So what makes a movie stand the test of time? And I don't mean to film buffs, but to the everyday, average person. Of the most successful films of 1942/1943, why is Casablanca the one that has gone down in history? Why not Random Harvest, Reap the Wild Wind, Road to Morocco, Song of Bernadette, or Somewhere I'll Find You. ALL of those movies were bigger hits than Casablanca (according to Wikipedia). Now, I know that is an extreme example. Casablanca has became part of the culture, inspiring imitations ranging from Neil Simon to Bugs Bunny. But it is still an interesting question. In 1948, Samson and Delilah made $28 million dollars. That is almost $300 million today. And I think most people will not have heard of that movie, much less seen it. And I don't mean to equate money with longevity, but it is crazy to me that a movie that was that big of a hit has started to vanish in the public consciousness. I've asked young men and women if they have heard of Ghost. The answer is no. Ghost made $217 million dollars in 1990. In 1990, that is HUGE. Today, that is $419 million. The film was also nominated for five Oscars, included Best Picture, and it won two of them. And it has completely disappeared?
I suppose what this all comes down to is, I owe my parents an apology. Because I was one of those kids. I must have made them feel so old when they talked about the popular movies of their day. When I was young in the 1980s, they would tell me about a movie... something like Tammy and the Bachelor, and I would laugh and say there is no way that was a big movie. I would have heard of it if it was. Tammy and the Bachelor, by the way, was a romantic comedy starring Debbie Reynolds and Leslie Nielsen and it was an Oscar nominated hit that spawned three sequels. Three sequels. All erased by our cultural amnesia. And it is shame because a lot of great films are being lost. Yes, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and The Godfather will always be with us. But what about the lesser movies? What about the movies that aren't even classics, but are just fun rides? What about strange curiosities like The Vikings?
First, let's establish the credentials. The Vikings was the sixth most successful movie at the box office in 1958 and was fairly well reviewed. It had a big enough impact on Hollywood that the early 1960s were littered with cheesy ripoffs like The Long Ships and Erik the Conqueror. The movie also had a terrific cast, featuring Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Ernest Borgnine (Marty), Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot) and Janet Leigh (Psycho). It was directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), shot by brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus) and written by Calder Willingham (The Graduate). That is an excellent team.
It seems the epic Kirk Douglas film that has stood the test of time is Spartacus, and there is good reason for that, but let's not ignore The Vikings because this movie is one helluva good time. I would never call it a classic, but it certainly deserves to be remembered.
The Vikings is the story of two half brothers: Einar (Douglas) is the handsome, popular son of the Viking chief Ragnar (Borgnine) and Eric (Curtis) is a slave in the village, and the unknown son of Ragnar and the English queen he had raped two decades earlier. The new English king, the villainous Aella (Frank Throng), now watches the coast warily for another Viking attack. When Einar captures Aella's bride-to-be, Morgana (Leigh), events spiral out of control, setting the two half-brothers against each other and the English crown.
I do want to make it clear that this movie is not perfect. There are some really goofy and dated things in this movie. For example, I don't really buy the love story between Eric and Morgana. While Eric is a prince, neither he nor Morgana know that, and I have trouble believing the princess would fall in love so quickly with a slave, even if he is played by Tony Curtis. The whole subplot is convenient in a very 1950s way where chaste love will always win the day. There are also some uncomfortable spots where it seems the film is condoning the abuse of women. Are we supposed to be laughing along with Ragnar when he tells his son that if a women struggles against his advances, that makes the conquest more worth it? That really bothers me, and is hard to overlook. But then again, I understand that this very well may have been what the Vikings really felt - pillaging, murder and rape were basically in their job description. So I understand that, but at the same time, it makes it hard to sympathize with certain characters when they talk like that.
But ultimately, in other ways, the treatment of the Vikings themselves is what makes this movie so interesting, and better than many 1950s films of this genre. Most period adventure films of the period were clear in their villains and heroes. Everything was very black and white and easily digestible. And The Vikings does have this element. Eric is the brave and handsome slave who is really a prince. Aella is the villainous and scenery chewing king who sits on Eric's rightful throne. Morgana is the wholesome princess who needs rescuing. All very 1950s adventure. But the difference with The Vikings is actually the titular characters - the rampaging Northmen themselves. They are the ultimate wild card. They are not heroes or villains. They are, well, Vikings. And yes, they raid and pillage the poor and innocent English. But they also bring the booty back where it is distributed to families in their own village. They aren't a cartoonish tribe. They have a society and a culture, neither good or bad. They just exist. And it may be hard not to judge them by our modern standards, but it is impossible to classify them into classic movie archetypes. In short, the movie gives us as realistic a depiction of Viking society as they can, and implant it in the middle of this silly 1950s adventure. A lot of research went into this film. The clothes, ships, buildings and weapons were all created to be as historically accurate as possible, and the hard work pays off. These Vikings feel sort of authentic. Not completely authentic, of course. It is still a movie, after all, and there is only so realistic you can be in Hollywood. But it is still pretty impressive to see these characters and not know how they fit into the puzzle or what actions they will take.
I also admire that the movie is surprisingly brutal for a film from this era. A bit of a SPOILER alert here, but I was not expecting Einer's eye to get gouged out. And I certainly didn't expect Eric's arm to get hacked off. The movie isn't particularly graphic. This doesn't happen on camera, but still...I was genuinely surprised. And I don't get surprised easily.
I also have to take a second and mention the climactic battle at the end, when the Viking army assaults Aella's castle. This bloody attack is terrific, well staged by Fleischer and superbly shot by Cardiff. I especially respect the final duel between Einar and Eric, an energetic and dangerous fight on top of the castle's tower that looks way too high to be safe for either the actors or the crew.
So all in all, despite its flaws, The Vikings is a fun and exciting movie, featuring a cast and crew at the top of their game. Is it a classic? Definitely not. But does it deserve to be forgotten? I don't think so. There are hundreds of movies that are slowly fading into cultural oblivion. Movie lovers out there can't let that happen. We have to tell our family and friends, and pester them until they see some of these movies, and hopefully continue to pass them on to the next generation. There are a lot of fun, forgotten movies out there. I hope The Vikings does not become one of them...
There are a lot of things I like about The Vikings, but I have to give the MVP to cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Cardiff is one of the best directors of photography in Hollywood history, with a career spanning seven decades. Cardiff does magnificent work on this film, but what seals the deal for me is the scene when the Viking ships travel across the North in a deep, deep fog. And then as the sun is rising with that gorgeous morning light, we see the three ships emerge from the fog - imposing and ghost-like. It's a truly stunning image, and it won Cardiff my MVP!
Einar: I want this slave to live. The sun will cross the sky a thousand times before he dies. (turns to Eric) And you'll wish a thousand times that you were dead.
One of the more entertaining scenes in The Vikings was the oar walking sequence - where the Vikings would run alongside the outstretched oars of the ship and try not to fall into the freezing water below. This was a game that the real Vikings really played, and the director Fleischer commented at the time that they were filming something that hadn't been seen in a thousand years. The stunt men practiced for weeks and even Kirk Douglas got in on the fun. That's really him, not a stunt man, skipping across the oars in the scene. I thought that was a fun bit of trivia. And looks like a fun game that I wouldn't mind trying someday!