Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Vikings: Eyegougings, Pillaging, and other wholesome fun

On the DVD of The Vikings, director Richard Fleischer provides a thoughtful, intelligent, and informative 30-minute interview on the making of this 1958 costume opus. He discusses securing the services of playwright Calder Willingham for the screenplay; the impressive attention to detail, including location shooting in the actual fjords of Norway; the set and costume designers consulting exhaustive historic tomes to get just the right authentic look to things; and the production's carpenters building actual Viking ships to the precise ancient diagrams.

Satisfying as Fleischer's background insights are, though, he fails to address key salient issues regarding the picture's content, points vital to any discerning viewer's enjoyment. As a public service to you, dear reader, I shall cover these important points, in checklist format.

Eye-gouging by a bird of prey: check.

Hand Chopped off with Broadsword: check.

Flying Arrows through Throats: double-check.

Party Game Incorporating Battle-Ax, Copious Amounts of Beer, Nordic Maid, and Nordic Maid's Braids: Check.

More Testosterone per Frame than that whimpering whelp-movie Troy has in it's Whole Nancy-Boy Running Time: Triple-Check.

No, The Vikings isn't an immersion into the mind and thoughts of an important historical figure like Lawrence of Arabia. Nor is it a testament to human freedom and the will of the individual, a la Spartacus. The Vikings, as it happens, is the most ass-kicking twelfth-century-set Western you'll ever see, and if it doesn't entertain you giddily, you best check your pulse.

The setup (narrated by an uncredited Orson Welles) basically pits captured slave Erik (Tony Curtis) against his oppressor--Viking prince Einar (Kirk Douglas)-- for the affections of Morganna (Janet Leigh). Einar, you see, kidnapped Morganna (soon-to-be-bride to King Aella, current monarch of England) at the behest of his dad, Viking King Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine). Oh, and Erik and Einar are actually half-brothers (Erik's mom was the previous queen of England and his birth-dad was none other than a pillaging Ragnar).

Are you following all of this? Nope? Don't worry. Boiled down to it's basics, we're dealing with simple Western archetypes. Curtis' Erik functions as Dashing Good Guy, with Douglas and Borgnine providing color and robust vigor as the magnetic (and not-totally-bad) Bad Guys. Throw these hombres into a reluctant alliance against the Land Baron (oops, King) Aiella, and you've got a first-rate oater in irresistable Nordic drag.

Like a lot of costume epics of the era, pure visceral and sensory joy abound. The Vikings sports eye-popping three-strip Technicolor photography by the great Jack Cardiff (Norway looks positively succulent), a robust score by Mario Nascimbene (forget about trying to detatch the irresistable theme music from your skull--it's impossible), and it moves like a shot. Fleischer wisely spends most of his non-fight-scene screen time on the furious fun of the Viking lifestyle, and if you know your history, you're doubtless aware that the Vikings partied so hard they made Ozzy Osbourne look like Joseph Lieberman. Best of all, the action setpieces fly as plentifully as English arrows. From the aforementioned Viking drinking game to the plentiful sackings and pillagings to the thrilling closing duel between Einar and Erik atop the precarious spire of an English cliffside castle, The Vikings fairly bursts with memorable setpieces. I went 20 years between viewings of this movie, and it astonished me how many of the images and key scenes stuck with me.

Engaging as all of the scenery and action is, though, the principals provide The Vikings' trump card. There's no denying the ferocious ball of energy that is Kirk Douglas as Einar. Outfighting all comers, running across the extended oars of a Viking ship like a satyr, and chewing the scenery like one of the hungry wolves that scarf down his dad, Einar's the guy's guy who dwarfs all around him, save his proud papa. And classic tough guy Borgnine's Viking chieftain combines paternal love, grizzled irrascibility, and no-bull toughness in a gloriously shaggy package. Most modern actors would be too chicken to put this much heart into this broad of a role, but Borgnine gives it 110%. When Ragnar leaps to certain death into a pit of snarling wolves (broadsword in hand), his face telegraphs so much courage and little-boy glee, it's hard not to want to leap in with him.


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