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

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* The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages. Ed. Kevin J. Harty. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2011. Pp. 236.

This collection of fourteen essays is the first scholarly anthology to examine cinematic representations and re-imaginings of the Vikings and their exploits. The book's editor, Kevin J. Harty, an English professor and Arthurian expert at La Salle University, has previously published extensively on the "the reel Middle Ages"--a term he coined. The project is partly inspired by Andrew Wawn's 2000 study The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-century Britain. That work explored the term "Viking" as masking a wildly elastic variety of different constructions of Vikingism which were far more reflective of Victorian attitudes about race, nationhood, gender, and class than they were historically accurate evocations of the Viking age. Representations of the Vikings on film and television over the past century likewise more tellingly mirror the cultural and commercial horizons of their filmmakers, financiers, and target audiences than they do anything else.

As Harty's introduction points out, film representations of the Vikings are nearly as old as the medium itself, and a spate of Anglo/American early silent short films emerged in the early twentieth century. The first known Viking film is Great Britain's The Viking's Bride (1907), followed by the American studio Vitagraph's The Viking's Daughter, the Story of Ancient Norsemen (1908) and The Last of the Saxons (1910), both directed by James Stuart Blackton. Thomas Edison's company produced The Viking Queen in 1914. As far as we know, prints of these one and two-reel silent films have most probably perished, victims of neglect and the notoriously vulnerable nitrate stock they were shot on.

The book's first essay focuses on the 1958 classic Hollywood epic The Vikings, an iconic popular work that still remains the most widely-known Viking film over a half century later. A color photo of producer-star Kirk Douglas as the maimed, one-eyed warrior Einar graces the book's cover. The Vikings was a product of Hollywood's wide-screen "sword-and-sandal" cycle of the 1950s and early 1960s. Directed by Richard Fleischer, it featured an all-star cast led by Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, and Janet Leigh. Jack Cardiff's super-saturated Technicolor cinematography (with location shooting in western Norway and Brittany) and composer Mario Nascimbene's score (and its stirring three-note fanfare) also contributed to the film's popularity and durability. The film even spawned a short-lived TV series, Tales of the Vikings, produced by Douglas, which aired for 39 half hour episodes during 1959-60. Kathleen Coyne Kelly's essay here integrates theorists like Metz and Baudrillard into her discussion of scopic tropes in the film. She also documents the correspondence battles pitching Hollywood's self-censoring Production Code Administration (PCA) against United Artists and Douglas' own company Bryna Productions over elements of violence and sexual innuendo in the script that are quite tame by today's standards.

The next essay explores the 1964 British-Yugoslavian co-production The Long Ships, starring American actors Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, and Russ Tamblyn, and directed by the British Jack Cardiff (whose storytelling skills did not nearly match his cinematographer gifts as one of film history's greatest colorists in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus). Donald L. Hoffman jocularly titles his essay "Guess Who's Coming to Plunder?" as a sly wink to Sidney Poitier's black saint persona in progressive 1960s films like Stanley Kramer's interracial marriage comedy-drama, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). In his analysis, Hoffman gives a sharp post-colonial reading to this quest narrative of Vikings battling Moors over a fabled golden bell treasure. Leading man Richard Widmark chose to play the lead Viking, Rolfe, for roguish comedy while Poitier gave a Shakespearian Othello-like gravitas to his role as the Moorish chieftan, El Mansuh. …