The Vikings [1958]

Janet Leigh, Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis

About the film The Vikings

Erik (played by Tony Curtis) is a lowly Viking slave that, unbeknownst to him and his Viking owners, is actually the child of the widowed Queen of Northumbria in England, and is a half-brother to the Viking chieftain's son Einar (played by Kirk Douglas). Erik's mixed parentage is due to the rape and pillage of earlier years in Northumbria by the Viking Chieftain Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine). It was by only chance (in the Hollywood sense) that Erik ended up as one of their captured slaves.

By the time we get through all of this prelude, we realize the tale is actually a family affair, though no one knows who the other fellow really is, and most of the tale is built around Erik and Einar in hot pursuit of the Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), who is supposed to be sent to marry the (wrongful) new king of Northumbria, Aella (Frank Thring) who wants her only as a tool toward bigger and better alliances.

Morgana is soon captured by the Vikings and winds up at Ragnar's fjord (an on location southwestern Norwegian waterway, beautifully photographed). It is there that the contest for ownership of Morgana (which is what it actually is, though there are the trappings of romance provided for Tony Curtis' character) gets underway.

A secret ally visiting the Vikings is the English Lord Egbert (James Donald), who discovers Erik's true parentage (i.e., Erik has a claim for the throne of Northumbria). Egbert also acts as a strategist and guide for the Vikings so that they can better harass and trouble King Aella, a monarch Egbert wishes to see overthrown.

Kirk Douglas as Einar

This is an interesting Kirk Douglas' action film in which he is certainly both the star and the villain, something unusual for a matinee idol to pursue in those days of the waning Hollywood system where hero actors usually played 'good guys'.

In the course of this tale, Douglas eventually sports a disfigured face for all of his trouble in trying to capture Janet Leigh, his main occupation besides robbing and pillaging. This scarred visage is certainly not what you would expect for a leading star in his own movie, but this is not a typical Hollywood action movie.

Ernest Borgnine as Viking Lord Ragnar

Ernest Borgnine as the Viking chieftain plays him as a barbarian who just doesn't know any better, giving the worst advice possible to his son Einar on how to woo Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh) which is to simply rape her (they've already kidnapped her). Ragnar says that's how he handled the romance with Einar's mother, and it seemed to work for him, so why should Einar argue with tradition?

Of course, this plan of action will not succeed, and Einar's competition (Tony Curtis) has an open field in which to win over the Princess by simply not raping her.

This actually raises the question of why the Curtis character is civilized and introspective, compared to the Vikings who have raised him and kept him captive since his boyhood. Why his character didn't end up like the rest of them isn't explained.

On top of that, Tony Curtis also has a much better barber, too, than the rest of them. Erik appears throughout the film with a nicely clipped short beard and hair.

Janet Leigh as Princess Morgana

Janet Leigh doesn't have much to do in this film except to model the tightly-cut princess clothing and furs, and to scream. She certainly does that perfectly.

It is one of the failings in this film that Leigh isn't put to better use in the story. By 1958, she certainly had the acting chops to play a better and heavier role, but Princess Morgana just doesn't have much to do except act as the grand prize while the male leads clobber each other.

Tony Curtis as Erik the Viking Captive

Tony Curtis plays Erik as a slave who is controlled by events far beyond his reach to master, until later in the film when he starts doing more than just pining for Janet Leigh's Prince Morgana and makes an escape from the Viking village with her and a few other sympathetic characters in tow. This becomes a long voyage to England (mostly in a studio water tank... it should have been an epic crossing of the North Sea, but there appears to have been compromises in the making of this film, perhaps due to finances, as there are magnificently colorful location photography suddenly switching to studio shots, then back again). Along the way Erik picks up Ragnar from a wrecked Viking ship, and makes him a captive.

Arriving in England, he tries to cut a deal with the rotten King Aella, who is supposed to marry Princess Morgana, but Curtis' Erik thinks he can bargain with him because Janet really loves him, and he can hand over the Viking Chief (who he doesn't realize is actually his father.) Aella is of course a veteran double-crosser and does exactly that.

The Scenery and Style of The Vikings

In an unintended way, this movie is a kind of dry run for Douglas' better-made (and larger-budgeted) Spartacus made with Director Stanley Kubrick two years later. Though both films are historical epics with impressive scenery and Douglas' spectacular action stunts (Douglas climbing a ladder made of axes thrown into a castle wall is quite amazing), in the area of the scripting there are major differences in quality.

The Vikings is marred by the use of standard 1950s adventure melodrama which squeezes out most of the interest in the demented romance triangle between Einar/Erik/Morgana. Erik is trying to be in love, Einar thinks rape is love, and Leigh is moved about the film like a chess piece.

Unfortunately, the female lead doesn't really impact the story, she is swept along by events and by the actions of the men around her. For that matter, the men's actions are often predictable, and the best moments of the film are the first rate art direction, the well done action sequences and the exploration of the Viking village, which seems to be a place that's half-militant banditry and the other half-hippy dopiness.

For example, there is a bizarre test for adultery in which the accused offender (the wife) is locked into place and the husband attempts to cut her braids off with a thrown axe. If the braids are cut, she's innocent, if he kills her, she must have been guilty. It's crazy and fits in perfectly with the general outrageousness of the movies tone of pagan insanity, but as soon as we turn to matters of love (Curtis/Leigh/Douglas) the movie bogs down into typical fare seen in a dozen other swashbuckler films.

Will true love triumph? Of course. Will Einar come to his senses and reform from being a violent, acrobatic viking pillager? I don't think anyone wants him to. Borgnine will remain a Viking Chief right through to the end, when he faces down an English execution pit full of half-starved wolves, which begs the question of who is more cruel: the English nobility or the Viking bandits? That the film story contains this ambiguity about the moral soundness of the English vs the Vikings is one of the more sophisticated elements of the tale.

A lot of impressive on-location color scenery abounds in the film (Brittany, France stands in for the English Northumbria, and Norway is the picturesque Viking stronghold). The handsome, on-scale Viking 'dragonship' is the visual centerpiece of the film (not counting Janet Leigh, Douglas' scars, and Curtis' tanned face).

The film doesn't meet its potential (mainly in the scripting), but it is visually powerful and the action is very good.

The Vikings - Directed by Richard Fleischer

Narration by Orson Welles

Stars: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine

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Original Page Sept 2013 | Last update October 17, 2023