On a stormy night, a Viking longship battles the elements. Waves sweep over, tossing the ship; rocks loom. The men aboard the ship yell in fear and try to hold on to the masts, to each other—to anything—in an effort to stop from being sucked in by the water or dashed against the rocks. But the inevitable happens.
“And so, by the storm’s fury, he lost all that he loved most in this world: his ship, and his shipmates. But he was washed ashore, alone, the only survivor. Then the monks found him and took him to their monastery, where they tenderly nursed him, never asking his name, or his country. And, gradually, he grew stronger…”
Against a backdrop of striking imagery combining painted backdrops, moving silhouettes, mosaics, and shadow puppets, the narrator tells a story. The man who had been rescued by the monks saw that the monks spent their time diligently creating a beautiful mosaic that decorated the floors of their monastery.
Through this mosaic was told a remarkable story: the casting of a great golden bell, for which gold was brought, plundered, snatched, bartered, bought—from the ends of the earth. Half the world’s gold was brought together, melted in a great cauldron, and the molten metal poured into a massive clay mould and left for days to harden. When it had finally cooled and the clay was shattered, the bell shone, larger than any the world had ever known.
And, suddenly, the scene shifts from the surreal dream world of a story within a story, to a dusty square in North Africa. Here, Rolfe (Richard Widmark), a storyteller, is recounting the story of the Mother of Voices to a crowd of eager listeners. Some of them question the veracity of this tale Rolfe is telling, and he assures them that every word is true.
Not a smart thing to do, because this attracts the attention of the local ruler, Al Mansur (Sidney Poitier, in what looks like a bad wig). Al Mansur too has heard about the legendary giant golden bell. Till now he has never come across anybody who has even the faintest clue about where it is to be found. But Rolfe, boasting of his knowledge, just might be the one… so Al Mansur has his guards go down to the square and capture Rolfe, and bring him back, kicking and protesting, to the palace.
There is a brief interlude before Rolfe is brought in, during which the scene shifts to a quiet chamber within the palace. Al Mansur’s beautiful and much-neglected wife Amina (Rosanna Schiaffino) confronts her husband, and it seems, from their conversation, that this legend of the Mother of Voices has got Al Mansur so strongly in its grip that he has not even consummated his marriage to this lovely lady. [Despite all her efforts to show off her loveliness—that costume does all it can to flaunt her curves].
Having boasted to Amina that the legendary bell now seems to be within reach, Al Mansur goes off to question and torture Rolfe. But to no avail; Rolfe insists he knows nothing whatsoever about the bell. His claims to knowing about it were calculated to increase his worth as a storyteller. Al Mansur doesn’t believe a word, and is getting ready to try out some nasty glowing iron spikes on Rolfe…
When Rolfe frees himself, races to the window, and jumps out into the sea below. [Many lessons here for Al Mansur. If you have to torture, torture, don’t talk. And do it in a place without large unbarred windows and easy access to good deep seas]. Al Mansur is thoroughly put out. [He may also be wishing he hadn’t been so quick to tell Amina he’d come to her only after he’d got that bell. The chances of both events are very dim now].
The scene now shifts many, many miles north, to the land of the Vikings. King Harald (Clifford Evans) has just had a magnificent longship constructed for him by his thane, a shipbuilder named Krok (the brilliant Oscar Homolka, one of my favourite character actors). The ship is being rowed into the harbor by the royal crew, and a large crowd has gathered to ooh and aah at it.
In the forefront are Harald and Krok (who is justifiably proud of this ship). Krok isn’t too pleased that this gorgeous longship will never really go to sea—Harald has decided that it will be his (Harald’s) funeral ship, whenever he dies. It will be the ship in which his body will be laid and sent off to Valhalla. What a waste of a good ship, is the general murmur, but nobody has the guts to say that.
Krok is, therefore, hardly the life of the party. He tries to cheer himself up by talking about his elder son, who is away on a long voyage in one of Krok’s longships—sailing to the Barbary Coast, from where he will return with much wealth. [Having seen countless Hindi movies, I can guess who this unnamed son is].
Later that night, Krok’s younger son Orm (Russ Tamblyn) finds himself being pursued by a buxom blonde who refuses to take no for an answer. Orm is pining after Harald’s daughter, the princess Gerda (Beba Loncar) and is trying to wriggle out of a tryst with the blonde, when they see a man drag himself out of the sea. The man, bearded and haggard, and coughing up gutfuls of seawater, turns out to be Orm’s elder brother, Rolfe! [No, I’m not surprised].
Orm drags Rolfe inside, revives him, and the two brothers, after a touching reunion, barge into Krok’s room to give him the news. Krok is far from happy: Rolfe is back, yes; but he’s also confessed that he’s lost the ship and has come back empty-handed.
Rolfe, however, does have some news that brings a glimmer of hope to the beleaguered family. He reminds Krok and Orm of a long-ago Egyptian slave whom Krok had a soft spot for; that Egyptian woman used to tell stories of a giant golden bell. Do they remember?
Of course they do [Krok, leering in a lecherously nostalgic fashion, seems to remember the woman better than her stories]. Rolfe now springs a surprise: he has a good idea where to find the bell. [When did this happen? How? Has he discovered it between that dive from Al Mansur’s window and now? Or did he know before Al Mansur captured him? We never learn, alas].
This needs discussion, and action. There is only one ship at hand, and that is the one Harald has bought as his funeral ship. Rolfe suggests they steal the ship; after all, Harald’s measly payment for it can hardly be counted as payment. So, logically, it should still be considered Krok’s ship. Krok does not argue with this [thus proving that he is, after all, the block off which this chip has come]. He does, though, point out some obstacles:
(a) Where will they get a crew?
(b) Harald will be furious when he discovers—he’ll kill Krok. How do they prevent that?
For (a), Rolfe has a simple answer, which he and Orm proceed to carry out. The royal crew, a bunch who seem more like mercenaries than committed sailors, are easily persuaded. And the sailing master, Sven (Edward Judd) is taken by surprise, knocked out, and kidnapped, along with his ship, as the crew row away into the night.
For (b), too, Rolfe and Orm decide to kidnap—Princess Gerda. She will be held as hostage [and Orm is more than willing to take on the task of kidnapping her while she’s bathing, bringing her on board, and taking care of her].
So they set off down the fjord and on, towards the open sea. Sven, when he comes to and finds himself tied up and expected to pull his weight on the oars, is annoyed. But he shuts up when Rolfe assures him that they don’t need a sailing master; Rolfe is perfectly capable of handling that job by himself.
When they reach the sea and unfurl the sail, though, Sven (and most of the crew) fly into a tizzy. This ship had been destined for Harald’s funeral, so its sail is a black one—a sign of doom.
Yes—by sacrificing a maiden, retorts Sven, unaware that Gerda is tucked away, bound and gagged, in the hold. Rolfe drags her up, still wrapped in lots of furs. He positions her in such a way that the men can only see her face, and plunges a sword into her before rolling everything—bloodied furs and all—overboard.
This being a Hindi film masquerading as a Hollywood one [which self-respecting Hindi film hero would knowingly kill his beloved brother’s sweetheart?], Rolfe hasn’t, of course, killed Gerda. As he later reveals to an initially-furious, later-relieved Orm, he had hauled up a sheep [where did that come from? Was Gerda cuddling up with a sheep for company?] along with Gerda. It was the sheep he had killed and tossed aboard, while surreptitiously kicking the princess back down into the hold.
All is well. The sailors and Sven, blissfully unaware that their supposed sacrifice is alive and pampered in the hold, are happy. Gerda is alive. Orm is happy. Rolfe is looking forward to finding the bell… but they find a maelstrom instead, and their ship is tossed about, broken, and washed up on a seashore. And when they come to, Rolfe realises he’s back where he started: on the Moorish coast. In the land of Al Mansur.
Will they ever get to the bell? Is there a bell to get to?
The Long Ships was a film I wanted to watch primarily because I like historicals. The fact that it also starred Sidney Poitier—an actor whom I particularly admire—was an added attraction. It turned out to be an odd sort of film, caught somewhere between history and fantasy, and with large doses of just about everything thrown in: humour, tragedy, a sprinkling of lust thinly veiled as romance. But it is, first and foremost, an adventure film in a historic setting.
What I liked about this film:
The acting, especially by Oscar Homolka. Poitier and Widmark, unfortunately, don’t get to show off their acting chops much, since most of the time they’re required to do not much more than spout threats (Poitier) or try to wriggle out of a nasty situation (Widmark). Homolka’s role is rather better defined, even if he has relatively little screen time. But he does full justice to it when he’s onscreen—he’s delightful.
The beauty of it. The Long Ships was filmed largely in Spain, and the gorgeousness of the locales is quite something. Plus, the sets are stunning, and the cinematography (by Christopher Challis) top-notch.
What I didn’t like:
A particular scene revolving around an impromptu, forced orgy in Al Mansur’s harem. This is basically a grope-and-pounce version of a pie-in-the-face sort of fight. Women race about in flimsy stuff, trying to escape from leering men; they fall into pools, are dragged off, kissed, kiss back eagerly… and when ‘rescued’, limp away, sobbing.
This did not fall into the funny category, because it was pretty obvious that the women in question did not want to be groped (or worse, which did seem to be happening behind those curtains). And the weeping of some of the women after the event does seem to suggest that this was a harrowing experience.
On the other hand, it does not fall into the ‘ghastly truth’ category, either. Some of the women are giggling and quite happy to smooch their attackers. And the buffoonery (which includes a eunuch who has an eye for the men) is in your face, utterly slapstick. What it becomes is a distasteful and pointless scene which could well have been omitted from the film. What were the director (Jack Cardiff) and the writers (Berkely Mather and Beverley Cross) trying to do? Titillate those members of the audience who might not be keen on adventure?
Sadly, this somewhat directionless plotting takes over the film after a while. While it starts off being an absorbing adventure, about halfway through, The Long Ships goes off the rails and becomes a series of needlessly violent scenes that achieve little in the way of moving the story forward. This was what disappointed me the most: it had promised much, it delivered less, and it didn’t seem quite to know where it was headed, the way to get there, or which side who was on. Pretty much like Rolfe’s longship and its crew, actually.