TheVikingscoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1958, 116 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Unrated (would be PG)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link
Trailer

Two years after Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea as Moses, Ernest Borgnine (TV’s McHale’s Navy) and Kirk Douglas (Michael’s dad, call him Spartacus) starred as Norse raiders in a memorable adventure-drama about 9th-century Viking chieftain Ragnar’s raids on England. History Channel’s 2013 series Vikings covered similar ground in a far grittier production, but for 1958 The Vikings was pretty darned edgy, and it still incorporates scenes that will cause young people today to pronounce it “sick,” if they’re anything like my teenage son.

Things stand out: like a scene in which Vikings rowing into their home fjord play a game in which the warriors step from oar to oar and try not to fall into the water; or when a Viking is captured and brought to England, where he jumps voluntarily into a pit of wolves, sword in hand, to face his end; or when an attack on an English castle shows Vikings throwing axes at the raised drawbridge door, one after the other, and then one of them runs to use those axes as steps to get to the top and lower the door for everyone to enter; or when a Viking wife accused of adultery is put in stocks and her braids are nailed to the wood, so that when her husband throws axes at her if he cuts her braids she was faithful, and if he misses . . . uh, probably not.

As for the action, there’s no CGI slow-mo or quick editing cuts to suggest chaos. It’s all right there in front of you, the shields clashing in what seems like as much pushing and shoving as actual blades and axes swinging. But it feels realistic, as do the ships, the buildings, and smaller details, enhanced by the decision to film on location at a real Norwegian fjord, as well as at castles and exteriors in Bavaria, France, and Croatia. In Technicolor, and now on glistening Blu-ray, the production has a rich look to it—a gleaming historical adventure that, typical of 1950’s Hollywood sword-and-sandals movies, is slightly romanticized.

TheVikingsscreen1In this version of history, Ragnar (Borgnine) and his son Einar (Douglas) have been raiding the coasts of England, and on his most recent raid Ragnar kills the king of that particular realm and it is implied that he rapes the queen. To save her son (and we’ve seen this device from Hollywood before), the baby is sent away wearing a pendant made from a broken piece of the sword of the new King Aella (smarmily and simperingly played by Frank Thring, who would go on to play Pontius Pilate in Ben-Hur). Twenty years later the son, Eric (Tony Curtis), turns up as a slave in the Viking settlement and clashes with Einar, his real half-brother, in several key scenes. But their animosity is truly brought to a head when an English traitor who has been providing information to the Vikings (James Donald) suggests they kidnap Aella’s bethroved, the Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh). Both men fall for her and fight over her, with one main swordfight on the narrow heights of a castle as convincing, still, as anything you’ll see in Hollywood. Curtis and Douglas made enough of an impression together that they were paired again two years later in the more famous epic Spartacus.

Although the homecoming scenes are shot in such a way as to make you smile and one glaring violation of the 180-degree rule does the same when a Viking shoots an arrow toward the castle and we see a medium shot of an Englishman getting shot through the throat from the opposite side, The Vikings still plays well and ought to be appreciated by families who enjoy historical adventures and epics. I’d say that this one is for families with children 10 and older. Unrated, it’s mostly PG, but, like any historical film from this period, be warned that it’s not a beacon of feminism.

If you’re upgrading from DVD, the same featurette with director Richard Fleischer is included here.

Language: n/a
Sex: An implied rape, though the camera fades to black after the woman screams when he first grabs her by the shoulders, and plenty of kissing from Viking women who serve the men
Violence: Most of the deaths are offscreen or understated by today’s standards, but there are some slashes and hacks to the body and that arrow through the neck
Adult situations: Lots of beer-drinking and drunkenness
Takeaway: Memorable scenes and attention to detail will make a movie work even 50+ years later

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