Finding a good viking film is akin to watching prime time television. One must wade chest-deep through a lot of sewage before discovering that rare gem. I have climbed video-store ladders and creepy-crawled Internet basements in my epic quest. I have stared into the bloodshot eyes of Richard Boone and amazingly survived. Tolkien, undoubtedly, would be proud.
My discoveries were enlightening. First let me say, the viking film as a genre is a foolish pipe dream. I might as well have been clopping around to the sound of coconut shells with Michael Palin and company. I loaded down my station wagon for a cross-country road trip and discovered four flat tires. Oh well, the journey is the thing.
I liked The Vikings and The 13th Warrior. I was even mildly inspired by Chuck Heston’s whimsical The War Lord. But two films stand out as unforgettable as sinking ships at launch. I stared at the boat slowly disappearing beneath the harbor surface, and awkwardly realized, “What a glorious fucking waste of time.”
The 1964 lusty epic The Long Ships is so laughably bad as to be amusing – but I think that’s a good thing. This outrageous film tells the tale of a band of vikings in search of a huge golden bell. Led by Richard Widmark and Russ Tamblyn (that’s right, Russ Tamblyn), these colorful warriors steal a ship, oar through a maelstrom and battle Moors, all the while trying to find that darn golden bell.
Poor Sidney Poitier, starring in probably the worst film of his career, is the leader of the happy-go-lucky Moors. He’s got a sexually frustrated wife back home who’s irritated with his obsession with finding this golden bell. Everyone’s looking for the golden bell. I suppose when found, it can be melted down and provide untold riches for all involved. Which is really kind of a shame, because when it rings, it makes such beautiful music.
Anyway, Poitier and the Vikings reluctantly join forces to find this golden bell – which is about 20 feet tall. Such a golden bell must be awfully heavy, but it’s carted around on a Gilligan’s Island-like raft and pulled by six unlucky horses once they reach land. At one point the bell falls down a cliff, killing a lot of vikings, and then oddly floating on the ocean like a discarded Styrofoam cup. Thank goodness it didn’t sink because I don’t think viking scuba gear had been invented.
Oh well, I first saw this as a child and thought it was the greatest epic since The Apple Dumpling Gang. It plays like a comic book, with Richard Widmark delivering Indiana Jones wisecracks throughout. It’s a lot of fun if in the right mood and the battle sequences are exciting. But the film clocks in at over two endless hours and moves with the finesse of a lead bass boat. But to edit The Long Ships down would mean to delete the scene where the vikings stumble upon a female harem. Rather than escape with their lives, they decide to sample the wares leading to chaos. I was expecting Gene Wilder to make an appearance any second.
But the true Holy Grail of viking films must be the lovely 1978 American International classic The Norseman. Mr. Six Million Dollar Man himself Lee Majors leads a rag-tag group of Nordic warriors to the American continent (actually Florida). They’re hoping to find lost comrades, but are rudely greeted by a band of especially sadistic Native Americans whose hobby seems to be poking out tourists’ eyes with burning sticks of firewood. The slow-motion battle sequences, complete with thundering musical score, possess the polish of a Tor Johnson wrestling match.
I enjoyed the cast of once-great character actors, including Cornel Wilde and Jack Elam, furrowing overgrown eyebrows while praying to Odin after the death of yet another Viking in the wrong place at the wrong time. Several former football players, among them a befuddled Deacon Jones, provide picturesque blocks to weak Native American offensive lines. There’s even Mrs. Sonny Bono herself, the great Susie Coelho, playing a female squaw with the proper fashion sense to wear her buckskin as short as a Nancy Sinatra mini-skirt.
I actually loved this hound dog adventure, if for no other reason than it reminds me of my own paradise youth in a darkened theater. Eyes wide, adorned in muddy sneakers, I guzzled Mr. Pibb while listening to Majors intensely deliver such lines as….”What say you Wizard! When will the Gods show us land!”
My viking journey is mercifully over. I am now in search of science fiction films starring Doug McClure. Legend has it they exist, so wish me luck.