soon to be immortalised by being hacked to death under the shower at the Bates Motel, is given very little to do as Princess Morgana, apart from put up insipid resistance to male advances and fall back on her prayers (with many reminders that her character is Christian).
The action sequences also hit the right notes, though in the age of CGI, they look closer to Monty Python and the Holy Grail than Gladiator. A huge suspension of disbelief is required throughout the film to lose yourself in the plot and the characters. More positively, the locations are exceptionally well-chosen, and add enormously to the visual impact of the film, and director Richard Fleischer generally keeps a solid handle on telling a coherent story.
If The Vikings entertains for two hours, then it’s done its job, and it doesn’t have pretensions towards high art. However, even accepting those ground rules, the impact of the movie could have been stronger, and it doesn’t manage to avoid being inadvertently comedic at times. It’s worth it for Tony Curtis’ thighs and the beautiful Norwegian and French scenery, so well captured by Jack Cardiff’s cinematography.
Extra features on this release include a reversible sleeve, with one side featuring the original poster art, as well as an archive interview with director Richard Fleischer (who died in 2006). A Tale of Norway is a half-hour featurette presented by Fleischer about the making of the movie, and the director’s insights also appear in a printed booklet.
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles Director: Richard Fleischer Writer: Calder Willingham Duration: 116 mins Released By: Eureka Entertainment Release Date: 16th October 2017