Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Vikings (1958)

Director: Richard Fleischer                              Writer: Calder Willingham
Film Score: Mario Nascimbene                        Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine

This is one of those big, fifties epics that either holds up well today or doesn’t. For me, it’s the later. The sets are impressive, and it’s loaded with great actors, but the script really doesn’t go anywhere. There seems to be little in the way of motivation or dramatic arc, an especially glaring omission after recently seeing the History Channel’s series Vikings. Of course it’s not the film’s fault that it fails to live up to modern comparisons, but there are plenty of fifties films that still do because what they lack in realism they make up for in character and story. The Vikings is based on the novel by Edison Marshall and it’s clear that there are huge chunks that were culled from the story to make it fit into the two-hour time frame of the film. There are also some very odd choices, not the least of which is the way no one wants to tell Tony Curtis what his true lineage is.

The story begins with a raid by the Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok, played by Ernest Borgnine, in which he kills the king of North Umbria and impregnates the queen. With no heir to the throne the king’s cousin ascends, but the queen keeps the fact of her son a secret, telling only the priest. She makes the baby a necklace with the end of the king’s sword and he is taken to Italy. Twenty years later one of my favorite actors, James Donald as Egbert, is secretly working with the Vikings so that his lands may avoid pillaging, and when the new king figures this out Egbert barely escapes back to Norway with the raiders. There he meets Ragnar’s son Einar, Kirk Douglas, and the headstrong slave Eric, Tony Curtis. It quickly becomes apparent to Egbert that Eric is Ragnar’s son, as well as the rightful heir to the throne of North Umbria. And what does he do with that knowledge? Absolutely nothing.

This is one of the perils of adapting a novel for the screen. Without the internal dialogue of the novel, letting the reading know why characters make the decisions they make, it’s impossible to make sense of their actions. Most screenwriters get around this through dialogue with other characters that lets the viewer in on their motivations. But Calder Willingham chose not to do this, which raises the question throughout the entire film of why that device was even necessary. I’m sure it made sense in the book, but no one tells Curtis at all, not even at the end of the film. There is a love triangle, of sorts, between Douglas, Curtis, and Janet Leigh, who has been promised by her father, the King of Wales, as the wife of the new King of North Umbria. But she is stolen from her ship and taken back to Norway, protected by the slave who loves her--real life husband Curtis--and the Viking who wants her to be his queen, Douglas.

One of the things that director Richard Fleischer wanted to stress was authenticity, and there are some impressive feats, not the least of which is the construction of three Viking ships made to exact specifications from the museum in Oslo. But the garish Technicolor sort of diminishes the effect, the clean costumes and sets belying their true, artificial nature. This is one aspect where the more recent series is excellent. The film score by Italian composer Mario Nascimbene also tries so hard to establish a dominant theme in the music that it tends to draw too much attention to itself. The Vikings is, however, a grand and glorious epic, one of those films that I would see on Sunday afternoons on television as a kid, complete with the great Orson Welles narrating the prologue. For that it has good associations and is a film that I can return to for spectacle more than story.

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