Vikings, The (Blu-ray Review)4 Apr, 2016 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh.
Of all the movies that dominated day-after discussion from the masses on my elementary school playground, this eighth-century paean to assaulted arteries had no equal — surpassing even those provocative pre-army Elvis pics when Hollywood and Colonel Parker were still permitting the junior set’s No. 1 singer/actor to come off as a hood on the big screen. To clarify, maybe we’d better make this male masses; I can’t speak for what barely pubescent girls of the day were talking about (maybe they had all just caught up with Gigi), but seeing Ernest Borgnine do a cannonball into a pit of ravenous wolves was like opening a new pack of football cards and scoring a John Unitas. And that wasn’t even the story’s No. 1 showstopper, even if watching Ernie doing a cannonball into anything would have been major.
The Vikings opened in early summer, but the time frame for all those playground “oooh’s” would have been the following fall of 1958 when it came to one of our neighborhood theaters in a double bill with 1955’s We’re No Angels (another childhood favorite I’d seen earlier during its original release). Angels had a poisonous snake killing Basil Rathbone for laughs, and that was pretty good, but there was no way it could compete with slave Tony Curtis’s hawk clawing out Kirk Douglas’s left eye in the scene that was the movie’s No. 1 show-stopper (though it came early). Other rivals for that top honor were a major dismembering midway through the story and — for the more advanced guys already looking ahead to junior high — all profile shots of Janet Leigh. There’s one scene here where Borgnine’s character refers to Leigh as being “skinny” — which makes one wonder if something had clawed out one of his eye as well. Or both of them.
This picture was originally conceived as a project for equally humble and short-lived Distributors Corporation of America (or DCA), whose two major releases of my youth were the Alan Freed-Chuck Berry-Tuesday Weld Rock! Rock! Rock! and the U.S. version of the original Godzilla, which shoehorned in Raymond Burr as a reporter witnessing the creature’s mastication of Japan. DCA didn’t have a bank to break, so you imagine what would have resulted: black-and-white matte shots and a cast of, say, Gene Evans, Keith Andes, Lon Chaney Jr. and Marla English. Instead, producer Douglas acquired the rights and went whole hog with (himself included) four major stars, Norway-France-West Germany location work and the best color cinematographer in the land. That would be Jack Cardiff of The Red Shoes and The African Queen, just to name two of his many all-timer achievements.
Part of the story hinges on the tortured relationship between Douglas (libidinous son of Norse Viking honcho Borgnine) and slave Curtis after the latter easily convinces the hawk that Douglas’s left eye would make a good tide-you-over snack. The other part involves Welsh princess Leigh and her imminent arranged/loveless marriage to a Brit-territory king (who, for story purposes, of course, is a king-sized creep). The Vikings come up with the idea of kidnapping the princess for ransom, but things get even more complicated when both Douglas and Curtis succumb to her non-skinniness and thus have even further reason to hate each other. There are reasons why Curtis has still been allowed to live, but let’s not give away too much of the story.
The love angle lacks the force of the Douglas-Jean Simmons union in Spartacus, which is one reason why (for all it has going for itself on paper), The Vikings is closer to first-rate entertainment than a truly first-rate movie. It also takes a while to get going because of a lengthy set-up that includes, instead of opening production credits, an animated prologue narrated by an unbilled Orson Welles and then a lot of exposition (this is one of the very few movies of the day where the credits come at the end). The director was Richard Fleischer, whose career break came had come when he was hired to direct Douglas in 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (boy, would I like to see that on Blu-ray). I always liked Fleischer better as a director of “little” pictures early in his career (particularly The Narrow Margin and The Happy Time), but you can’t watch the 2002 bonus interview here carried over from the DVD and not have respect for the way he handled tough location logistics. This was a two-year project.
Above and beyond its prodigious nostalgic currency, the result is still fairly irresistible for anyone inclined toward its red-meat sentiments (I’ve known women who won’t go near the movie — possibly because the male cast reminds of them of former boyfriends — and other women who rate it as a lifetime favorite). Visually, even the Blu-ray turns out to be a mixed bag: the location exteriors are inherently superb, and, yes, this is Cardiff — but considering the fact that The Vikings was shot in VistaVision-like Technirama (in fact, Fleischer notes that it was actually shot with a VistaVision camera), a truly great rendering should look like a couple million here instead of, as here, a few hundred grand. If The Vikings carried more critical clout, one could drool over the prospect of Criterion taking it on (as it has with The Red Shoes and the Cardiff-shot Black Narcissus, to staggering returns).
On the other hand, this release looks much, much better than Paramount’s Blu-ray botch last year of the King Vidor/Cardiff War and Peace, despite that epic’s own VistaVision heritage. I guess the visual reference point here would be Kino’s release of the Cardiff-shot Pandora and the Flying Dutchman: easy on the eyes but still not all it could be cosmetically — which is still more than anyone ever said about Borgnine.