Star power reigns supreme when not one but rather FOUR, yes four names that stand tall in Hollywood’s history team for this outdoor action adventure that I’m sure had I been alive in 1958 I’d have been rushing to see on opening night at my local cinema.
Richard Fleischer directs while Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and Miss Janet Leigh star.
Photographed by Oscar winner, Jack Cardiff, on location in Norway, Germany and Belgium, Fleischer’s film is a winner right down the line. All that’s really missing is somehow shoehorning frequent Kirk and Tony costar, Burt Lancaster, into the plot.
It’s a history lesson given by narrator Orson Welles to begin this magnificently shot film that kicks off with brutish Ernie Borgnine leading a Viking raid on an England encampment. He’ll kill the King and rape the Queen who soon after will secretly give birth to a son.
Treachery is afoot in the court of England and the child will be secreted away by man of the cloth, Alexander Knox, with a stone necklace around his neck that may someday offer up proof that he is the true heir to the throne of England.
There’s plenty of plot going on here but it never drags the film down from it’s level of pure highflying entertainment.
Fast forward 20 years. Kirk Douglas is the son of heavily bearded Borgnine. Tony Curtis was taken slave as a child and does indeed wear the stone necklace. When Douglas clashes with Tony the “slave boy” he comes out of it missing an eye thanks to a gruesome eye gouging battle with Tony’s pet hawk. This marks Curtis as Kirk’s number one enemy for the balance of the film. What he doesn’t realize is they’re half brothers.
“The curse of Odin awaits on those who kill the slave.”
A soothsayer all but saves Tony’s life when she utters her warning. Also in the story is James Donald who has fled the court of England as a traitor. He’s been supplying the Vikings with vital raiding intel. His latest information leads to the capture of Janet Leigh whose hand has been promised to the King of England.
One look at her and Tony’s in love. One look at her and Kirk wants to tame her. All of which leads to an amusing scene between Kirk and Ernie who tells the cleft chinned icon, “She’s too skinny anyhow. Like an old crow with all the feathers pulled out.” Not so sure the male going audiences of 1958 quite agreed with Ernie on that point.
Tony will run afoul of Kirk once again when he saves Miss Leigh’s virtue and while escaping by boat even manages to capture Borgnine taking both the Viking leader and Miss Leigh to the court of England. Soon to follow is a classic scene with Borgnine needing a sword to enter Valhalla. When Tony obliges against the wishes of the King, he’ll be minus the hand that disobeyed the Royal orders.
So Kirk’s missing an eye and Tony a hand. Not quite the glamour boys they’re often made out to be during this period of their careers are they?
I’d rather not go any farther so as not to play spoiler. Rest assure there’s still plenty of action and plot twists to come.
Kirk’s own company Bryna was the driving force behind the production with Curtleigh Productions also taking a hand. Shall I assume we all know the meaning of Curtleigh? Well just in case we have some younger readers, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were married at this time and did indeed have a couple of daughters, Kelly and the now famous Scream Queen, Jamie Lee Curtis.
If one loves the stars involved in this action adventure as well what they captured on screen, this proves to be a fun production to read up on. A good place to start is Richard Fleischer’s excellent memoir, Just Tell Me When to Cry (1993). He relates the pre-production days right through to getting the final shot in the can and what I’d call the love/hate relationship he had with star/producer Douglas on the film. Fleischer had previously worked with Kirk on the smash hit, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Let’s face it, Kirk, may be one of my all time favorite actors but I’m easy to convince that he may have been hard to work with at times. Ego? Yeah probably but the weight of the producer’s hat likely didn’t help him remain calm on set with his director either. Best line in Fleischer’s book on the subject is one he shares when meeting up with Kirk at a later date when Douglas tells him in a jovial mood, “you’re the only director who who ever survived two pictures with me.”
Fleischer would also work with Borgnine on 1955’s Violent Saturday, 1961’s Barabbas, and Crossed Swords in 1977.
On the opposing side is the classiest of men, Ernest Borgnine, who despite playing a large number of cutthroats and villains on camera was by all accounts the nicest of men one could meet in the movie business. He had this to say about Kirk in his own memoir, Ernie, The Autobiography, “As producer he had the weight of the production on his shoulders. As star he had to carry the film as well. He did both with unflappable grace.” I expected no less from Mr. Borgnine.
In Curtis’ own book, American Prince, he tells an amusing story of producer Douglas offering up a $200 bonus to cast members if they’d grow a beard. “We all took him up on it and three months later I was in the company of “Vikings” who all looked like I did. Kirk was the only one who was clean shaven.” Love that story and kudos to Kirk the star ensuring he stood out amongst the star power on screen.
Finally in Kirk’s hit bestseller, The Ragman’s Son, he covers much of the production issues and relates the story that Fleischer also recounted, Running the Oars. It’s a wonderful scene in the film that sees Kirk taking part in a scene that had been worked on by stunt men in training for apparent weeks. Douglas was on set when Fleischer was filming the stunt and decided he could do it just as well and urged the director to get the cameras ready. Star power shines brightly when Kirk proves he’s more than adept at handling the stunt for real. Something that I’m sure today would be achieved with CGI, wires and a backscreen. Have a look.
The Vikings scored a bullseye at the box office taking in twice it’s investment at the North American Box Office for a total of 3.5 million dollars. According to Kirk, it got him out of major debt with the IRS as well. Thankfully the film has been readily available on home video since the inception of the medium. It can be found on VHS, DVD and blu ray as of late from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Included on the blu ray is a 28 minute featurette featuring photographs and on camera narration from Fleischer which alone makes the disc worth picking up.