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The Viking Queen

The Viking Queen(1967)

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Hammer Studios started in 1934 and from the beginning specialized in making movies efficiently and economically that could fill theatrical programs in the spaces between the "A" productions. An example of early Hammer ingenuity came in the late 1940's when they discovered it would be cheaper to rent country estates on year leases and film all that year's productions there rather than build elaborate sets in a studio. In 1951, Hammer took out the lease on Down Place, an estate on the river Thames and made the decision to buy. The estate became the shooting locale for many of the films that put Hammer on the map when it turned its attention to horror in the mid-fifties: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) to name just three. By the sixties, Hammer had become the leading studio in horror in the international film community and decided to branch out beyond the confines of a single genre.

In the sixties, after spectacular efforts such as The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) as well as other reworkings of classics like The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Hammer actively pursued stories with women in the lead, a departure from practically the entire Hammer catalogue, going back even before Hammer horror to the earliest days of the studio's existence. The success of The Gorgon (1964), She (1965) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) proved that they were on the right track in expanding beyond gothic-inspired horror and, in 1967, they made the decision to go headfirst into a full-blown historical epic, The Viking Queen (1967). It wasn't about Vikings, wasn't very historical and, sadly, wasn't very good.

The problems began and practically ended with casting the titular character herself, the Viking Queen, Salina, played by the singularly named, and singularly uncharismatic, Carita. Although having a few brief moments in Lemmy Pour Les Dames (1962), with the great Eddie Constantine as the world famous Lemmy Caution, she is billed here as "Introducing Carita as 'The Viking Queen,'" though that introduction would lead to no further acquaintances with the movie-going public. One can put it no better than Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio in Hammer Films: an Exhaustive Filmography when they write, "A press reception was held to link Carita with Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch via life-sized cardboard cutouts, which, unfortunately, her performance matched." Ouch. Actually, she isn't nearly that bad but is completely lacking in screen presence. She says her lines dutifully and doesn't completely fudge every inflection (although she comes close) but, in the end, she's just not there.

The story of The Viking Queen revolves around the confrontations of early British tribal nations with the Roman Empire. The film begins as Priam, a tribal king, puts his daughter, Salina, in charge before he dies. That would be Carita and the actual Viking Queen would be her deceased mother, whose fiery blood runs through her veins. Salina is encouraged by the Druid high priest Maelgan (a rather hysterical Donald Houston) to have a ritual Druid ceremony for her deceased father even though the public practice of Druidism is forbidden by Roman law. Salina has the ceremony and is discovered by the Romans but before disaster takes place, Roman Governor Justinian (Don Murray of Bus Stop [1956] fame) steps in to allow the private ceremony to continue.

It isn't long before the inevitable occurs and Salina and Justinian fall in love but their path to happiness isn't as clearly mapped as the Roman system of roadways would have one believe. The Druids refuse to sanction a marriage between the two and without the Druid blessing, Salina would have no standing with her people so Justinian plans to get the people on their side during a tax hearing, one of the best scenes in the movie.

As a farmer explains why he can't pay his taxes, Justinian forgives him the amount and the people begin to see the bright side of a Salina/Justinian union, Druid acceptance or not. However, Justinian is harsher on the wealthy merchants, increasing their taxes to make up the difference and publicly humiliating Osiris (Denis Shaw) which leads an angry Osiris to buy off men who will lead dissent in the North, taking Justinian away so that his ambitious second-in-command Octavian (Andrew Keir) can take over and return things to normal. Of course, Octavian takes things too far and has Salina publically whipped, allowing the film the opportunity to show a topless Carita (her hair strategically placed over her breasts) being flogged while she bites her arm in agony. Carita's "acting" in this scene makes for, quite possibly, the worst flogging scene in film history, made only more unintentionally humorous by a Druid screaming "ENOUGH!", unknowingly echoing the sentiments of the audience.

All of this leads to Salina taking up arms against Rome and, eventually, against her returning lover, Justinian. After she takes Octavian prisoner she orders, "Everything that is Roman shall be burnt to the ground. No man shall live. We shall have no mercy!" When asked by her sister if that includes Justinian, she replies, "He is a Roman, too, isn't he?"

[SPOILER ALERT] The final battle occurs and Salina, about to be taken prisoner and sent to Rome for trial, grabs hold of the soldier's sword before her and plunges it into her heart. What follows is a line-reading to her lover, Justinian, so completely absent of emotion and a death roll into a shield so awkward that even if all that came before it was expert, would have killed the whole production.

The Viking Queen simply wasn't the kind of movie Hammer was famous for and not the kind of film intended to be done on the cheap. Full-scale battles, thousands of extras, period costuming and an epic romance required more than Hammer either had or was willing to provide. Still, the script itself was not awful and could have been used in the service of a decent film had more charismatic players been present. The location shooting in Ireland gave the film a beautiful look and the legions of extras from the Irish army gave the film the feel of scale it needed. Added to that, director Don Chaffey had mightily succeeded with a previous period effort, the superb Jason and the Argonauts (1963), proving he was a skilled hand at this kind of dialogue and action. In the end, the film was done in by Hammer's desire to create a new star rather than a great picture. Had Hammer gone with another actress, any other actress (and they had some damn good ones in their line-up), the chemistry between Salina and Justinian might have been palpable. As it is, Carita simply can't hold the viewer's attention and makes one wonder what, in the name of Zeus, Justinian (or her father, or Hammer) ever saw in her in the first place. Carita never worked again. The Viking Queen is a testament to why.

Producer: John Temple-Smith
Director: Don Chaffey
Screenplay: Clarke Reynolds and John Temple-Smith
Cinematography: Stephen Dade
Production Design: George Provis
Music: Gary Hughes
Film Editor: Peter Boita
Cast: Don Murray (Justinian), Carita (Salina), Donald Houston (Maelgan), Andrew Keir (Octavian), Adrienne Corri (Beatrice), Niall MacGinnis (Tiberian), Wilfrid Lawson (King Priam).

by Greg Ferrara

Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio, Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography

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