Welcome to Episode 18 – The Vikings (1958). We are currently working on the Janet Leigh line. Go to my website at classicmovierev.com to find all of the twitter, Facebook, and other social media links. If you like what you hear pop on over to iTunes and give me a review.
This movie is a nice little period piece but it’s a little strange in the treatment of the women characters. The story is interesting and has enough twists and turns. The on-location shooting is visibly striking and the actors are some of the top in the business.
The role of Ragnor was played by Ernest Borgnine. Borgnine was the child of Italian immigrants. After graduating from high school in Connecticut Borgnine joined the Navy. He stayed in the service for 10 years leaving at the end of WWII. His mother suggested that he try acting and well, you should always listen to mamma. His first role was as a male nurse in Harvey (1950). He moved to Hollywood and began his career in earnest, pun intended. He hit the big time when he was cast as the sadistic jailer Fatso in From Here to Eternity (1953). In 1955 he played the lead in Marty. This role garnered him the Oscar for Best actor. He took the lead on a comedy television show “McHale’s Navy” from 1962-66. He continued to churn out movies including The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), Emperor of the North (1973), and Escape from New York (1981). In 1984, he took a leading role in “Airwolf” with Jan-Michael Vincent. Borgnine continued to work including voice over roles until his death in 2012. His last roles included the voice of Mermaid Man in “SpongeBob SquarePants”.
Kirk Douglas was cast in the role of Einar, warrior son of Ragnar. Douglas was a descendant of Jewish Russian parents from what is now in Belarus and was raised in a tuff area of New York. He went on to be perhaps one of the greatest actors in American history. He performed a little on Broadway until he joined the Navy in 1941. At the end of the war, he returned to acting and was cast in the lead role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). This was followed by a roll in I Walk Alone (1948), marking the first of seven times he would work alongside Burt Lancaster. In Champion (1949) he played an untrustworthy boxer. Douglas was cast as painter Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). This was followed by the western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Lancaster. In 1957, he played a French Colonel in Stanley Kubrick’s intense anti-war drama Paths of Glory. In 1960, Douglas played the lead in Spartacus a movie that has ties to today’s film. Douglas also insisted that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo be given on-screen credit. This helped break the blacklisting that rose as a result of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s “Red Scare” hysteria in the early 1950s.
In Lonely are the Brave (1962) he played a rebellious cowboy that didn’t fit in the modern world. This was followed by the John Frankenheimer’s military thriller Seven Days in May (1964), again with Lancaster. He was cast with John Wayne in the WWII drama In Harm’s Way (1965). In Harm’s Way was featured in Episode 4 of this podcast. Although Wayne and Douglas differed politically the were also paired in Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) a film about Israeli’s struggle for independence and the western The War Wagon (1967). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Final Countdown (1980) about a time traveling aircraft carrier and The Man from Snowy River (1982) where Douglas played a pair of brothers at odds in 19th century Australia.
Douglas has long been involved in humanitarian causes and in 1981 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He suffered a stroke in the 1990s but remains active. He is the father of actor Michael Douglas and father in law of actress Catherine Zeta-Jones
Tony Curtis was cast as Eric another son of Ragnar but though circumstances wound up being a slave. Curtis was the son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. He grew up in a rough part of New York. He was only close to his younger brother strengthen by a stint in an orphanage until his parents reclaimed them. In 1938, Curtis’ brother was killed in an accident. His parents wanted Curtis to get a formal education so he could avoid the poverty that the family had suffered. Curtis, however, wanted an education from the school of hard knocks. In 1942, he joined the Navy and remained in service until 1945.
He began his acting education on the GI Bill but was soon noticed by Joyce Selznick who pointed him out to her uncle. Shortly thereafter he was given a seven-year contract with Universal Studios.
His roles became larger over time with such vehicles as Sierra (1950) and Winchester ’73 also in (1950). He began to get leading roles, including a few that he co-starred with Janet Leigh whom he married. These include Houdini (1953) and The Black Shield of Falworth (1954).
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Curtis’ career was on fire. His films from this period include Sweet Smell of Success (1957) where he played an evil hustler opposite Burt Lancaster, The Defiant Ones (1958) where he played an escaped prisoner chained to Sydney Poitier, Operation Petticoat (1959) about a pink submarine, Some Like It Hot (1959) where he was in drag with Marilyn Monroe, Spartacus (1960) where he was a devotee of the escaped leader, and The Great Impostor (1961).
Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis’ wife was cast as Morgana, a Welch princess. She was discussed in more detail in Episode 16 of this podcast Night of the Lepus (1972).
James Donald was cast in the role of Egbert, an Englishman that was helping the Vikings by making maps of his home. Donald was a Scottish actor that worked on stage and screen in England. He was cast in a few roles with American actors but in 1956 his role as Vincent Van Gogh’s brother in Lust for Life got him noticed. He was cast as a British soldier in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Great Escape (1963), King Rat (1965), and Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), and as a doctor in the cheesy Five Million Years to Earth (1967). His last acting credit was in 1978.
Frank Thring was cast in the role of Aella. Thring was born in Australia. He was a fantastic actor and had a career in movies, stage, and television. He was cast as two biblical bad guys: Pontius Pilate in Ben-Hur (1959) and as Herod in King of Kings (1961). He was also in El Cid (1961) with Charlton Heston (1959). He played the role of the Collector in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). He had bouts of alcoholism and illness during his lifetime. In 1982, he was elected “The King of Moomba” a Melbourne festival. The name of the festival may or may not mean “Up Your Butt Hole” in many Aboriginal languages. Thring died in 1994.
Orson Welles was uncredited as the narrator. I will not attempt to summarize his career at this time because I would go very long if I did.
The movie begins with Orson Welles telling how and why the Vikings were raiding into Europe and how their greatest goal was to die in battle with a sword in their hand. This part of the movie is
illustrated in Bayeux tapestry style and is quite nice. This sequence ends with the English prayer “Protect us Oh Lord from the wrath of the Northmen.”
Like I said before, this movie had a strange treatment of women even for the time. Following the intro of Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) who kills the Northumbrian king and then rapes the queen (Maxine Audley). In a short time, her cousin Aella (Frank Thring) takes over the throne. When the queen gives birth to a son she sends the baby away to Italy for protection. She ties the pummel stone from the royal sword into a necklace and sends it with the child.
The tale jumps 20 years into the future and Aella is still having trouble with the Vikings. The king of Wales pledges his daughter, Morgana (Vivian Leigh) to King Aella. The king accuses Lord Egbert (James Donald) of treason by being in league with the Vikings. The king wants him killed but he escapes to his friends the Vikings and goes to Norway with Ragnar.
When the group returns home they meet Ragnar’s son Einar (Kirk Douglas). Einar is a brave warrior but is a man-whore tends to take instead of ask. Einar takes an immediate dislike to Egbert but he is ordered by Ragnar to teach him the Viking ways. Einar tries to show off his hunting birds but is embarrassed by another hunter’s bird. This bird turns out to be the property of the slave named Eric (Tony Curtis), who was captured by the Vikings as an infant.
Eric uses his hawk to attack the vain Einar which results in the loss of Einar’s eye. They bring Eric to the great hall for judgment.
Look how he glares at me. “If he wasn’t fathered by the black ram in the full of the moon my name is not Ragnar.” When Ragnar asks Egbert what they would do in England and Egbert foreshadows Ragnar’s death. Egbert sees the pummel stone from the English sword and knows Eric is the prince of Northumbria.
While Ragner and Einar are deciding how to kill Eric an old witch pops up and tells them that whomever kills Eric will be cursed by Odin. So Ragner decides to have him tied in a tidal pool where the rising surf will kill him. Egbert, a black slave, and the witch watch over Eric and a favorable wind save him from the tide. Eric now belongs to Egbert because Ragner said if he lives anyone can claim him.
Egbert comes up with a plan to snatch the Welch princess Morgana. He plans on leading the expedition and taking Eric with him. Einar is still pissed and glares at Eric with his milky eye. Einar decides to lead the kidnapping expedition. Einar comments to Egbert that maps are no good in the fog. Later the old witch shows Eric a magnetized amulet that points north. This makes Eric the only one that can directly navigate the open ocean and sail through the fog.
Love and hate are horns on the same goat
Einar captures the princess and this is where it gets a little rapey. He takes her back to Norway unharmed. When they get back Einar/Douglas runs along the oars of the boat. The stuntmen had been practicing the stunt for weeks. Douglas did it with no practice. When he fell into the cold fjord water he swam to the camera boat and ask how it looked before swimming back to the Viking ship.
Back to the story. Stop shouting you sound like a moose giving birth to a hedgehog
They anchor the boat with the princess in the harbor. Kill themselves if you don’t.
They get into the whole thing about wanting women to fight and bite. Ragnar gives Morgana to Einar. He goes and tries to get her to fight back but she won’t. Eric knocks out Einar and with the witch and the black slave they head for England. Einar and Ragner pursue the escapes into the fog. Ragnar’s boat hits a rock and Eric pulls him from the water. The escapees make it to England. During their travels, Morgana and Eric fall in love. Eric gives her the sword pummel.
Eric turns Ragnar over to Aella and asks for Morgana. Aella orders Ragnar to be feed to the wolves. Ragnar asks for a sword so he can die like a Viking. Eric gives him the sword and allows Ragner to die fighting. Father Godwin finds out that Eric is the prince.
Morgana pledges to Aella in return for Eric’s life. Before he lets him go Aella chops Eric’s hand off. They cast them adrift in his boat. Before the mourning period is over Eric returns Norway and ask Einar for help. Eric tells the story of the wolf pit. The group decides to attack Aella and England.
The Vikings arrive with a giant battering ram that they roll down and crush the gate to the outer works of the castle. Aella is at a window making cowardly lion faces. When they get to the inner gates Eric provides suppressive arrow fire while Einar’s group throws axes at the gate. It is not clear what they are up to until Einar runs to the gate and climbs the axes. Once he is at the top he lowers the gate for the others. Aella is at a window still making cowardly lion faces. As the fighting continues Einar makes straight for the chapel and Morgana while Eric heads for Aella and revenge. Eric runs down Aella and during the tussle Aella falls into the wolf pit.
Einar finds Morgana with the priest in the chapel and delivers a great line when the priest crosses himself. Take your magic elsewhere holy man.
At first, it seems like Einar is intent on finishing the rape. But instead, he tells her he loves her and wants her to be his queen. She doesn’t even try to let him down easy. Morgana declares her love for Eric.
Einar sees red. He takes Morgana to the top of the tower and she tells Einar that they are brothers and that Ragnar is the father of both men. Einar reacts in a similar vein as Luke Skywalker, another cutoff hand but that is a different story.
Eric climbs the tower and he and Einar begin a sword fight. Einar breaks Eric’s sword and had the high ground. At the decisive moment, Einar pauses because he realizes Eric is the son of Ragnar as he sees Ragnar’s face in the man he is fighting. Eric stabs and kills Einar with the broken sword but wonders why Einar paused. Eric gives him a sword so he can die with it in his hand as a Viking should. Einar shouts Odin and dies.
They do a nice Viking ship burial. So Eric and Morgana live happily ever after as King and queen having united the Vikings, the Northumbrian’s, and the Welch.
Ernest Borgnine who was 45 days younger that Kirk Douglas played father to the older man. Douglas was in his 40s and was playing a man that should have been around 20. Following the attack by the hawk Douglas was required to wear an opaque contact lens. This was extremely painful and he could only wear it for a minute or two at a time.
Both Douglas and Curtis were big stars at the time. Since Curtis killed Douglas they agreed that in the next movie Spartacus (1960) Douglas would kill Curtis.
During the Viking funeral one flaming arrow was fired early by a stunt man. The director liked the single arrow shot and kept it in the movie.
This movie had firm norse ground. It was filmed on location in Norway and many of the people in the movie were locals. The scenes of the Viking boats moving through the fjord was breathtaking. The houses in the village were correctly styled as well.
The story is roughly based in history where two Viking brothers fought with King Aella of Northumbria. In real life Aella had a snake pit.
The semi-historic Ragnar Lodbrok, who this movie appears to be based on had several famous sons and spent his time raiding England and France. It is believed that he was captured by the historical King Aella and thrown into the snake pit. You can currently see a fictionalized version of Ragnar on the History Channel.
This movie also touched on Norse mythology. Odin and Týr are the gods of war. Odin is said to have one eye and Týr had one hand. The final fight sequence in this movie appears to be a tribute to these two.
World-Famous Short Summary – Family travels to England. Things turn out bad.
I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast. Remember you can find all of the links at classicmovierev.com and I appreciate those reviews at iTunes.