The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Tartars

Three years after the release of The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, an Italian movie with a somewhat similar storyline about Vikings was released with some interesting casting choices.  It is a story that focuses on a conflict between a Viking tribe and the Tartars, a large nation of nomadic warriors sweeping into Eastern Europe for land, riches and power.  The Tartars are clearly the villains, and for no reason other than name-repeating, we get 1961's The Tartars even though they're the secondary characters. 

The movie is a sign of the times where any, and I mean any, historical story had a shot at making it into a feature length movie. Studios were giving audiences what they wanted, and moviegoers wanted big, epic spectacle movies.  The Tartars makes an attempt at least at being an epic movie, but it's one of those movies that is not particularly good or bad.  It sits somewhere in between although thanks to two fairly odd casting choices it is very much worth watching.

Those stars are Victor Mature and Orson Welles, both logical choices to play a Viking and a Russian warrior, don't you think? Both actors are well past their starring days in Hollywood and look to be taking on whatever role they can find.  Mature, with his slicked back black hair and and dark skin, may be the weirdest choice to ever play a Viking chieftain leading a tribe full of pale, blonde-haired people.  Welles was quite the presence by 1961, and that's nothing to do with his acting ability.  He was a BIG man by this time and looks like if he fell over he might roll off the set.  Good starting point for a historical epic if you ask me.

Visiting a nearby Tartar tribe to pay homage, Viking chief Oleg (Mature) ends up in a bloody brawl and kills the Tartar chief.  Oleg, his brother Eric (Luciano Marin) and their men escape the bloody fight, kidnapping the Tartar chief's daughter Samia (Bella Cortez) in the process. The deceased chief's brother, Arundai (Welles), comes to avenge his brother and destroy the Vikings once and for all.  Arundai offers Oleg one last chance to join him in their conquest of the world but the Viking chief refuses.  Arundai has one last ace up his sleeve though as he has kidnapped Oleg's wife Helga (Liana Orfei) and wants to arrange a trade.

Clocking in at under 90 minutes, this story certainly keeps up a fast pace and never really slows down.  The setting is an Eastern European steppe, an equivalent of the American prairie but closer to a desert in terms of lack of water or landmarks.  With the setting and the warring factions, it definitely has the feel of an American western with Vikings and Tartars replacing the cowboys/settlers and the Indians.  It's a fun movie though and entertaining throughout partially because it is pretty bad.  Money was clearly spent on certain things -- extras, costumes, filming locations, sets -- while clearly not spent on others, like the script for one.  Really though, it's a minor complaint.  You don't head into an Italian made movie about a Viking tribe breaking new ground in terms of storytelling.

Even at 83 minutes, the scale of 'Tartars' can be impressive.  There are basically two sets, Arundai's palace (which looks grander because of some matte paintings) and the Viking fort which looks awfully similar to the U.S. cavalry forts that dotted trails all through the American west.  Interesting, hhmm?  Some action is thrown in here and there to keep you interested along the way with most of the fireworks saved for the finale as Arundai's enraged warriors assault Oleg's fortified garrison.  I was impressed with the scale of the battle, a pretty impressive effort considering this is a lower budget Italian movie.

This is not going to be a very long review mostly because the movie doesn't try to be anything other than entertaining.  Sure, there's some weird moments like Mature being dubbed by a different actor in certain scenes while in others it is clearly him speaking.  The whole movie is so bad that it's good.  If Mature as a Viking and Welles as a Tartar chief doesn't intrigue you, you should probably steer clear of this one.  If it does sound interesting, sit back and enjoy the badness.

The Tartars <----TCM trailer (1961): ** 1/2 /****

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