The Vikings (1958)

As I mentioned in a previous post, watching this film gave me a sense of déjà vu. There’s a lot about it that’s very reminiscent of classic Hindi cinema. The lost heir who can be identified by an amulet he wears; the long-lost brothers who don’t know they’re related and are at daggers drawn, partly because both love the same woman… fortunately, though, The Vikings is more than just a precursor to so many Hindi films. It’s also a very watchable film, with superb cinematography and a general air of having been made much, much later than it actually was.

Okay, to begin with: the prologue. The Vikings are a bad lot, sweeping down from the north and killing and plundering wherever they go. They fear only two things: the fog (since they navigate only by the sun or the stars, and the fog blots out all); and the chance that they may die without a sword in their hands. To die with sword in hand, a warrior to the end, is a guarantee that they will be allowed to enter Valhalla.
The Vikings especially prey on England, and in the latest raid, the King of Northumbria has been slain and his queen Enid (Maxine Audley) raped by the Viking raider Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine).

Since the king died childless, his slimy cousin Aella (Frank Thring) becomes king. Though not without a bad omen—the stone that forms the pommel of the king’s sword falls out just as Aella is being crowned.
Queen Enid, though Aella has assured her of the respect due to a former consort, has misgivings. She confides in the chaplain Father Godwin (Alexander Knox) and, in the course of the conversation, reveals that she is pregnant—with Ragnar’s child, who would be heir to the throne. (That’s what she says. I’m not so sure, since only the offspring of the former king would have been the heir, right?)

Anyway, Enid’s worried that Aella will kill the baby—get rid of the competition, so to say—so she decides to send the baby away to Italy, where it will be brought up in safety. As a going-away present, she gets the pommel stone (which had fallen from the king’s sword at Aella’s coronation), puts it on a string and ties that around the baby’s neck.

Cut to twenty years later. The Vikings are still hard at work ravaging England, and Aella has decided to enter into a marital alliance to increase his power. The girl he’s chosen is the Welsh princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), who’s come to Northumbria for the engagement. Morgana is unhappy with the betrothal, but keeps mum. As a princess, her duty must come before her feelings, all of which are of revulsion towards Aella.

Aella’s cousin Egbert (James Donald), at this point incurs Aella’s wrath by bringing up the old rumour that the now-dead Queen Enid had borne a long-lost heir, who wears the old pommel-stone around his neck. Egbert is obviously derisive of Aella; and Aella, who hates him equally, realises that in the many Viking raids, Egbert’s lands are never attacked. He’s a traitor!

So Egbert is thrown into prison—and escapes that night, being rowed out to sea in a boat that meets up with a Norse longboat. On board is Ragnar, who greets Egbert with much joy. Aella’s accusation was well-founded: Egbert has been selling out Northumbria to the Vikings.
The longboat sails home, and the Vikings arrive in their village by a fjord. Among those who welcome Ragnar back is his only legitimate son, Einar (Kirk Douglas), a man so proud of his own beauty that he doesn’t believe in hiding it behind a beard. Besides being a ladies’ man, Einar is also the best climber, best swordsman, best fighter with a battle-axe… best just about everything a Viking could be. He’s also rude and cocky.

Ragnar tells Einar to show Egbert around and teach him the ropes. One day while they’re together, they run into a slave, Eric (Tony Curtis), who was captured by the Vikings when he was a baby and has been brought up by them. Einar’s very proud of his own falconry and is irritated when he discovers that Eric has a hawk better trained than his own. Einar accuses Eric of having stolen the hawk, and Eric, instead of cowering like a slave should, unleashes his hawk on Einar.

The hawk attacks Einar and rips his left eye out, leaving Einar furious and ready to kill Eric. He controls himself (in any case, he’s busy enough trying to staunch the bleeding from his blinded eye), but there’s a reckoning at the banquet that night. Einar and Ragnar sit along with Egbert, and discuss what’s to be done with the defiant slave.

The soothsayer Kitala (Eileen Way) tries to intervene by casting the runes and telling Ragnar that Eric’s time has not come. When Eric is to die, the great god Thor’s hammer will be heard (rather, there’ll be thunder). Ragnar and Einar aren’t really impressed, but decide to leave the decision of Eric’s fate to the crabs. Eric will be chained to a post in the slop pool. When the tide comes in, he’ll either drown or be chewed up by the crabs that live on the fringes of the pool.

Einar, in a last burst of contempt, pulls a string that Eric’s been wearing around his neck, and throws it on the floor—near Egbert’s feet. Eric is led away to the slop pool, but Egbert, who bends down and retrieves the string, sees on it the long-ago pommel stone that had once graced the sword of the king of Northumbria. Eric is heir to that throne.

Egbert doesn’t tell anyone (not even Eric) of his discovery—he runs down to the slop pool, and with the help of the sympathetic Kitala and Eric’s deaf and dumb slave friend Sandpiper (Edric Connor), saves Eric. The god Odin plays a part too: Kitala pleads, calling out Odin’s name, and a wind rises, pulling the water away from the slop pool.

The long and the short of it is that everybody agrees that Odin has decreed Eric be freed. He’s no longer a slave, though he’s now bound to Egbert. And Egbert has promised Ragnar—in exchange for Eric—that he, Egbert, will create maps of England for Ragnar to use. Ragnar plans that the Vikings will attack the ship carrying Morgana back to Wales. Morgana will be abducted and brought back to the fjords, and Aella, her betrothed, will be presented with a claim for a hefty ransom to redeem her.

The Vikings don’t have any trouble kidnapping Morgana along with her maid Bridget (Dandy Nichols). Einar takes one look at Morgana and is smitten (with lust, methinks). He makes it clear to Morgana that he intends to have her, but the other men remind him that they’re not to harm her: a sullied Morgana will not command any ransom.

But Eric, who is also on the boat and who has seen Morgana—and fallen in love with her—decides that he’s going to save her from Einar and Ragnar. When they get home to the village by the fjord, he consults the soothsayer Kitala, who gives him something very useful and very secret. This is a little fish crafted from a metal taken from a piece of rock fallen from the North Star: a fish, therefore, that always points north. Through the densest fog, too.

Which becomes the basis for Eric’s daring plan: a rescue of Morgana. One foggy night, along with Kitala and Sandpiper, in a stolen boat, he heads out to the boat where Morgana and Bridget are ‘imprisoned’, with only a few guards on board. A drunken Einar, who’s come aboard to ravish Morgana, throws his own men overboard—and is himself knocked unconscious by a stealthy Eric, who quickly hurries Morgana and Bridget into his own boat.

And so they go, rowing desperately for their lives, chased by the longboats of Einar and Ragnar, trying to escape. But will they escape? Will Eric come to know who he really is? Will Ragnar and Einar discover his relationship with them? And how will this affect all involved in this tale—Morgana, who is to marry a man she hates; Eric, who’s ostensibly a slave in love with a princess; Einar, who lusts for a woman who hates him but loves another and is betrothed to another. This isn’t a love triangle. This is a lot of interlocking triangles, and with angles of hate, revenge, and treachery to add to the mess.

What I liked about this film:

The entire feel of the film. I’m not talking story or acting; just the look, the setting, the atmosphere. It’s surprisingly not like the usually dated historical you see from the 50’s or the 60’s. Salome, for instance, is very obviously made in the 50’s: there’s a definite stage-like appearance to most of it that shouts “Set!” The Vikings seems very real. The actors are all at the fjord or in a castle, or whatever. It looks exceptionally authentic and I get the feeling that a lot of money must have been spent ensuring everything was just right. (The extras playing Vikings were promised $100 extra as an incentive to let their beards grow during filming!)

The landscapes and the seascapes. Breathtaking.

What I didn’t like:

It goes a trifle too slow in a few places. For instance, the battle scenes towards the end are prolonged, and there are scenes at various places in the film—at Einar and Ragnar’s banquets, with the Vikings carousing for all they’re worth—which could’ve been briefer.

But I wouldn’t not see The Vikings just because of that. On the whole, this is a great film: good adventure, the right touch of emotion, and a very believable ambience. And I personally like seeing Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh together on screen (their romance in this is pretty brief, unfortunately).

Plus, as I said, if you’re fond of Hindi cinema’s well-loved clichés, you’ll probably like meeting up with them here, in a good medieval European setting.


8 thoughts on “The Vikings (1958)

  1. At first I nodded in agreement when I read about the viking s’ desire to die with a sword in their hands – because -I had seen it in *a* film – but as I read on I realised it was *this* film :-D

    I had seen it on television and didn’t chnage the channel when I chanced upon it, because it was really beautiful to look at and, as you say, the ambience was so real and believable. The scenes of partying by the vikings stands out in my memory (as I would have imagined it to be like that).
    The scenery was fantastic.
    Thanks for reminding of this film.


  2. You’re welcome, pacifist! The thing I liked best about this film was the sheer beauty of it – and of course, the fact that it seemed to breathe authenticity! I haven’t come across too many old films that manage to do that – especially not films that aren’t set in the US.


  3. The scenery looks fnatatic. I’ve a freind in Norway, who is always inviting me to his place. I think, I should follow his invitation.
    So does Kirk Douglas play the villain?
    He look damn handsome here! He was very good looking! Prefer him to his son Michael any time!
    Yeah, you are right the film does show many parallels to indian cinema, but one thing is there, the mother of the hero would never be shown to have been raped. That is an absolutely no, no!


  4. Lucky you! I envy you having a friend in Norway who keeps inviting you over! Go, go. :-)

    I prefer Kirk Douglas over Michael any day. Much better looking, and with more presence, I think. What do you think – would he be the villain in The Vikings? Seeing that he’s the hero’s half-brother, and that this is almost like a Hindi film? ;-)

    But yes, rape for the hero’s mother would have been unheard of in Hindi cinema. Any good woman who was raped had to go and throw herself off the nearest cliff, along with her paap ki nishaani! There have been the odd offbeat films, though, like Patita, where a raped woman did end up as something other than a corpse.


  5. a man so proud of his own beauty that he doesn’t believe in hiding it behind a beard.” haha Cant say I like anybody who is conceited and cock-sure, but in this case, I approve of the result. To hide that dimpled chin would be criminal, indeed! ;-)

    This one sounds totally like a Bollywood swashbuckler (without the “confused period” costumes), except for the Maa-rape. There have been heroines in Bollywood who survived and even lived happily-ever-after, after loosing their izzat, but cant recall a single case of a Maa getting away with something like this. For them, there is only a nearby cliff or a burning pyre or poison, or something equally annihilating…

    PS: Me too, on preferring Kirk Douglas to his son – they look so alike but while the Dad looks handsome, the son looks a bit sleazy (probably because I saw him first in Basic Instinct).


  6. That “so proud of his own beauty” quote is actually from the film – Ragnar says it. He’s very proud of Einar, and who can blame him?! :-)

    Yes, the Maa-rape is a completely unknown motif in Hindi cinema, no? Probably because our Maa is always someone so totally above everything even faintly sleazy that nothing will happen to her. The only hero’s maa I can recall who wasn’t married to the man with whom she fathered her son was in Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki, though of course it wasn’t rape there – consensual.


  7. This looks like something i’d totally enjoy, i saw the original Clash of the Titans again a couple of weeks ago and this looks like it has the same kind of feel and yup it does indeed sound like hardcore masala


  8. Ever since the new Clash of the Titans was released, my brother-in-law has been talking about the old one, and saying he wants to see it again! I’ve never watched it, but I think I’d like to, too.
    The Vikings is a good film, not great in the sense of one of those all-time classics, but an enjoyable film, and so beautiful…


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