Christians and heathens. Two shorelines and a black, foggy sea. Organized hierarchies behind stone barricades and drunken hysteria in the ocean mist. The Vikings, an underappreciated relic from the heyday of 70mm super-productions and about as rollicking a good time as can be had at the movies, is cut with the bifurcated simplicity of a folk tale: A virginal princess-to-be is kidnapped by barbarians, in turn stoking a rivalry between two bastard brothers as well as clan warfare. It’s a film of thick impasto brushstrokes, unremorseful in its indulgence in broad contrast. Ritualistic ceremonies honoring new unions within British royalty are juxtaposed against Rabelaisian revelries fueled by frothy tubs of ale and testosterone. And the sniveling, saurian King of civilized Northumbria of course receives the most extreme foil: the booze-swilling, ass-grabbing, giddily amoral paterfamilias of the Vikings.
Shot on location in Norwegian fjords by the legendary Jack Cardiff, the film boasts an enveloping surface beauty. Stately Viking ships glide between towering rock walls, the camera often floating just above the water’s surface to catch the marble reflections. Blue skies, green coastal meadows, and earthy wardrobes radiate from the Technicolor image, with director Richard Fleischer holding his master shots a little longer than logically necessary just so we can properly savor all these details.
Also part of the film’s appeal is watching it roll out its star ensemble in increasingly elaborate period getup. As Morgana, the jewel of the Northumbrian kingdom, Janet Leigh is first seen in a flowing white dress and bedazzled headdress, while Frank Thring, as Aella, Morgana’s hesitantly betrothed, does a more feminine rendition of his royal turn from Ben-Hur. A few hundred ship’s lengths down the inlet are Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar, the burly old man of the Viking dynasty, covered in shawls of wild animal fur; Kirk Douglas as Ragnar’s belligerent son, Einar, whose inborn sense of sexual belligerence is rendered even more threatening when an early altercation with an agitated hawk yields him a milk-white left eye; and a bronzed and bearded Tony Curtis as scantily clad Viking slave Eric, who becomes an underdog candidate for Morgana’s heart.
By employing majestic landscape shots juxtaposing natural beauty and manmade fragility, monumentalizing upward angles, and hymn-like musical themes that originate from the diegesis and carry over into the soundtrack, Fleischer wields a bag of filmmaking tools that could be mistaken for John Ford’s, but there’s no Fordian wholesomeness to the extremity of the film’s subject matter. Truisms of Norse mythology—that the Vikings were savage womanizers and raging alcoholics, that their victims were priggish weaklings—are ratcheted up to a level of gleeful overstatement. In the film’s most queasily multi-sensory set piece of all, a young woman’s marital fidelity is tested in a cruel axe-throwing challenge while snarling sots heckle deafeningly from the sidelines. Ever the showman, a quality relished by Douglas in a swaggeringly physical performance, Einar swills a goat horn full of beer before hurling the final hatchet, inspiring a bumbling group sing-along when he comes within spitting distance of her scalp.
On English shores, Aella daintily shoos away anyone who balks at his authority with a hand that’s always raised limply by his chest (Thring’s body language being thick with queer implications). His distaste for getting physical is borne out by his choice of prisoner punishment (a submerged pit of rabid dogs) and his employment of strapping guards, whose work chopping Eric’s wrist he scrutinizes with a focus verging on the sadomasochistic. If Fleischer takes evident joy in exaggerating the brains-brawn dichotomy, however, he does so only to add further drama to the divergences within mythic history. A star-crossed romance between Eric and Morgana is suggestively evident even before they meet due to a clever dissolve that creates an impression of them gazing at one another across time and space, but their spiritual divide nearly forbids their passion to flower—that is, before Eric delivers the movie’s most evocatively pithy line: “If my soul is content to be heathen and yours content to be Christian, let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh.”
With proto-Spielbergian grace, The Vikings swings its emphasis from such juicy character detail to large-scale action sequences. Shortly before a climactic scene that communicates an entire complex history of neglect, anger, and mutual respect across two intercut close-ups, Fleischer sharply maps out the encroachment of two Viking ships on a modest getaway canoe in the half-light of the North Sea at dusk, maintaining spatial clarity even in menacing fog. In the middle of this scene, Eric responds to Morgana complaining that her dress restricts rowing ability by indiscreetly ripping it right down the back, a shocking bit of political incorrectness that probably wouldn’t even fly today. That the moment is played for laughs rather than horror is apropos: So boisterously does this film juggle different tonal registers—bawdy comedy, overheated family melodrama, vertiginous swordplay, and period camp—that at a certain point it’s hard not to surrender to the spirit of debauchery.
Compared to top-shelf prints of The Vikings, Kino Lorber’s transfer is marred by a rather plastic sheen, with the celluloid seemingly rubbed of a large degree of its emulsion character. The image is a bit too sharp, too bright, and too saturated to accurately reflect 1958’s technical specifications, but even these unfortunate stumbling blocks can’t come close to snuffing out the ravishing character of the film’s visuals. The soundtrack fares much better. The Vikings has a busy mix, with soaring orchestral leitmotifs served up alongside the voices of up to hundreds of performers in some scenes as well as other auxiliary sounds like high-hat clinks for comic effect. Everything’s balanced superbly, with none of the bits of distortion that sometimes become a casualty in digital renderings of such crowded soundscapes.
In "A Tale of Norway," the Richard Fleischer-narrated photo montage that accompanies Kino’s release, the director spends most of his half-hour reminiscence emphasizing the film’s authenticity, claiming it was "as accurate as it could be" with regard to Viking history. Anyone surprised by such a pronouncement given the mythic grandeur of the film will be pleased to hear Fleischer’s persuasive defense of it, conducted by citing his extensive research at the Oslo Viking Ship Museum and the many details of period specificity he ushered into the film (including the use of real live Viking horses!). Vivid anecdotes, like that of Douglas volunteering to do stunt work for a "Running of the Oars" scene against the wishes of the production department, and charming behind-the-scenes snapshots, such as photos of Curtis bestowing Leigh with a birthday cake, buttress the amusing supplement. There are probably a few too many previews for other Kino releases in the "trailer gallery" (one wishes they could use the disc space for another relevant extra instead), but the typically hyperbolic period ad for The Vikings is appreciated.
In a perfect world, Richard Fleischer’s rowdy Norway-set super-production would be in regular 70mm rotation at our few surviving repertory movie houses. Kino Lorber’s unexceptional home-video edition of the film likely won’t be an instigator on the path to that fantasy.