The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages

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KEVIN J. HARTY, ed. The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Pp. viii, 228. ISBN: 978-0-7864-6044-1. $38.00

Kevin J. Harty is well known to readers of this journal. His King Arthur on Film: New Essays on Arthurian Cinema (1999) was reviewed in Arthuriana 10.1, 137-39 and the second edition of his Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays (2000) was reviewed in 13.2 (Summer 2003), 114-16. He also coined the phrase 'the "reel" Middle Ages,' which has gained some currency as a convenient way to refer to cinematic representations set in Medieval Europe. The current volume is in the same vein. However, this time the focus is on films which purportedly deal with the Viking incursions into Europe, c. 800-c. 1200, including those films in which Vikings are characters in a fantasy or science-fiction plot. It consists of an introduction by Harty followed by fourteen essays, concluding with a filmography on 'The Vikings on Film' (193-214).

The anthology begins, as is appropriate, with a challenging and sophisticated analysis by Kathleen Coyne Kelly of The Vikings (1958), directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh. In my mind this is still the best film on the Vikings, despite its faults, and it serves as the template against which any number of Viking films can be compared and found wanting. Fleischer and Douglas (whose production company was involved in the film) had a commendable desire to produce an 'authentic' depiction of the Viking period and went to extraordinary lengths to achieve this. Nevertheless, they were involved in a Hollywood action film, not a documentary; that is, they were involved in creating a fantasy world to be consumed as entertainment with the goal of making money for the backers of the enterprise. Various incidents were invented for the film such as a fidelity test in which the mistress of Einar (Kirk Douglas), played by the German actress Almut Berg, is pinned to a board by her braids to be proven innocent if her (drunken) husband can cut her loose by throwing an axe at twenty paces. Other set pieces such as the game of running along the oars are attested to in the medieval sources. The script, based on the novel The Viking (1952) by Edison Marshall, also works remarkably well, focused as it is on the two half-brothers who do not know they are related and who are rivals for the same woman, Morgana (Janet Leigh), a Welsh princess captured on the high seas on her way to her nuptials with the current king of Northumbria, the usurper Aella. Kelly also has an interesting discussion of the casual violence in the film which still retains its powers to shock after more than half a century. Eric (Tony Curtis), the son of the Viking chieftain Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine), Einar's father, as the result of his rape of the queen of Northumbria, has been sent by his mother overseas to safety from king Aella, but is captured by Ragnar en route. He is now a slave, but he and Einar get under each other's skin, which culminates in Eric's setting his falcon on Einar who loses one of his eyes and is scarred on his face (his father thinks this is highly amusing). Kelly discusses the consequences of this limited vision on Einar's behavior but fails to note that this also makes the one-eyed Einar a type of Óðin. Later in the film, king Aella cuts off one of Eric's hands as punishment for having given his sword to Ragnar so that he can die with honor as he is pushed into a pit filled with wolves. Eric is now a Týr figure (the Norse god who lost his hand in the mouth of the wolf, Fenrir) and this gives the final duel between the two half-brothers an almost mythical quality. Violence of this magnitude on screen was not permitted by the Production Code Association (PCA), the industry watchdog. Films were seen by the industry as wholesome family entertainment, and it was the job of the PCA to ensure that such was the case. Kelly provides many fascinating details of the exchanges between Fleischer and the censor, Geoffrey Shurlock, the president of the PCA, and the compromises which ensued-one of them being the deletion of an episode where Einar was to bathe with six naked maidens in a barrel of beer, a scene that maybe never was intended in the first place. …