There’s a film series honoring the recently deceased Ernest Borgnine happening at the American Cinematheque, and one of tonight’s features is Richard Fleischer‘s The Vikings (’58). Borgnine plays an elder Viking leader named Ragnar, the father of Kirk Douglas‘s Einar. He’s out at the end of Act Two when he’s forced to jump into a pit of hungry wolves, but first he persuades Tony Curtis‘s Eric to let him die like a Viking with a sword in hand.
I’m mentioning this because I’m bothered by a line in the American Cinematheque online program notes. It says that The Vikings “is a fast, funny spectacle not to be missed on the big screen.” Funny? It’s a broadly staged popcorn movie, okay. And with a sense of humor, for sure, but there’s nothing comical about any of it. It’s campy — any movie about taking women with force (“Bite! Scratch!”) and looting and howling and fighting with axes and swords is a hoot on some level — but it has a touch of genuine gravitas, about brotherly ties and the fear of God.
Here’s how I put it six and half years ago just after Fleischer died:
“For me, Fleischer’s peak was The Vikings — the 1958 historical action epic that was mostly dominated by producer-star Kirk Douglas, but was notable for two dramatic elements that still work today.
“One is what seems to happen inside the male Viking characters (particularly Douglas and Borgnine’s) whenever Odin, the Nordic God, is mentioned. We hear a haunting, siren-like ‘Odin theme’ on the soundtrack, and these rough blustery types suddenly stop their loutish behavior and seem to almost retreat into a childlike emotional place…a place that’s all about awe and fear of death, God, judgment. This happens maybe three or four times in this big, unsophisticated popcorn movie (which nonetheless feels far sturdier and more classically composed than a typical big-budget popcorn actioner made today), and each time it does The Vikings has a spirit.
“The other thing that still works is the film’s refusal to make much of the fact that Douglas and costar Tony Curtis, mortal enemies throughout the film, are in fact brothers, having both been half-sired by Borgnine. Costar Janet Leigh begs Douglas to consider this ten minutes from the finale, and Douglas angrily brushes her off. But when his sword is raised above a defenseless Curtis at the very end and he’s about to strike, Douglas hesitates. And we know why. And then Curtis stabs Douglas in the stomach with a shard of a broken sword, and Douglas is finished.
“The way Douglas leans back, screams ‘Odin!’ and then rolls over dead is pretty hammy” — okay, call it funny — “but that earlier moment of hesitation is spellbinding — one of the most touching pieces of acting Douglas has ever delivered. Douglas wasn’t very respectful of Fleischer’s authority during the making of The Vikings, and for all I know Fleischer didn’t have that much to do with this final scene…but he probably did, and he deserves our respect for it.”