Watching the epics from cinema’s past is often a surreal experience as it’s kinda weird to see what trends were obsessing audiences during Hollywood’s many different phases. Once, westerns held cinemas in an iron grip the way superhero movies do now, but another genre of film that used to guzzle budgets and enthrall fans was the historical epic. Mostly, this genre would concern itself with biblical tales or sizable stabs at history like Cleopatra, Spartacus or other such movies that required a strict sand, sword, or sandals policy, it’s a stark change from earlier movies that would use the various time periods to let it’s hair down, not take itself so seriously and indulge in a harmless spot of swashbuckling while flinging pirates or Merry Men all over the place.
However, sitting right in the middle of the adventure movies of old and the handsomely mounted epics of the 50’s and 60’s sits the drunk, rowdy form of 1958’s The Vikings…
Due to Norse raiders – led by the violently boisterous King Ragnar – enthusiastically killing and ravishing their way through various attacks on England, the King of Northumbria is rendered dead by a severe axe allergy while his queen is left with a unwanted Viking child in her belly. The king’s, the unbelievably shifty Aella becomes ruler in his stead while the child, Eric, is sent off to Italy to escape his uncle’s murderous intentions; however, Eric luck continues to be spelt B.A.D. when his ship is also attacked by Vikings and he grows up as a slave. Years pass, and snooty nobleman Lord Egbert defects to the Vikings after being imprisoned for pointing out how much of a dick the king is and starts to help Ragnar plan the best ways to attack his former homeland. Meawhile, Ragnar’s vain son Einar has major beef with the enslaved Eric while having no knowledge of their brotherhood and their feud proves the old adage “it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” when the latter chucks a hunting bird into the latter’s face thus scarring him like a facial from a corral reef. Unsurprisingly, considering the famous Viking temperament, Eric is condemned to death by drowning, but is saved and then claimed by Egbert who has figured out the slave’s true parentage and has bigger plans in mind – but all this is put in hold while he orchestrates the kidnapping and ransoming of Aella’s unwilling bride to be, Lady Morgana, an act that will have seismic ramifications on the house of Ragnar.
Both the now one-eyed Einar and Eric instantly fall in love with the sheltered maiden and while she fends off Einar’s brutish advances, its Eric she falls for after he manages to smuggle her back to England. However, neither have counted on how much of a duplicitous shit bag Aella truly is and his villainous response to Eric sends him back to Einar and his people in order to seek vengeance. Can this insanely unstable alliance between mortal enemies possibly survive an all out assault on England’s most fortified castle; and even if it does, what will they both do about their love for Morgana?
To enjoy The Vikings (or most other historical epics from that period), there’s a few things you’re going to have to tolerate. For example, if your one of those people who bristle at the sounds of American actors not bothering to do foreign accents then you probably won’t be fond of Tony Curtis’ noticably un-Norse-like New York twang. Also, because were dealing with ferocious Vikings who weren’t particularly renowned for taking a “no means no” kind of stance, you maybe surprised that so many plot points in a PG film is based around various forms of sexual assault and a general treatment of women as “things” that should be owned. However, taken in a “historical” context (american accents aside), these issues make understandable sense and as a whole, The Vikings is a bawdy slice of cheesy awesomeness.
Maybe it’s because the The Vikings themselves are portrayed as unrepentant party animals who are constantly screaming “HAIL *insert various Viking name here*” at each other at the top of their lungs while necking gallons of booze between gails of booming laughter, but the way the movie portrays Norse life (rape aside) is hilariously campy. Large parts of the film are intensely preoccupied with merely having the Vikings get shitfaced and indulge in stunning bouts of toxic masculinity such as either hurling axes at the pigtails of women accused of infidelity in a drunken attempt to prove their innocence, or running across the oars of their boats like big, goofy twats. In the middle of this – usually pissing himself with laughter while booze drips from his beard – is the mighty Ernest Borgnine, who uses that booming voice and that gap toothed grin to fabulous effect as Ragnar but even better is the leering, reptilian grin of Kirk Douglas as the egotistical Einar. Always an actor who always was his best when entwining overt masculinity with internal and external suffering, he’s magnetic as the son who can fo no wrong. Handsome, charismatic and able to throw a mean axe, Einar is almost like if Chris Hemsworth’s Thor never met Natalie Portman and became a sadistic egomaniac with the ravaged milky eye of a Bond villain.
In the shadow of two, utterly full-on performances, Curtis and Janet Leigh can’t help but be a little overwhelmed, having to thanklessly progress the plot while everyone else gets to knock back cow horns full of ale. Also, due to all the extended scenes of rambunctiousness, Eric and Morgana’s relationship feels reduced and is less like true love and more like a sudden realisation that maybe she should cling to the only half decent bloke she’s met in weeks who hasn’t tried to force himself on her. Aside from this, the plot also takes a little bit of a knock which relies too often on coincidence and thus feels a little half baked.
But it all comes good in the end with a truly rousing battle scene which sees Vikings navigate a stubbon drawbridge by flinging bloody axes into it before Einar climbs them like a badass ladder and everyone getting most excellent battle deaths – but it’s the final confrontation between the unknowing brothers that really brings things home. Both wearing the various wounds this adventure has brought them (Einar’s blind eye is bad enough but by this point Eric’s missing a fucking hand – bloody careless, these Vikings), their final battle for the maiden fair is loaded with the appropriate weight for a duel to the death at the top of a tower and doesn’t disappoint.
Frequently cheesier than a pizza the size of a monster truck’s hubcap (assuming they have them) and just as delicious, The Vikings is an undemanding, old school pleasure that earns it’s way into proving that this is a Norse you can definitely bet on. Hail Ragnar, bitches.