The Vikings

The Vikings (1958)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh
Extras: Featurette, Theatrical Trailer

1958’s ’The Viking’ was a pet project of star and producer Kirk Douglas and, while it may seem a bit cheesy and over-the-top to some, the film is a rousing adventure packed with action and excitement.

When Viking chief Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) rapes the English queen during a raid, he unwittingly sets the stage for a future family confrontation. Ragnar’s bastard son by the queen — and rightful heir to the English throne — , Eric (Tony Curtis), is raised as a slave while Ragnar’s true-born son, Einar (Kirk Douglas), is brought up to become the next Viking leader. While the two remain unaware that they are brothers, they both fall in love with Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh) and eventually must face off to win her hand and her land. While building to this climactic battle, the film packs in all manner of raids, battles, and ancient Viking rituals.

Directed by Richard Fleischer, the film is a veritable who’s-who of top talent from the aforementioned stars to narrater Orson Welles. Of special significance is the presence of famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Shot on location in Norway, northern France, and Germany, the film at least looks the part of a Viking epic even if the cast doesn’t quite pull off the Nordic look. Kirk Douglas is quite intimidating with his scars and milky-white dead eye but Tony Curtis is far too clean-cut to be believable. Still, the cast is obviously having a blast making this movie and their enthusiasm is infectious.

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, ’The Vikings’ comes across very well on DVD. Colors are stable and natural and black levels provide great detail in even the darkest scenes. The image is a bit soft but is mercifully free of any heavy-handed artificial edge enhancement. I noticed no compression artifacts even in the very difficult fog-shrouded scenes. The source elements display a few blemishes here and there and some minor film grain is evident but overall this is as fine a video presentation as one could have hoped for.

Audio comes in English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mixes. As is the case with most vintage mono mixes, there is very little in the way of dynamic range and, of course, no surround usage. I noticed some warbling of the musical score here and there but for the most part the track is free from any glaring distortion. The dialogue, sound effects, and musical score are all well-balanced and come across clearly.

Extras include the film’s very rousing, but slightly damaged, original theatrical trailer presented in non-anamorphic widescreen as well as a brand-new featurette entitled ’A Tale of Norway with Director Richard Fleischer.’ This 28-minute piece is hosted and narrated by Fleischer and offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes information intercut with numerous clips from the film. I can’t begin to express how surprised I was to find such an excellent bonus feature included on one of MGM’s bargain DVDs. Fans of the film will be ecstatic.

While not quite as solid as Kirk Douglas’ other great historical epic, ’Spartacus,’ ’The Vikings’ is still an enjoyable film that makes the most of its on-screen talent and the skilled craftsman behind the camera. While there’s no mistaking these on-screen Vikings for the real thing, the movie looks great and is loads of fun.

With the exception of the vastly overlooked ’The 13th Warrior’, they just don’t make movies like this any longer and more’s the pity. I suppose modern audiences are far too jaded to view this type of film for anything other than its camp value. But fans of historical epics who are able to enjoy an action movie based on its own merits are in for a treat with ’The Vikings.’

MGM’s DVD is a real keeper featuring an excellent video transfer, decent enough audio, and even a few bonus features — all for about 10 dollars on the street. Can’t beat that with a longship.