People who love historical drama will have a fondness for director Richard Fleischer's 1958 production of The Vikings. Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Earnest Borgnine, and Janet Leigh lead a large cast competently through a pedestrian plot highlighted by some memorable scenes, excellent cinematography, historical accuracy, and extensive production values. The DVD release includes a featurette with the director, explaining the pains they took to record an accurate portrayal of the 9th century Vikings that terrorized Europe. A year in pre-production, they consulted with Viking historians from the University of Oslo to re-create the culture, obtained blueprints of Viking ships from the Viking Museum to create authentic replicas, and scouted the fjords of Norway to find a suitable filming location.
The heavy research and attention to detail pay off in big fashion, making The Vikings one of the more accurate historical creations put together by Hollywood. The location shooting of the ships alone as they return to the authentic Viking village provide breathtaking images, and details like Kirk Douglas and various stuntmen running the oars on the icy North Sea add greatly to the production. Because of the dedication to historical accuracy, we learn that those old Vikings must have been short and stubby. Crafted to specifications, the oars were too close together for the extras—they kept bumping into each other. So they had to use every other space for the larger modern men to be able to row properly.
The film does capture some of the rowdy lifestyle of the Vikings, though it's not nearly as bloody as it would have been had it been filmed post-Peckinpaw. Viking king Ragnar (Borgnine) pillages northern England, killing the king and impregnating the queen (offscreen, of course). This potential heir to the English throne must be secreted away to Italy, only to be identified with a stone that will later show up on the chest of Eric (Curtis), who has ironically been captured as a slave from another of Ragnar's raids.
Meanwhile, Ragnar plots to kidnap the Welsh princess Morgana (Leigh) and ransom her to King Aella (Frank Thring), a plan enthusiastically endorsed by a chip off the old Viking's block—his son Einar, a swashbuckling drinking ruffian that can cut the braids off a maid at ten paces with an axe, without wincing. Naturally, this plan sets off complications since both Einar and Eric desire the princess. This conflict first erupts when Eric sets his hawk to claw out Einar's left eye, causing tension throughout the rest of the film and forming the basis for moving the plot forward.
Will Einar's identity ever be known to his barbaric father? Which son will win the girl? This and a few other threads will weave their way through the story, that features betrayals, sorcerers invoking Odin's powers, Viking honor codes that require a man to go down fighting with a sword, and the inevitable climatic sword fight between the two brothers.
Borgnine performs admirably over the top as the chief Viking rowdy, and his final leap into the wolf pit gleefully clutching his sword provides one of the film's memorable moments. Likewise, Douglas clenches his teeth cheesily and performs requisite manly man Viking duties, making him a believable character. The final sword battle with Curtis is a true classic, effectively edited, and anyone disappointed with the outcome need not fear. Douglas gets his film revenge in Spartacus.
The real stars are the production people, who build the authentic replica ships, dress up the old Viking village, and costume the warriors true to the period. They also fix up Douglas with missing eye make up created by early painful eye contact technology. The film's look and feel recalls classic fifties historical drama (like The Ten Commandments) along secular lines; however, the fast paced adventure clocks in at two hours, making the predictably scripted The Vikings a very tolerable watch. Don't believe the original hype of the film's tagline—"Mightiest Of Men... Mightiest Of Spectacles... Mightiest of Motion Pictures!"—but the film has pleasures and is worth a rental.