64 years ago, Hollywood made the most rip-roaring Viking movie ever

1958’s The Vikings might be dated, but it’s still a good time.

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2022 is already a banner year for authenticity in Viking entertainment thanks to Robert Eggers’ thoroughly researched and brilliantly crafted The Northman. But if you’re looking for different qualities in a Viking film, albeit one hallucinogenic and vivid in its own way, I have a suggestion.

Richard Fleischer’s 1958 widescreen spectacle, The Viking, hails from a different era, one that supplied reliable Sunday afternoon movies in an earlier era when you’d just curl up in front of the TV to see what was on. More than six decades later, its eccentricities and performances make it worth actually seeking out.

The Vikings is rip-roaring, a style of filmmaking that seems passé at a time when Hollywood is split between bleak indies and CGI spectacles. I am here to put in a word for rip-roaring, “full of vigor, spirit, or excellence” per the Oxford English Dictionary, or by my definition, something that involves big actors making big gestures against big backgrounds, particularly waterfalls and, in this case, fjords.

The Viking Issue celebrates the glorious weirdness, diversity, and curious nature of everyone's favorite Scandinavian seafarers.

The plot of The Vikings principally concerns itself with two brothers (who don’t know they are brothers) fighting for the affections of Janet Leigh’s Welsh princess Morgana. Admittedly, it’s a Viking kind of love, with Kirk Douglas’s Einar hoping to capture and force himself on the princess (at least at first). His rival (and secret brother) Eric, played by Tony Curtis, is a slave who wears extremely short shorts and falls in love with Morgana too, rescuing her from Einar’s aggression only to admit he loves her himself. He reveals this while the two eat berries, which helps soften his seduction. (The gender roles of the film are surely dated.)

Morgana herself is a good Christian and unsure if she can enter into a mixed marriage with the heathen Eric. But she is married to Frank Thring’s King Aella, a man who manages to swing a broadsword with one hand while fondling his own nipple with the other, so any alternate life choices she makes would be understandable. In another supporting cast highlight, Ragnar (father of both Einar and Eric) is played with gusto, fur-trimmed pants, and a profusion of hair by Ernest Borgnine. Borgnine is so impressively natural eating a chicken with his hands while watching a man throw axes at his wife’s braids to see if she has been faithful to him, he makes it feel like something he’d do himself on a regular Thursday night in real life.

The official poster for The Vikings.

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There’s not a lot in the way of “period accents” or “stylistic consistency” in this film’s approach to dialect, but no matter. The Vikings is full of life. Douglas is a rip-roaring actor par excellence. He and Curtis bring, respectively, pop-eyed intensity and sullen vehemence to their roles. Douglas is always astonishing onscreen, looking like he wants to tear a hole in something, regardless of whether he’s playing Vincent Van Gogh (Lust for Life, canvas), a studio executive (The Bad and the Beautiful, Barbara Stanwyck’s dress), Spartacus (Spartacus, the entire Roman civilization) or, in this case, as a lovelorn Viking, which leads him to want to tear through pretty much everything, including Eric and Morgana. Curtis matches Douglas’s glaring, scene for scene, although in short order, Douglas has to concentrate it all through one eye after Curtis’s hawk gouges out his other, making his feat all the more impressive. (Eric will lose his hand, but Curtis isn’t much of a hand actor, doing it all with his eyes and mouth, so it barely breaks his stride).

The image of a hawk flapping against Douglas’s face is not completely convincing, but it’s a horrifying thought, which is enough to give the scene power. Many other moments are like this. Fleischer’s work doesn’t have the depth of the great epic directors, with some scenes tending to the cartoony. But he keeps things exciting, and the third act is focused and clear as the brothers sail to England to lay siege to a castle and free Janet Leigh.

I wondered if Einar’s use of throwing axes to climb the castle door was an authentic touch, but am reliably informed it’s a Hollywood invention.

United Artists

The final scenes of Viking warfare feel realistic in their way (slow-moving, onerous, then violent), just as the earlier scenes of longboats sailing through the fjords are genuinely inspiring. I wondered if Einar’s use of throwing axes to climb the castle door was an authentic touch, but am reliably informed it’s a Hollywood invention. The jeopardy of the battle scenes (pre-CGI) does feel real, at least in terms of the actors’ bodily safety. And the final fight between the brothers, one missing an eye and the other a hand, has real zest and not a little pathos.

Upon its release, the movie, which was a hit, drew praise mostly for its painterly visuals. The Vikings was shot on location in Norway and France by the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Cardiff also filmed the mesmerizing Powell and Pressburger films The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, the latter of which memorably recreated a Nepalese monastery on a British soundstage. He brings his eye for expressive color and dynamic composition to this enterprise, too. Technicolor, at least in Cardiff’s hands, renders the familiar unreal, strange, heightened — the perfect trance-like mood for a Viking tale.

What’s authenticity anyway?

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Watching the film now, it’s not just the technical aspects that seem worthy. Like the performances, the story (based on Viking sagas via a novel, The Viking, by Edison Marshall) is propulsive. Many of the most questionable lines (“Love and hate are both horns on the same goat,” says the movie’s witchy-seer character) give way to better dialogue (“If I have to cross the poisoned sea, I’ll find him”), moments that are truly surprising (Einar slaps a priest to the ground with a contemptuous “save your magic for someone else, holy man”), and even scenes of refreshing Scandivanian beauty, as when Einar’s boat pursues Eric’s through the “poisonous fog” that bedevils the Vikings’ navigation efforts.

What’s authenticity anyway? When Kirk Douglas gets that manic look in his eyes — or eye — that’s really why you’re watching, anyway. The Vikings made efforts at authenticity, but they may not be recognizable to us. This is a movie to watch, preferably on a Sunday afternoon, and then remember and dream about and misremember years later.

For every moment of glory, there’s one of silliness. For every howler, there’s something stirring. If that doesn’t quite feel authentic, it at least feels something like life.

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