Cult Movie: Swashbuckling epic The Vikings
YOU can tell the level of cultural impact a film has had by the number of imitators it spawns: a few short years after its release in 1958, Richard Fleischer's The Vikings had inspired more rip-roaring historical adventures than you could shake a pointed helmet at.
Mario Bava alone had delivered Erik The Conqueror, The Last Of The Vikings and Knives Of The Avenger. Audiences were wowed by the swashbuckling bravado, the top notch cast (Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine in one film – what's not to love?) and the often brutally realistic action.
Everybody wanted a piece of The Vikings, and watching it now in its recent Blu-ray reissue from Eureka Classics, it's easy to see why.
Shot in glorious Technicolour by the legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff (whose sparkling CV includes everything from Black Narcissus to The Red Shoes) and narrated by Orson Welles, everything about the film is epic.
Prince Einar (Kirk Douglas adding to his many heroic lead roles) is the heir of a blood thirsty Viking Chieftain (Ernest Borgnine). Tony Curtis is Prince Eric, Einar's unwitting half brother, the illegitimate offspring of the Chieftain and an English Queen.
When the Vikings kidnap the Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh, two years before she took the shower that would change her life forever in Psycho) both red blooded men fall for her and a bloody battle ensues that will decide their destiny and the future of the English throne.
As that breakdown suggests, this is big storytelling and Fleischer pushes the boat fully out when it comes to capturing the epic scale of it all: every moment of male bonding, beer quaffing, axe hurling and traditional village pillaging is shown in all it's excessive glory.
Heroic in a way films today simply aren't, The Vikings is wildly over the top and often strangely camp – but the passion for the subject matter that the director and his heavyweight cast clearly have means every frame is imbued with real belief.
The result is a full blown historical classic that's as ridiculous as it is rousing, as silly as it is swaggeringly beautiful. The bug-eyed madness and sense of utter commitment to the cause that Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine bring to their roles is glorious and Janet Leigh glides through her Morgana role with all the grace of a proper 50's leading lady.
These people believe every single line of ridiculous dialogue they have to spout, so why shouldn't we?
Eureka's gorgeous reissue delivers a pristine 1080p presentation that allows Cardiff's luscious cinematography to jump off the screen in all its garish glory. There's an interesting featurette called A Tale Of Norway that sees director Fleischer look back at the making of the film, plus original trailers and a fine booklet with tons of archival imagery from the production.
It's a fitting tribute to a film that still stands proud as an almost note perfect example of how to make a swashbuckling historical action movie. Historians may sniff at its accuracy and, like many a 1950s slice of escapist fun, it's mad and over-cranked to hell – but even six decades on from its original release it's impossible not to be carried away by the film's wild and wonderful sense of action and adventure.
The Vikings remains as unique and stylish a piece of Hollywood excess as ever graced a cinema screen.