Friday, 9 December 2016

The Kirk Douglas 100th Birthday Blogathon: «The Vikings» (1958)

Original release poster
Directed by Richard Fleischer, The Vikings (1958) begins when the fearsome Norse Viking warrior Ragnar Lodbrok (Ernest Borgnine) invades the English territory of Northumbria, killing its king and raping Queen Enid (Maxine Audley). Because the king died childless, his ambitious cousin Aella (Frank Thring) takes the throne. Two months later, Enid confides in Father Godwin (Alexander Knox) that she is pregnant with Ragnar's child. Certain that Aella would murder anyone threatening his claim to the throne, Father Godwin arranges to send the infant aboard a ship bound for Rome, where he will be raised by monks. During the journey, however, the vessel is seized by Vikings and the boy, Eric, taken prisoner to grow up in slavery.

Twenty years pass and Eric (Tony Curtis), unware of his true parentage, hates his half-brother Einar (Kirk Douglas), Ragnar's legitimate son and heir. One day, the young men fight in a duel, during which Eric's pet falcon claws out one of Einar's eyes. Eric is immediately imprisoned, but he is eventually saved by Ragnar's ally Lord Egbert (James Donald), a Northumbrian nobleman who was banned from England for opposing King Aella. Egbert recognizes the Northumbrian pommelstone around Eric's neck, realizing that he must be Enid's rumored son. Soon after, Egbert and the Norsemen lead a raid to kidnap the Welsh princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), who is to marry Aella. Einar decides that he wants her, but she falls in love with Eric and the two escape. When Einar and Ragnar chase them, the pursuing ship crashes against the reefs and sinks. Ragnar is pulled aboard by Eric and taken to England as a gift to Aella, who kills the Viking chieftain by pushing him into a pit of wolves. Learning of Ragnar's death, Einar and the Viking fleet set sail to England, guided by Eric. In the subsequent battle, Einar kills Aella and frees Morgana, learning from her and Father Godwin that Eric is his half-brother. Ignoring this revelation, Einar challenges Eric to a battle to the death. After a furious sword fight, Einar abruptly hesitates and is run through by Eric, who still knows nothing about their blood ties. Eric gives Einar a traditional Viking funeral and, with Morgana, plans to bring together Northumbria and the Northlands in peace.

Einar [about Eric]: The sun will cross the sky a thousand times before he dies, and you'll wish a thousand times that you were dead.

Historically, the Viking Age did not last very long. The earliest written reference to the Nordic seafarers appeared in an entry recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 789, which described a raid to the Isle of Portland in Dorset by a group of men from Norway. The «official» beginning of the Viking Age, however, is often given by historians as 793, when the Norsemen led an attack to a monastery at Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of Northumberland in northeast England. Northumbrian scholar Alcuin of York declared that «never before has such an atrocity been seen.» By the late 9th century, the Vikings had conquered almost the whole of England, while also assuming control of territories in Scotland, Ireland, France, Russia, Iceland, Germany and the islands of Orkney and Shetland. But just as suddenly as they appeared, the Vikings disappeared. The defeat of Norwegian king Harald III by Saxon king Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 sounded the initial death knell for the Viking Age, as the Normans led by William I, himself a Viking descendant, conquered England.

By the 12th century, the nascent Scandinavian kingdoms had been assimiliated into the cultural mainstream of Western Europe, although a pure Viking settlement survived in Greenland into the 15th century. After that, the pages of history remained silent about the Nordic people until Swedish writer Erik Gustaf Geijer published a poem entitled The Viking in the early 1800s. The new romanticized ideal of the Viking propagated by Geijer led to a renewed interest and fascination with the Old North, which reached a peak in the Victorian era. It was during this period that scholars outside Scandinavia began to extensively reassess the achievements of the Norsemen, recognizing their artistry, technological skills and seamanship. The Victorian Vikings would also soon find a home in the emergent medium of film, in melodramas such as The Viking Bride (1907), The Viking's Daughter (1908) and The Oath of a Viking (1914). In turn, these films paved the way for popular reimaginings of the Vikings in comic strips, animated and print cartoons, bandes desinées and graphic novels.

Kirk Douglas, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh and Tony
Curtis in a publicity still for The Vikings
In late 1954, CBS talent executive Milo Frank purchased the rights to Edison Marshall's 1952 novel The Viking, which is based on material from the sagas of legendary Norse hero Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons. A year later, however, Frank decided to sell the property to United Artists, after which it was acquired by actor Kirk Douglas via his own independent company, Bryna Productions.

Screenwriters Dale Wasserman and Calder Willingham, the latter of whom had collaborated with Douglas in Stanley Kubrik's Paths of Glory (1957), were hired to pen the film script, which used the plural form The Vikings. Academy Award winner Richard Fleischer, who had helmed Douglas's production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), was brought in as director.

When time came for casting, Douglas chose to play Ragnar's legitimate son Einar, a role that was significantly enhanced for the actor. In turn, the character of Ragnar was assiged to Ernest Borgnine, who was actually two months younger than Douglas. Husband and wife Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, in their third film together, signed on as Eric, Einar's half-brother, and Morgana, a Welsh princess. Douglas and Curtis would later co-star in Kubrik's Spartacus (1960), also a Bryna production. The rest of the cast included Scottish actor James Donald as Lord Egbert, a Northumbrian nobleman; Australian-born Frank Thring as the ambitious King Aella; and Canadian Alexander Knox as Father Godwin. An uncredited Orson Welles, who appeared with Leigh in Touch of Evil (1958), served as narrator.

Kirk Douglas as Einar
Fiming on The Vikings took place mostly on location in Norway, throughout the summer of 1957. According to Douglas, «I employed experts from Norway, Sweden and Denmark to give me an exact historical feeling about the period of the Vikings, the exact dimensions of the boats that they used, how the houses and the mead hall were built, etc. The experts disagreed, and finally I had to make the decisions myself.» An entire Norse village was built in the middle of a fjord, along with three full-sized replicas of Viking longships, which were manned by 200 bearded men who were members of rowing clubs in Norway and Denmark.

Douglas originally intended to spend just a month in Norway, but that streched to two when the weather proved unpleasantly cold and wet. «In sixty days we only got eleven days of sunshine,» he lamented, «and two of them were on Sundays when we couldn't shoot.» At one point, Douglas asked a young Norwegian extra, «Does it always rain here in Norway?» and got the tart reply, «I don't know. I'm only eighteen.» Set-ups for the scenes were also more complex than he had anticipated. As a result, the projected budget of $2.5 million was increased by $1 million.

The battle to the death between Douglas and Curtis's characters, Einar and Eric, was filmed in Fort La Lotte, a medieval castle with a real moat, drawbridge and ramparts. Because the two leads were accomplished athletes, they performed much of their own stunts on the vertiginous castle, not only for the climactic sword fight, but also for the rest of the picture. One sequence required Douglas's character to perform an old Viking tradition called «Running the Oars,» a practice of actually running over the locked oars of a ship. Douglas insisted on doing the risky stunt himself, which he pulled off flawlessly for the camera. For his part, Curtis later said, «All those action movies involved a certain number of injuries. I was banged up and hit around a lot, but you took that in your stride. I didn't think The Vikings was particularly bloody or more violent than the rest. It just looked like a good action movie to me.» Ironically, given that his enemy in the film loses an eye to a hawk, it was Curtis who nearly lost an eye in real life when a stray arrow hit him in the face, a serious injury that required hospitalization.

Kirk Douglas and Janet Leigh
While in production, The Vikings generated a good amount of correspondence between Geoffrey Shurlock, then director of the Production Code Administration (PCA), and Jerry Bressler, the producer of the film. Shurlock judged Willingham and Wasserman's initial screenplay as «unacceptable by reason of an improper treatment of illicit sex, and a great deal of excessive and unacceptable violence and brutality.» Although Bresler argued that such a violence was to be expected, given that The Vikings was set in the barbaric past, he eventually agreed to cut out or modify many of the scenes that Shurlock objected to.

For instance, the rape of Enid is not shown on screen, as originally called for, but is only suggested; the love scene between Eric and Morgana progresses only so far before a dissolve; and the scene in which King Aella was to be mutilated was completely removed. An ongoing point of contention for the PCA was the blinding of Einar by Eric's hawk — not only because of its «excessive gruesomeness,» but also out of a concern for the «apparent cruelty» to the bird. Still, this sequence remained in the film — as did the scene in which Eric's hand is severed and cauterized.

Distributed by United Artists, The Vikings premiered at the Victoria and Astor Theatres in New York on June 11, 1958. The publicity campaign was quite extensive and included sending Viking dagger letter openers to reviewers, having seven Norwegians sail a longship from Oslo to New York, and lifting another longship onto the marquee of the theatres where the film debuted. Douglas himself was hauled up in a boatswain's chair to the top of a Broadway billboard, ten stories from the street. With a bottle of champagne, Douglas christened the bow of a Viking ship that stuck out from the billboard.

Critical reviews for The Vikings were generally positive. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film a «Norse opera,» further commenting, «You haven't seen such general hell-raising on the screen since Cecil B. DeMille ditched Cleopatra and hit the sawdust trail.» In turn, Variety described the film as «spectacular, rousing and colorful.» The film was also highly successful at the box-office, grossing $6 million in domestic rentals. According to Douglas, The Vikings was a «tremendous hit» and he even named his next son Eric after the character played by Tony Curtis. 

This post is my contribution to The Kirk Douglas 100th Birthday Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin. To view all entries, click HERE.

A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film by John Aberth (Routledge, 1993)

Janet Leigh: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (McFarland & Company Inc., 2013)
The Defiant One: A Biography of Tony Curtis by Aubrey Malone (McFarland & Company Inc., 2013)
The Encyclopedia of Epic Films by Constantine Santas, James M. Wilson, Maria Colavito and Djoymi Baker (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)
The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages edited by Kevin J. Harty (McFarland & Company Inc., 2011)
TCM's article on The Vikings by Scott McGee
TCM's notes on The Vikings  
The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther  
Variety review by the Variety staff


  1. A cracking good yarn, as folks used to say once upon a time. I enjoyed The Vikings immensely as a kid and a recent viewing showed it had lost none of its power to entertain. The fascinating background you provided will enhance my next watch (oh, there will be another watch).

  2. Thanks for all this great behind-the-scenes info on the production. I've never seen "The Vikings" but you've got me anxious to check it out.

    P.S. HA – of course Kirk Douglas would do his own stunts! I'll pay special attention to that scene when I watch this film.

  3. While it just misses ranking among the best of Kirk's films, I find THE VIKINGS to be immensely entertaining. And one can understand all the hoopla over Janet Leigh in the film--she never looked more stunning.