The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Vikings

In the age of the epic in the 1950s and 1960s, there wasn't a historical era not covered by Hollywood ranging from ancient times in Ben-Hur and Spartacus to more modern times like Around the World in 80 Days and Lawrence of the Arabia. Not quite on the scale of those movies but just as entertaining, 1958's The Vikings is an underrated epic that is as much fun now as it was over 50 years ago.

Leading a raid on an English camp, Viking warrior/chief Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) rapes the English queen who secretly gives birth to a son nine months later. Almost 20 years pass and Ragnar is still leading his Viking warriors, his son, Einar (Kirk Douglas), at his side. Neither are aware that the son,  Erik (Tony Curtis),  has been among them for the last 20 years, living as a slave to the Vikings, unaware he is Ragnar's son and Einar's half-brother. Erik has an intense rivalry with Einar -- each one wanting to kill the other -- and it is ratcheted up even further when Ragnar's warriors kidnap the young woman, Morgana (Janet Leigh), promised to the king in marriage. Both men fall in love with her as the Vikings prepare a surprise attack on the King's castle.

The appeal of many epics is the scale. They aren't always fun movies, just big movies. From director Richard Fleischer, this is an exception. At 116 minutes, it isn't as long as so many 3-plus hour epics, but it is fun, entertaining and still manages to present an impressive scale of the time of the Vikings. It was filmed in the fjords of Norway while also visiting Germany, France and Croatia, the locations providing an accurate and stunningly beautiful backdrop for the adventure story. The music is especially memorable from composer Mario Nascimbene, including the main theme (listen HERE) that you'll be whistling for days. What's so fun about it all is Fleischer and his cast and crew committing to being accurate as possible. The sets look like actual Viking villages. Three Viking warships were built from actual blueprints of Vikings ships, and the shots of these ships, packed with warriors, making their way up the sun-lit fjords is a stunning visual. The movie shows the day-to-day lives of these people. We see some of their rituals, their beliefs, their parties, and it feels authentic from the very start.

Working together for the first time -- they'd reunite two years later in another epic, 1960s's Spartacus -- Douglas and Curtis are great leads, the half-brothers who are unaware they're related. Douglas isn't a villain, but he clearly isn't the good guy either, his Einar an anti-hero if he's anything. It's a big, showy part for Douglas, the type of role he excelled at. Curtis gets the less-interesting character, but his intense part as Erik is still worthwhile. Mrs. Tony Curtis -- Janet Leigh -- is the eye candy, the beautiful Morgana who finds herself in a love triangle and must choose who she truly loves. If you're going to do a love triangle, do it right like 'Vikings' did here. Life and death, an intense rivalry where the stakes are high, not just a happy winner and a mopey loser. Also be careful not to poke your eyes out with Janet Leigh's pointiest of bras.

My favorite character though is from Ernest Borgnine as Viking chief Ragnar. It's funny that he's cast as Douglas' father because in real-life he's actually two months younger than his movie "son." Just like Douglas is perfectly cast as Einar, so is Borgnine. Heavily bearded and spouting his love for the Viking god Odin, Ragnar is an exaggerated, scene-stealing part for Borgnine. I can't think of a better duo to play these larger-than-life ancient heroes. For a topper, Ragnar's death scene is one of the all-time greats, a man literally laughing death in the face. Also look for James Donald as Egbert, an English lord secretly working with the Vikings, and familiar epic bad guy Frank Thring as Aella, the weakly English king, and Eileen Way as Kitala, the Viking medicine woman who is in touch with all the Viking gods.

From the time I first saw this movie as a kid, it was the action sequences that stuck with me. I remembered Douglas' Einar running across the rigid oars of the Viking ships as they returned to the village, but the high point is the finale, a Viking assault on Aella's heavily guarded castle on the English coast (actually Fort-la-Latte in France). A real castle, it is a gorgeous setting for the attack in all its scale, seemingly hundreds of Vikings bursting through the gates and scaling the walls. Einar's entrance to the castle -- climbing up a ladder of thrown axes into the raised drawbridge -- stands out, Douglas doing some of his own stunts. It concludes with an epic showdown at the top of one of the castle's towers, Einar dueling with Erik. Both Douglas and Curtis handled much -- if not all -- of their stunts, making the dangerous fight scene a couple hundred feet up even more impressive. Action galore, the ending is a whopper of a climax.

Part of the appeal here is of childhood memories, but it stands the test of time. It isn't remembered as well as many other historical epics, but it's just as fun and probably more entertaining than many more. Big story, memorable theme, great cast, and can you really go wrong with those bloodthirsty, fun-loving Vikings? I submit that you cannot. The movie is available to watch at Youtube, but it's 111 minutes while the DVD runs 116 minutes so something's missing.

The Vikings <---trailer (1958): *** 1/2 /****

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