skip navigation
Polar Opposites
Remind Me
,The Viking

The Viking (1931)

Often touted as the first sync-sound feature shot in Canada, The Viking (1931) was considered a lost film until the mid-1960s when a print was discovered in a fish storage plant in Newfoundland. Though shot in the Quidi Vidi neighborhood of St. John's, Newfoundland, this ambitious tale of the North Country was actually not a Canadian production. American adventurer Varick Frissell, who was enamored with the culture and people of Newfoundland through his work with Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, secured financial backing from Paramount Pictures and used a New York cast and Hollywood crew. Though shooting the film in sync sound was a courageous choice, The Viking's real significance lies in its documentary-style approach to the narrative, which later became a hallmark of Canadian filmmaking. The integration of nonfiction techniques with a fictional narrative resulted in a rich sense of place that focused on the relationship between people and their environment. This approach distinguished many later Canadian feature films. Sadly, The Viking is also known for the tragedy that occurred at the end of production that resulted in Frissell's death. The unfortunate off-screen events tend to overshadow the film's remarkable achievement in cinematography and its documentary-like chronicling of a culture and way of life now long past.

In 1921, Frissell, a New Yorker who had grown up in privilege, attended a lecture by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, who founded a medical mission to service the isolated Labrador coast. Frissell joined Grenfell in Newfoundland the following year as a volunteer. Influenced by Robert Flaherty, particularly Nanook of the North (1922), Frissell grasped the potential of the Flaherty approach to capture and preserve on film the landscape and seal-hunting culture of Newfoundland. While working with Grenfell over the years, he shot two documentaries about the area: The Lure of Labrador (1928) and The Swilin' Racket, also known as The Great Arctic Seal Hunt (1928).

Frissell wrote the scenario for The Viking and formed a production company to co-produce the film with Roy W. Gates. He hired Hollywood veteran George Melford to direct, and Garnett Weston to adapt his narrative to a fictional format. After obtaining the financing and securing a cast and crew, he and his men hauled the camera gear and cumbersome sound equipment to St. John's. Much of the film takes place aboard the ship or on the ice floes of the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic, making for a difficult production. After the shooting and editing were completed, The Viking, which was named after the ship used in the film, previewed at the Nickel Theater in Newfoundland in March 1931. But Frissell was not satisfied and thought the film needed more footage of the Labrador ice floes. He and a small film crew joined the real Viking on its next seal-hunting voyage. On March 15, the ship was trapped in the ice near Horse Isles when an explosion destroyed the back of the vessel, killing 27 men, including Frissell and his dog, Cabot. The adventurer's body was never found. Ice-breaking seal boats routinely carried explosives onboard to crack up the ice; authorities speculated that the explosion was likely due to an accident in the powder room. The Viking was eventually released in the summer of 1931 in Toronto, New York, London, and Paris.

According to a 1965 Variety article, co-producer Roy W. Gates finished the film, but, in an onscreen introduction, Dr. Wilfred Grenfell claims that the film was essentially complete when Frissell decided to add more shots. It is likely that Gates merely added Grenfell's introduction, in which the doctor speaks directly if awkwardly into the camera to explain Frissell's desire to capture the Labrador region and its people and to briefly describe the accident that took his life. Combined with lengthy intertitles, the introduction serves as a dedication or tribute to Frissell, the camera operators, and the sailors who were killed in the blast--some of whom appear in the film as the ship's crew.

The story of The Viking focuses on the adventures of Luke Oarum, a handsome but sensitive young man who believes he is jinxed. Luke is the postal carrier for the region, delivering the mail via dog sled to the villages and communities around St. John's. After he is lost in a storm, a rugged seal hunter named Jed finds him just before he freezes to death, reigniting rumors that Oarum is a harbinger of bad luck. Determined to prove himself a worthy suitor to Mary Joe, who works in the village's general store, Luke joins a party of seal hunters off the coast of Labrador in search of the big herds. Jed, who is also in love with Mary Joe, provokes Luke throughout the voyage, hoping to cause an accident and be rid of his rival. Luke spots a seal herd, and, in a scene sure to be difficult viewing for modern-day audiences, dozens of hunters take to the ice floes to track the seals and slaughter them. During the chaos of the hunt, Jed attempts to shoot Luke, but snow blindness prevents him from hitting his target. A storm hits before Jed and Luke have a chance to return to the Viking. After blasting the ship's sirens, hoping the sound will guide the pair through the storm, Captain Barker has no choice but to leave them behind on the ice and return to St. John's. It is up to Luke to lead the blinded Jed back to civilization.

Appearing in his fifth film, the then-unknown Charles Starrett starred as unlucky Luke Oarum. Starrett arguably gave the best performance in the film, but The Viking did little to advance his career. It wasn't until 1936, when he signed with Columbia to make western programmers and B-films, that he found his niche as a film star. Frissell's most intriguing bit of casting was to ask Captain Robert Bartlett to play Captain Barker. A real-life captain who had earned his status as a local legend, Bartlett had commanded Robert E. Peary's ship, the Roosevelt, to the North Pole in 1905 and 1908. He blazed a path through the frozen Arctic Sea to get within 150 miles of the North Pole. He was the first person to sail north of 88 degrees North, for which he was awarded the National Geographic Society's Hubbard Medal. In 1913, he commanded the Karluk for Vilhjalmur Stefansson's expedition to the Arctic. After Stefansson abandoned the expedition and the Karluk was crushed in the ice, Bartlett led the survivors to Wrangel Island. He and an Inuit companion walked 700 miles over the ice to civilization. He mounted a rescue expedition from Alaska and returned to Wrangel to retrieve the survivors. For that, he was honored by the Royal Geographical Society with its highest accolade.

The casting of Bartlett suits the film's integration of fiction and nonfiction elements. The striking documentary footage of the village, ship, and the hunt on the ice floes represent the film's strength. From the beginning, when Luke is lost in a real arctic storm, shots of the harsh landscape serve as a visual explanation for the ruggedness of the people who populate the area, while the footage of the voyage and the hunt chronicle a way of life that Frissell admired--one that was the opposite of the privileged world he grew up in. From the time Luke and Jed embark on the voyage to the scene in which they are lost in the storm, the film offers an authentic portrayal of a seal hunt. The vessel leaves the port in St. John along with dozens of other ships headed for the frozen waters of the North Atlantic. The Viking, which was also an ice-breaker, is shown barreling its way through the thick ice, accompanied by loud crunching and grinding noises. When the ice becomes too solid for too many miles, the men dig holes in the ice and toss explosives into the water to break open a path through the sea. At times, the men tow the boat through the newly broken ice. When the tow line breaks, the men blame Luke the jinx, briefly returning the action to the fictional story. These sequences offer breathtaking, naturalistic cinematography of the region while authentically portraying the inhabitants' way of life.

The men hunt for the seal herd on foot for the last few miles while long shots of the men jumping across the ice floes floating in the water symbolizes the precarious nature of this occupation as the hunters could become victims of the unforgiving environment at any time. Some of the chunks of ice are so small, men can't keep their balance on the tiny floe and fall into the freezing water, only to scramble out and keep moving. An intertitle reveals that most of the men cannot swim, a surprising revelation considering they owe their livelihood to the sea. To capture some of these shots, the film crew positioned the camera on a floe, which is obvious by the rocking and rolling motion of the camera. The footage is remarkable considering the conditions.

The actual seal hunt is depicted in extreme long shots as the hunters shoot the seals in a horrific slaughter that is difficult for contemporary sensibilities. A few close ups of a baby seal crying for its mother initiates sympathy for the animals, creating a contradiction for viewers who have been led by Frissell and the filmmakers to root for the hunters.

Most of the footage involving the ship and the hunt used non-sync sound, meaning the sound was not recorded at the time the scenes were shot. Given the size and cumbersome nature of the early sound technology, and the need for electricity and generators, shooting sync sound on ice floes or aboard the ship in the frozen North Atlantic would have been impossible.

If the documentary-style sequences of the voyage and the hunt are the film's strength, then the sync-sound scenes involving the love triangle on dry land represent its weakness. Like other early sound films, the stationary, non-directional microphones resulted in scenes that unfolded in static-looking medium-long shots in which the characters stand in one place to speak their lines so they would be heard clearly. Despite this strategy, the sound levels in most scenes are uneven. Whoever is closest to the microphone sounds the loudest. The actors were not accustomed to speaking dialogue on camera, and the filmmakers were not experienced in directing them. Arthur Vinton, who played Jed, tended to enunciate too emphatically, giving his performance a forced quality in some scenes that is unnatural and overly theatrical. Also, The Viking makes extensive use of dense intertitles in the manner of a silent film to advance the plot, describe conditions, and explain aspects of the seal hunt. While it is not uncommon for early sound films to hang onto intertitles because they were an accepted convention, The Viking includes an inordinate amount of them.

Though a copy of The Viking was discovered in 1965, the film remained relatively unknown until 2002, when Victoria King released White Thunder, a documentary about Varick Frissell and the making of the movie that took his life.

Producer: Varick Frissell
Director: Varick Frissell, George Melford
Screenplay: Garnett Weston (story, scenario and dialogue)
Cinematography: Alfred Gandolfi, Maurice Kellerman, Alexander G. Penrod
Cast: Charles Starrett (Luke Oarum), Louise Huntington (Mary Joe), Arthur Vinton (Jed Nelson), Captain Bob Bartlett (Captain Barker), Wilfred Grenfell (Sir Wilfred Grenfell).

by Susan Doll