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The Vikings, a 1958 adventure set in the northern territories of ferocious men and icy death, stars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, and features Ernest Borgnine, James Donald and Curtis' wife, Janet Leigh. Douglas plays Einar, the legitimate son of Viking king Borgnine (who was actually two years younger than Douglas). Early in the film, the Viking king raids the English coast, kills the foreign king and rapes the queen. The child that is born from that assault grows up to become Eric, played by Curtis, a Viking slave who knows nothing of his violent origins. As fate would have it, Douglas and Curtis come to blows, culminating with Douglas' eye being forcibly removed by Curtis' falcon. (And to think, just two years earlier, Douglas lost an ear in Lust for Life, 1956...) This sets off an overwhelming, life-long hatred between the two half-brothers, neither one aware of their shared bloodline.
The Vikings was based on the novel The Vikings by Edison Marshall, and adapted into a screenplay by Dale Wasserman and Calder Willingham, the latter of whom collaborated with Douglas and Stanley Kubrick on Paths of Glory (1957). Never one to back down from an epic effort, Kirk Douglas was the true shepherd of the project through his own independent company Bryna Productions. Richard Fleischer, who directed Douglas's production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), called the shots behind the camera. Given the difficulty of the shoot, The Vikings needed Douglas' strong, assured hand and rock-hard ego to guide it. The projected $2.5 million budget doubled with the leasing of an entire Norwegian fjord, the construction of a full-scale Viking village, and design and production of a fleet of authentic longships copied from reproductions in museums. Further ballooning the budget were the transportation costs incurred from shuttling cast and crew to and from the remote set by a fleet of 17 PT boats.
Then there was the weather. Of the 60 shooting days in Norway, 49 were rainy and dark. (Douglas asked a Norwegian boy playing a part in the picture, "Does it always rain here in Norway?" The boy answered, "I don't know. I'm only eighteen."). But the biggest blow to the production was when the entire Norwegian crew of oarsmen - the ones driving that fleet of longships - surprised Douglas by going on strike for more money. Douglas was infuriated, especially since he was under the impression the local participants were content with the terms of their service on the film. Instead of giving in to their demands, Douglas turned the tables on the strikers and left to finish shooting in Munich, having decided that he had obtained sufficient footage of Norway and her people.
The Vikings is noteworthy for the levels of gruesome violence portrayed in 1958, perhaps fittingly, given the subject matter. Several reviews registered shock at the sight of Ernest Borgnine, as the now-captured Viking king, hurling himself into a pit of ravenous wolves, as well as the gory spectacle of Douglas losing that eye to Curtis' multi-taloned falcon. Second-unit director Elmo Williams - formerly an Oscar®-winning editor for films like High Noon (1952) - staged the fight sequences in a way that only heightened the bloody spectacle of hand-to-hand combat and do-or-die struggle between hated enemies.
The battle to the death between Douglas and Curtis was filmed in Fort La Lotte, a medieval castle with a real moat, drawbridge, and ramparts. Because the two leads were fine athletes, they performed much of their own stunts on the vertiginous castle, not only for the climactic battle but also for the rest of the picture. One sequence has Douglas' character performing 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 said in his autobiography, "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 bird of prey, it was Curtis who nearly lost an eye in real life when a stray arrow hit him in the eye, a serious injury that required hospitalization.
The Vikings earned favorable reviews from several major publications for its kinetic energy. The New York Times said of the Norse opera, "You haven't seen such general hell-raising on the screen since Cecil B. DeMille..." The publicity campaign 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 theater 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.
The Vikings opened on May 9, 1958 and proved to be a hit for Douglas and United Artists, the film's distributor. It later inspired the 1959 TV series Tales of the Vikings, which utilized the film's props, costumes and scale-model ships. In 1964, The Vikings served as the inaugural presentation of ABC's Sunday Night Movie series.
Producer: Jerry Bresler
Director: Richard Fleischer
Screenplay: Calder Willingham; Dale Wasserman (adaptation); Edison Marshall (novel "The Vikings")
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Music: Mario Nascimbene
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Einar), Tony Curtis (Eric), Ernest Borgnine (Ragnar), Janet Leigh (Morgana), James Donald (Egbert), Alexander Knox (Father Godwin), Maxine Audley (Enid), Frank Thring (Aella), Eileen Way (Kitala), Edric Connor (Sandpiper), Dandy Nichols (Bridget), Per Buckhj (Bjorn).
by Scott McGee