I knew all about Vikings. That man—that movie star who was never a favourite and I never really liked but so dominated the films that mattered to me most—was back again. Kirk Douglas, this time with his own production company, and making a movie appropriately called The Vikings—a near perfect film in that when it was done, no one would ever need to make another film on the subject. It’s unregarded these days and thought of as a matinee piece, but it’s a fine rollicking picture of life in Viking times.
Ernest Borgnine plays Ragnar, the Viking chief who, on one of his raids on the English mainland, rapes the local queen, providing a bastard son who is heir to the throne of that kingdom in the time before Alfred the Great when England was many kingdoms, of which the most famous and most mythical was Camelot. Evil Frank Thring—an Australian rarity at the time being cosmopolitan, blatantly homosexual and making it in Hollywood—seizes the throne and tries to get rid of the baby but the boy falls into Ragnar’s hands (although he doesn’t know who he is) and grows up to be Tony Curtis.
Thring, knowing all this, finally captures Ragnar and feeds him to his pet wolves that he keeps hungry in a pit (where of course he ends up himself) and cuts off Curtis’ hand so he cannot wear the ring that is the symbol of power. Kirk Douglas plays Ragnar’s son, and the two half-brothers, unaware of their kinship, fight and out-manoeuvre each other from the beginning of the film to the end. The final scenes offer a spectacular attack on Thring’s castle involving an enormous battering ram, and the brothers fight a terrific final duel—without bothering with stuntmen—on the rim of the precious peak of the castle tower.
Enormously exciting, visually stunning (especially the scenes of the dragon-ships rowing rhythmically through the fjords (it was filmed in Norway), full of mysticism and primitive science, with superb music, great titles and fascinating detail, it really deserves a much higher ranking in the hierarchy of great films than it presently has. It is one that everyone should see.
The movie actually has a factual base. Ragnar and his terrible sons are characters from several ancient Norse poems and Sagas and the sons are provable historical figures. Ernest Borgnine gives him the works in a seriously great performance, while Douglas and Curtis weren't anywhere near as terrible as the real ones, who were named Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Signurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Ubba. It is thought that Ragnar was the man who figured out how to successfully raid England, which theme lies at the core of the film, and he is the hero of Vikings, a 2013 TV series, and the basis of several video strategy games. And that final fight on the castle parapet, a 1000 feet above the rocky shore, was one of the key reasons why movie stars aren't allowed to do their own stunts anymore. The film went way over budget and it was insurance premiums that did most to send it there.