The Ragnar’s Son

Not to offend those Golden Age of Hollywood buffs who serve up 1939 as le cinema‘s greatest year, but, as far as I’m concerned, 1958 had its formidable moments.  My favorite movie of all time, Vertigo, came out in ’58; ditto, some amazing imports, plus outstanding and/or interesting entries from the canons of Nick Ray, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Sam Fuller, Billy Wilder, Terence Fisher, Raoul Walsh, Claude Chabrol, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa and on and on.  High up on this list is possibly my most favorite epic ever, Richard Fleischer’s THE VIKINGS, now available in an extraordinary Blu-Ray presentation from the warrior chieftains at Kino Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

Truly, I don’t think a year goes by where I don’t sit and feast me peepers upon the sumptuous Technicolored delights of this opus (often three times per).  This movie, a Boomer blockbuster, has been a part of my life since its release; the fact that I was four years old then and still can recall almost every scene from the first time I saw it unspooled at the Loew’s 175th speaks volumes.

Based on a novel by Edison Marshall (who had his singular-titled version made as an excellent two-strip Technicolor silent in 1928), this hopped-up rendition surpasses both the original source work and the earlier motion-picture depiction.  The script is brutally witty; no accident that its author, Calder Willingham (adapted by Dale Wasserman), would achieve his lasting fame nine years later, as cowriter of The Graduate.

The movie chronicles the clash between violent factions over, what else, a woman.  And what a woman!  It’s the desirable (for bod and land) Princess Morgana (as ably enacted by Janet Leigh).  Morgana’s participation comes well into the proceedings, as the title rogues have an equally colorful tale to tell.

The vicious Ragnar (a de-Marty-ized Ernest Borgnine), scourge of the English coast, pillages a kingdom, raping its queen.  She secretly gives birth to a bastard son, who grows up to be Tony Curtis (okay, Erik); he is captured as a slave, eventually ending up (after a later Viking raid) in Scandinavia.  There, he becomes the nemesis of Ragnar’s non-bastard son, who, coincidentally, is a bastard by any other name.  It’s Einar, aka producer/star Kirk Douglas.

Soon, everyone is after Morgana, from Einar to Erik to evil Brit scumbag King Aella (Frank Thring).

It’s a non-stop battle (literally) for her honor and dishonor, comprising eye-gouging by a hawk, devouring by wolves, lopping off of hands, arrows through the neck, bone crushing, and in Curtis’ case, being covered by crabs (now, now…don’t go there).  In short, it’s the perfect kid’s movie!

Much of the triumph for this magnificent collaborative work naturally goes to its underrated director, Fleischer, who had previously guided Douglas through the 1954 box-office smash 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.  He, in turn, is aided by the sensational camerawork from no less than Jack Cardiff, breathtakingly getting every “Oh, wow!” beauteous gasp from each lush frame of Technicolor’s Technirama (the anamorphic version of VistaVision).  UA was heavily pushing Technirama back then, and well they should.  It remains the best of all the rectangular widescreen processes ever unleashed by the moguls of celluloid.  Other titles in its “horizon-expanding” universe included The Big Country, Spartacus, El Cid, The Pink Panther and Zulu.  So believe me when I say that THE VIKINGS, in my estimation, is the best of the best – we ain’t just talking hakkede leveren.  Douglas and Curtis never got over the effect of initially seeing the splendid vistas of the Norwegian, French, German and Croatian locations, but especially the Scandinavian portion of the shoot.  As recounted in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas, rightly proud of the production, happily told his cast and crew in pre-production that “there’s a fjord in your future” (a wordplay on a popular automobile campaign at the time).   And he wasn’t kidding.  Those postcard-gorgeous compositions visually define the term “wow factor.”  The critics, too, were awed, and while cleverly dubbing the pic “a Norse opera,” did so with affection, and ate up this glorious comic-book adventure come to life with as much vim and vigor as we adolescents, teens and future serial killers of America (the climactic duel atop the turrets of Aella’s castle still gives me the dizzying willies).

THE VIKINGS is ample proof of what happens when you leave medieval history to New York actors.  Douglas, Curtis and Borgnine seem to be having a veritable (flail) ball (with optional chain), as are the remaining cast members, encompassing such well-known punims as Alexander Knox, James Donald, Maxine Audley, Edric Conor, Dandy Nichols, Eileen Way and others. A family affair of sorts, Douglas’ son Peter and Curtis and Leigh’s daughter Kelly appear as extras. Douglas even named a later son, Eric, in homage to this movie (although, to be fair, Eric or Erik was Curtis’ moniker; Einar Douglas might have been a bit too much for survival within the 90210 set).

The primary leads were at their ultimate career peaks during the months surrounding THE VIKINGS.  Douglas had Lust for Life, Gunfight at the OK Corral and Paths of Glory under his belt; the success of this movie would enable him to greenlight Spartacus.  Leigh would appear in Welles’ Touch of Evil, then take some time off to raise daughters Kelly and newborn Jamie Lee; she would then forever put a spike in the shower industry via her appearance in Hitchcock’s Psycho.  Curtis was riding a high that picture folks usually can just fantasize about.  His terrific press from Sweet Smell of Success forever pushed him beyond the beefcake teen idol tag.  Concurrent to THE VIKINGS, Curtis would also populate two other wildly Top Ten 1958 UA pics, The Defiant Ones (for which he received his only Oscar nomination) and Kings Go Forth.  All this while honing his considerable comedic skills for a pair of comedies to be released in 1959, Operation Petticoat (opposite his idol Cary Grant) and Some Like it Hot.  Not too shabby.

Performance-wise, THE VIKINGS really veers from one extreme to the other.  Douglas and Borgnine play it way over the top, while Curtis and the generally English and Australian supporting cast go for the low-key, straightforward approach.

As indicated above, the script perfectly aids and abets all of the picture’s accumulative elements, thespian and technical (including the beautiful score by Mario Naciemebene).  Indeed, peppered with machismo and intentional yuks, THE VIKINGS has what’s likely the most quotable gag lines of any epic to date.

For example, when questioned about English torture methods, a waspish Donald informs Borgnine of their penchant for throwing unfortunates into a pit of half-starved wolves.  “You see, the English ARE civilized,” responds the impressed Ragnar with gusto.

Introducing Einar to Donald (Egbert), Ragnar presents him as “my only son in wedlock.”  When Einar attempts to rape Morgana, she coldly answers him with a warning that whatever he does will be on his conscience.  The drooling Viking observes her tight-fitting gown with her ample breasts heaving and logically answers “So, let it be on my conscience” right before Curtis ker-plunks him on the head with a club.  On a lighter note, a reunion between father and son is joyously verbalized by Einar’s “Hail Ragnar, and hail Ragnar’s beard!” – to this day one of my all-time fave lines in popcorn culture.

Perhaps the supreme laugh in the picture (one that caused an eruption of guffaws in ’58) is when Curtis, Leigh, Nichols (Leigh’s lady-in-waiting) and Co. escape from the Vikings under a foggy cloak of night.  Needing to ratchet up the speed, Curtis demands Leigh row with the rest of the sparse crew (including Conor and, no pun, witch Way).  “I can’t. My bodice is too tight.”  “What’s a bodice?,” asks Curtis in one of the finest acting moments of his career.  When told, he slices the rear seam with a blade, revealing Leigh’s fantastically sensual back.  “Mine’s not too tight!,” spouts Nichols without hesitation who then proceeds to carry on with enough adrenalin to single-handedly win the annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race.  Hilarious then, still funny now.

Historically, we know there really was a Ragnar.  In fact, it’s likely that the phrase narrator Orson Welles cites (from period Bibles) over the UPA-animated credits, that all Christians be spared “from the wrath of the Norsemen” in all probability specifically referred to Ragnar.  Yet, for some reason, the actual Viking defiler was dealt with differently than in the movie.  The real Ragnar supposedly did meet a gruesome end at the hands of the evil Aella, but, rather than be thrown into a pit of wolves, he was tossed into an earth-dug cavity filled with poisonous snakes.  As sadism goes, I prefer the former – primarily because wolves seem more gothic and dark, therefore more apropos to the scenario than snakes, which tend to lean too much to the exotic. And, yes, I am in therapy.

And, while we’re on the subject of history, THE VIKINGS is extremely educational, as it explains how to party like its 850, especially if the highlight of the bash IS a bashing and/or the dealing with an adulteress (handily accomplished with a torture wheel and an axe).

Not surprisingly, THE VIKINGS was a mammoth hit when released in June of 1958.  It spawned a plethora of imitations worldwide.  But, of course, nothing compares to the real thing (or Thring, if you’re an Aella fan).

The shoot seems to have been a laborious, but generally happy, affair (or, as Douglas cites in his auto bio “…hard, but fun”) marred only by three incidents.  The first was when Curtis and Leigh were invited to a posh hotel.  The star-struck manager, eager to have them sign his special guest book, couldn’t wait to get their autographs.  Curtis freaked when he saw the signature “Adolf Hitler.”  In her 1984 autobiography There Really was a Hollywood, Leigh recalls “Tony and I had weird vibrations…Tony wrote, ‘I am a Jew, signing this book that Hitler also signed, in a place [obviously] owned by a Nazi.  What does this mean?  Are these people not even true to their own disgusting beliefs?’”  Curtis also added a few choice words out loud to their host.

The second was a strike, prompted by the Norwegian crew members seeking to additionally line their pockets with big-time movie coin.  Producer Einar Douglas responded in true modern Viking kind, and immediately wrapped the picture in the country, organizing an earlier than anticipated siege upon the Munich studios in Germany.

The third is a little-known event that was revealed to me over thirty-five years ago by a friend, then employed in a high-level position at Paramount.

I still can vividly recall the afternoon she telephoned me, excitedly recounting a meeting she just had with the legendary Elmo Williams, who was THE VIKINGS’ second-unit director.  She had asked Williams about the shoot, and while he praised Curtis to the heavens, he was less so inclined when it came to Douglas.  “Don’t get me wrong,” he told her, “Kirk has his points, generally a good guy, but, I don’t know, maybe because he was the producer…Well, we had a potentially disastrous run-in.”  When pressed, Williams told an Alan Hale double-take-worthy story.

“We were setting up the last act, the raid on Aella’s castle, and Kirk comes over for his second shot, wearing a different Viking suit of armor. ‘What’s this?,’ I asked with panic, hoping it was a joke.  It’s wasn’t.  Douglas had like a dozen different suits of armor for the occasion.  ‘What are you doing?’  ‘It’s for the raid.’  ‘But they’re all different.’  ‘Yeah, I know.  I can’t wear the same thing.  The raid didn’t take twenty minutes, it took days to get to the castle.’  ‘Yeah, but that’s real life.  This is a movie, you’re screwing up the momentum.  And it’s the climax.  If every time we cut to you, you’re wearing a different outfit, you’ll be laughed off the screen.’  ‘No, this is the way it was.’  Dick [Fleischer] and I huddled together to figure a way out of this.  Otherwise this was going to be like a Sid Caesar sketch. Fleischer tried to intercede one last time.  ‘Kirk, in order for this to work, we’d have to add scenes around nighttime campfires to show a believable passage of time.  That will be deadly to the pace.’  But Kirk was adamant.  So we asked him for one favor, that when he finally attacks the castle and scurries up the drawbridge, he wears his landing armor from the first part of the sequence.  Mercifully, he agreed.

‘So, flash forward to the UA screening room weeks later.  We assembled the rough cut of the attack sequence, as Douglas wanted, and, just as we expected, every time we cut to Kirk, the audience started to laugh.  By the end of the segment, Kirk had slid all the way down in his seat.  ‘We’re ruined!,’ he cried to us.  ‘Why didn’t I listen to you?  We can’t go back and re-shoot, it’ll cost as much as most of the movie!’  Dick and I told him to calm down, and we screened an alternate cut, with most of Kirk’s footage excised.  It worked, and, for the most part, is the cut you see in the picture.  ‘You saved me!,” said Kirk.  And then he added, ‘Guys, if ever we work together again, and I hope we do, if EVER I try to tell you your business, you have my permission to turn me toward the cast and crew and give me a swift kick in the ass!’  “Kirk,’ I replied, ‘it would be a pleasure!’

The Kino Studio Classics Blu-Ray of THE VIKINGS is exceptional.  Played through a decent audio system, the mono sound, matched by the impeccable aforementioned Technirama visuals, is like a time machine back to a first-run theater in 1958.  Furthermore, aside from a trailer gallery of other Kino epics, there’s a nifty supplemental short, A Tale of Norway featurette with Richard Fleischer.

I’d like to conclude with another personal remembrance of this pic.  It was close to summer vacation in 1958, a Saturday.  I was hanging out with my dad in our Washington Heights apartment when I heard screaming, yelling and other cacophonous displays of kiddie glee.  I looked out my window and saw hordes of folks of all ages running down the block down to Riverside Drive.  I called my dad over.  He looked out, and nodded.  “Let’s see what this is all about.”  Didn’t have to tell me twice, I already had my jacket on.  We sprinted down to the park, overlooking the Hudson.  And then we saw it.  A life-sized replica of the Viking ship used in the movie – dragon head and all – cruising down the river.  A masterful example of movie ballyhoo that I still can’t forget, even after 59 years.  How brilliant.  Undoubtedly, this grand United Artists stunt became protocol for each key city surrounded by water, one guaranteeing that every urchin who saw it would be lining up at the nearest theater playing THE VIKINGS.  And we did.

THE VIKINGS.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K20310.  SRP:  $29.95.

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