Violence is everywhere in Richard Fleischer’s film The Vikings (1958). For men, one could be slain any minute by a sword or an axe and women face sexual assault at every turn. The Vikings is all about violence and how one copes with violence. Einar (Kirk Douglas) and Erik (Tony Curtis) meet every confrontation with brute force, are driven by vengeance, and see weakness as something that cannot be tolerated. Morgana (Janet Leigh) meets violence with passive resistance, relying upon the better angels of her attacker’s mercy. In The Vikings there’s little difference between the heroes and the villains, history is written by those who emerge victorious.
For 1958 the images of violence in The Vikings are truly shocking. These images of sadism populate a narrative of classical design, drawing attention to just how commonplace systematic violence is in our society. A direct line can be drawn from Fleischer’s The Vikings to Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh+Blood (1984). These two films exploit the commonality of brutality during Europe’s Dark Ages to alert us to the savagery just beneath the pageantry in these kinds of classic Hollywood adventure epics.
Almost in spite of these ruminations The Vikings still succeeds as a work of escapism in the tradition of The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938). The set pieces with extras running about with swords instantly recalls moments of heroism from any number of Douglas Fairbanks features. Likewise, Jack Cardiff’s gorgeous cinematography lends The Vikings a sense of grandeur and scale. This is a serious, epic adventure film, and it’s flaunted by the filmmakers as often as possible.
The more mature approach that Fleischer takes to this type of spectacle is a welcome change but it doesn’t effect the film in such a way as to negate the superficial thrills that the genre has to offer. Kirk Douglas’ Einar, the villain you love to hate, is a daring piece of subversion in casting which identifies yet another aspect of The Vikings that makes it feel so modern. If Douglas hadn’t produced The Vikings himself it’s doubtful that it would have been released as we know it today.
The first time that I saw The Vikings I think I was six years old. With every subsequent viewing I have grown to like this film more. At this point I would say that The Vikings is my second favorite Richard Fleischer film, right behind The Boston Strangler (1968). The Vikings is a sophisticated adventure film in the classic tradition that I really can’t recommend enough.