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In Search of Viking Films

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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.

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About Chris Wilson

  • Shark

    Chris, good work. Thanks for the memories.

    My grandson is 3.5 years old and he has what is apparently an inherent genetic obsession with swords — So I’ve been on the lookout for the best sword movies during the last year or so.

    There are a few good knight, samurai, medieval, and pirate movies, but alas, no good Viking movies.

    You just saved me a lot of time and effort.

    PS: I remember one of the worst of those ‘what were they thinking’ moments was John Wayne as Genghis Khan. You have to avert your eyes!

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks Shark. Wasn’t that John Wayne film called The Conqueror? It was prduced/directed by Howard Hughes? They filmed that out in the dessert during nuclear testing, cast members and crew showered with radiation fallout, and just about all of them came down with cancer over the next 20 years?

    I have never seen The Conqueror, though hear it’s one of the great bad movies of all time…..

  • Shark

    Chris, right on all counts except Directed by Dick Powell.

    Definitely one of the *worst movies ever made!

    (Poor John was in a few of those, wasn’t he: Alamo, Green Berets…)

  • Chris Kent

    lol…..I loved The Alamo as a child and still think Laurence Harvey’s performance as Travis is quite good. Watching it today though is groan-inducing. I have seen a documentary on the making of that film. To me, the story behind the making of The Alamo – a senile John Ford making a surprise visit to the set, Wayne and buddies carousing in Ciudad Acuna – is more interesting than the lumbering film itself. Locals to this day remember Wayne’s time there….”He was a very big man who spoke very bad Spanish.”

    The Wayne-built set in Bracketville, Texas, in the middle of nowhere, is still fascinating to visit. A great weekend trip if you ever have the time….

  • http://www.geocities.com/mondoirlando Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Good stuff Chris. Glad to see your slab of web net is up and running and generally shuffling forwards. Looks good, lad. Viking films, eh? Time for another one, me thinks, what with Johnny Depp Versus The Pirates and Orlando Bloom Versus The Troy and so on all garnering hype in abundance. A remake of Erik The Viking perhaps, with the big twist being that it has proper jokes. Just a thought

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks El Senor Duke,

    I have a ways to go to match your site. I have a couple of ideas, but must find the time! As for viking films, I suppose my recent obsession began with 13th Warrior which I own and have seen about 10 times. I have recommended it to all of my friends and they just don’t get all the fuss….I love the book it is based on Eaters of the Dead as well. I suppose we all deserve a decadent pleasure now and then….:)

  • yves rivard

    Hi,

    In terms of good viking movies, you must have missed Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava) and Beowulf & Grendel.

    Look for Pathfinder in September and Warrior of Ice soon…

    Yves Rivard

  • yves rivard

    The Viking Saga, Gli Invasori (M. Bava), When the raven flies, The Last Viking an the new IMAX movie Vikings : a journey through time (out on dvd) are surely among the best I’ve seen recently.

  • Bagabaga

    There was one Soviet film about Vikings. I can’t remember its name. I watched it a long time ago. I remember that this film was about a Slavic captive who replaces a fallen Viking and receives his name. Damn, I can’t remember the name!

  • Baga baga

    I got it. The name of the film can be translated as “And trees grow even on stones”. Yes, that’s 1986. A joint Soviet-Norwegian production.

  • yves rivard

    Just thought I would update my last comment.
    Since that 2006 comment, there is of course Beowulf, Beowulf & Grendel, Grendel (Sci-Fi Channel awful movie), and soon : Valhalla Rising, Outlander and Thor (don’t expect too much about this one though).

    Of course, the Viking Trilogy is now out on dvd : The Raven Flies, In the Sshadow of the Raven and Embla (The White Viking), all three by Icelandic director Hrafn Gunlaugsson. dvds can be ordered only through his website.

  • Prospyro

    You chaps should really dig out Clive Donner’s ‘Alfred the Great’, a David Hemmings epic distributed by MGM and shot in Ireland in 1968/9. It’s a film with a great mythic shape, and easily the most authentic-looking movie on the subject. Great music score by Raymond Leppard.

    Some critics hated it, but it’s great on many levels.

  • yves rivard

    Prospyro, you are right, it was a great movie. Little update here : since Kenneth Branagh is now helming Thor, we can expect much more than run-of-the-mill cheap fare like Troy – Son of Thor.
    Of course, the elusive Last Battle Dreamer may yet be filmed.
    Tony Rose just released his viking epic on dvd : Severed Ways.