powered by AFI
The Long Ships (1964) was released as the popularity of the historical epic genre was on the wane. Inspired by the success of The Vikings (1958) starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, producer Irving Allen acquired film rights to Swedish writer Frans Bengtsson's novel The Long Ships, an action-adventure about the rivalry between a Norse adventurer and a Moorish sheik over a golden treasure. One of the screenwriters was Beverley Cross, who had recently written the epic fantasy Jason and the Argonauts (1963). To direct, Allen hired Jack Cardiff, who had been the cinematographer on The Vikings. The location shoot was troubled and contentious, script changes occurred well into the principal photography, the actors clashed in style, the film garnered extremely mixed reviews, and a modern viewing echoes the opinion of many at the time that the film is something of a mess. However, it is a wildly entertaining mess, with sumptuous photography, memorable battle scenes and bombastic set pieces, and ripe dialogue coming from a variety of deliriously miscast actors.
Under the opening titles of The Long Ships, we see Rolfe (Richard Widmark), in a Viking ship being pulled apart by a fierce storm. A long and striking narration sequence follows - a sequence designed by Maurice Binder in which live-action silhouettes act out the scenes described against a series of backgrounds composed of colored stones. We are told that Rolfe was the lone survivor of the shipwreck, and was taken in and cared for by monks. The monks collect tiny colored stones with which they create murals to decorate the monastery. The main tale thus told is of the "Mother of Voices" a gigantic bell cast from gold that the monks have collected from around the world. We then see that the story is being told by Rolfe, who is now wandering for money after his ship has wrecked. Rolfe is brought before the Moor sheik Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier), who also has an interest in finding the fabled bell. Rolfe denies that he has any real knowledge of the bell other than what he was told as a boy. The Viking escapes his prison and eventually reunites with his brother Orm (Russ Tamblyn). The brothers get a crew together and commandeer a boat from King Harald (Clifford Evans), kidnapping his daughter, Princess Gerda (Beba Loncar) to ensure they won't be followed. The Vikings are eventually captured by Aly Mansuh and Gerda becomes part of his harem. Following threat of death on an elaborate killing device called the "Mare of Steel", Rolfe determines to find the bell and reclaim Gerda. Soon after, King Harald and his men raid and take over the palace of Aly Mansuh and his wife Aminah (Rosanna Schiaffino).
Jack Cardiff told interviewer Justin Bowyer (in Conversations with Jack Cardiff: Art, Light and Direction in Cinema) that he initially felt directing The Long Ships would be merely covering old ground, having shot The Vikings, but that he was talked into the assignment: "I remember the boss at Columbia in London telling me it was going to be a very big picture, 'The biggest you've ever done!' that sort of crap. I think I was conned into doing it and I really didn't realize the kind of picture it was going to turn out to be." Cardiff discussed problems with the previously-signed star, Richard Widmark: "...he came over from America and straight away he said that he thought the script was lousy and that he wanted another writer. This was my first experience of the sort of 'Marlon Brando' behavior...This writer he recommended wrote a script very quickly and it was pure Abbott and Costello. That's when I said very firmly that I didn't want to continue on the picture." Cardiff walked off the film but returned when Widmark agreed that the new script was worse than the original.
Widmark also clashed with producer Allen and threatened a walkout of his own at one point. Cardiff said that Widmark "...agreed to go back to work, but after that he hated everybody and not just Irving Allen. He was then very difficult to work with and he wanted to change the scenes and no longer liked the dialogue. Sidney Poitier caught the bug of dissension and started wanting to change his scenes and his dialogue. ...The ironic thing is that Widmark had, I think, decided he would not be dramatic in the role; he didn't discuss that with me, which you might think he would, he was just making this up as he went along. So he played it sort of for fun, almost like a comedy, and it actually turned out very successfully for him and really lifted his part. Poitier continued to play his role seriously, and that didn't turn out so well for him." This divergence in acting styles is apparent from the first scene in which Rolfe the Viking and Aly Mansuh the Moor meet; Widmark practically plays it as if he were Bob Hope in a scene with Anthony Quinn!
Sidney Poitier had just won the Academy Award for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963) and arrived for the location shoot in the spring of 1963. He spent fourteen weeks in Yugoslavia, and found it to be unpleasant due to a local resentment toward African students brought in on scholarships; the resentment spilled over into the locals' treatment of him: "Belgrade was without doubt the worst place I had ever been to make a movie," Poitier later wrote in his autobiography. "It was just awful. In the most casual encounters, a pervasive hostility was always ready to chase the sunshine out of an innocent smile. No, that city was not nice to me..." Perhaps his serious, unsmiling performance is partially a result of these working conditions.
The reviewer for Time magazine called The Long Ships "a riotous sea saga [with] impossible acting, a preposterous script, some eminently see-worthy ship reconstructions, and more enjoyable bloody foolishness than many an epic costing three times as much." Almost every critic noted the clash in acting styles between Widmark and Poitier. For example, Judith Crist in the New York Herald Tribune called the movie "one of the best awful spectacular adventure movies around" and observed that "Widmark out-Fairbanks them all, with eye aglint and tongue not quite visibly in cheek, while Poitier, a fairy tale ebony figure in cloth-of-gold splendor, plays it dedicated-straight." Similarly, the reviewer in Variety, who says of the film "the entire experience is a very long drag," writes that Widmark "plays strictly tongue in cheek" but Poitier, "in contrast to Widmark, seeks to take the film seriously. The clash in styles between these two is a minor disaster." Howard Thompson of The New York Times seemed to appreciate the fun of the picture, writing "take it from us, 'The Long Ships' is a big one for the eye, if not the mind...splashing color, gore and enough action to rattle five Westerns." Thompson obviously recommends the film as a "good, dumb time...Big, empty, gory yes. But flavored with a floridly apt musical score, this Irving Allen production simply boils with locomotion, some of it fine movie stuff."
Producer Irving Allen had once been partnered with Albert R. Broccoli, but they broke up during a disagreement over the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming; Broccoli wanted to buy the film rights Allen did not. Following The Long Ships, Allen produced another latter-day historical epic, Genghis Khan (1965). He then attempted to make up for his earlier blunder; he acquired the rights to the Matt Helm series of novels featuring a Bond-style American spy and hired Dean Martin to play Helm in a four-film series made in the late 1960s.
Producer: Irving Allen
Director: Jack Cardiff
Screenplay: Beverley Cross, Berkely Mather; Frans Bengtsson (novel "The Long Ships")
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Art Direction: William Constable, Vlastimir Gavrik, John Hoesli, Zoran Zorcic; many uncredited
Music: Dusan Radic
Film Editing: Geoffrey Foot
Cast: Richard Widmark (Rolfe), Sidney Poitier (Aly Mansuh), Russ Tamblyn (Orm), Rosanna Schiaffino (Aminah), Oskar Homolka (Krok), Edward Judd (Sven), Lionel Jeffries (Aziz), Beba Loncar (Gerda), Clifford Evans (King Harald), Gordon Jackson (Vahlin), Colin Blakely (Rhykka), David Lodge (Olla), Henry Oscar (auctioneer)
by John M. Miller
Conversations with Jack Cardiff: Art, Light and Direction in Cinema by Justin Bowyer
This Life by Sidney Poitier
Richard Widmark: A Bio-Bibliography by Kim Holston
Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon by Aram Goudsouzian
The Films of Sidney Poitier by Alvin H. Marill