Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Viking (1928)

Director: Roy William Neill                             Writer: Jack Cunningham
Film Score: William Axt                                 Cinematography: George Cave
Starring: Donald Crisp, Pauline Starke, LeRoy Mason and Anders Randolf

Synchronized sound had been achieved in film before The Jazz Singer, but other studios were not really prepared to commit fully to sound in the late twenties. With that, however, came the understanding that the simple silent films of the past weren’t going to be quite enough to bring in crowds in this age of novelty. And while color tinting had been done prior to The Viking, this Technicolor feature was the first to combine synchronized sound effects and music with a full-color film experience. It is a beautifully filmed picture and the rich, pastel colors are quite stunning. The biggest problem for modern audiences is, ironically, the lack of sound. The film looks so good that, rather than the color being a terrific addition to a silent picture, the lack of sound seems more like a detriment. There’s no denying, however, the powerful experience of seeing something this unique, and I would say it actually rivals The Jazz Singer in that respect.

The film begins with Viking raiders invading Northumbria. The overconfident prince, LeRoy Mason, is shocked when the invaders descend on his castle and winds up being captured and taken back to Norway. There Pauline Starke, also a royal captive, is living the Viking life as a raider under the protection of Donald Crisp as Leif Ericsson. She buys Mason as a slave but when she gets back to camp warrior Harry Woods, who clearly has his eye on her, becomes very jealous of Mason because of the constant presence he will become in her life. When Mason has run away once too many times Starke tries to whip him and he takes the whip away from her, incurring the wrath of Woods who is about to execute him when Crisp intercedes. When Crisp allows the two to fight as equals, Mason wins and spares Woods’ life. Crisp is so impressed that Starke gives the slave to him, and the leader takes him and Starke on his next voyage to Greenland and beyond.

Unfortunately, part of the story deals with the gradual conversion of the Vikings from the Norse gods to Christianity. Crisp’s father, Anders Randolf as Eric the Red, hates Christians and kills them whenever he finds them. This causes a rift between the two when it is discovered, and of course the Christians come out on top and eventually give up their barbarous ways. The other theme is that of the Norse Columbus, with the Vikings discovering America almost five hundred years before Columbus. Some of the plot would show up in later films, most notably the Kirk Douglas epic The Vikings, especially the idea of the princess falling in love with the slave. Donald Crisp as a Viking, with his handlebar moustache and Roman nose, is a little incongruous but his command of the screen makes it work. Pauline Starke, however, is magnificent. While not quite the shield maiden that Katheryn Winnick is in the television series Vikings, she definitely has the attitude down. LeRoy Mason and Harry Woods, however, come off as typical silent screen actors and their subsequent careers bear this out as Mason was relegated to B westerns in the sound era while Woods had only bit parts and TV roles later on.

Director Roy William Neill is probably best known for the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films at Universal, as well as the atmospheric Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. His work here is good, though little more. It’s really the color that is the main draw. Staff composer William Axt does a good enough job with the music, even weaving bits of Wagner into his film score, but the whole thing seems a bit too light-hearted for the material, reminiscent of what Erich Wolfgang Korngold was able to do on The Adventures of Robin Hood but not quite as successful. Though the costuming leaves much to be desired, and there are tons of historical inaccuracies, that’s hardly the point. It also lacks the swashbuckling quality of Douglas Fairbanks, but that’s beside the point as well. The sets are good and the color is gorgeous, and there’s a playfulness to the film that is infectious. The Viking may not be an artistic film, but it is nevertheless an extremely entertaining one that remains a unique part of film history.

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