I first saw this one back in my undergraduate days, possibly around the time I was first really studying the Viking Age. It is … veeeery … loosely based on The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, which is even more tangentially related to the Viking invasions of England in the 9th century. You may say that this violates my own rules, to which I say yeah, probably.
The whole thing is on YouTube, actually:
Anyway. We begin with … oh Lord, you know what? I’m not going to recount the whole story. Basically England is being invaded by Vikings. Ragnar (presumably Ragnar Lothbrok, I guess?), played by Ernest Borgnine, rapes Queen Enid and she gets pregnant. She knows King Aelle, the successor and baddie, will go after the child, so she sends him away, but oh no, he gets captured by the Vikings, who, oh the irony, don’t know who he is, and he grows up as a slave in Ragnar’s village or whatever, pushed around by Ragnar’s shithead of a son, Einar, whose name sounds kind of like Ivarr and who has a wicked evil eye (kind of like Sigurd, maybe, sorta?) after Erik (our hero) has a bird poke it out. Confused? You will be.
Right, a quick who’s who.
Erik is our noble hero, kept in slavery so long that he still has the nappie he was found in, or something.
Einar is the baddie, and he is Kirk Douglas.
Egbert is kind of also the baddie, maybe, I guess, and he is the sneering English traitor.
Ragnar is Einar’s dad, and he is kind of ambiguous. I think you are meant to like him, even though he has this cheerful soliloquy about raping women. I don’t think they thought that was what they were writing — I think they thought it was funny and romantic — but listened to coldly it is pretty wrong.
Ragnar Lothbrok is one of those characters where there is not a lot of history and a tonne of legend surrounding him. In the History Channel show Vikings, he looks like this:
But in tonight’s film he looks like this:
The Vikings throw axes at people and sort of roister, and they scheme up a plan to kidnap Morgana (Janet Leigh) who is Aelle’s fiancee, and they pull it off, but wouldn’t you know it, both Einar and Erik fall in love with her. Erik and his band of misfit sidekicks steal her away and sail to England and there’s a boat chase and Ragnar dies and blah blah blah but the main thing I want to point out is the prow-best on Einar’s ship, whom I call Derpy the Dragon:
Also during the sea battle where they kidnap Morgana, there is a bit where one of the Vikings is just incredibly excited about headbutting a dude.
Anyway, Erik gets his hand cut off, but on the plus side he gets some trousers, and he and Einar put aside their differences and go try to save Morgana from Aelle, but of course then they fight over her and Einar dies, but not before he has put on the dumbest hat in history:
That’s Egbert looking surly on the left there.
There is a big fight on top of a castle, and given the number of times they fall over, I’m super glad they decided to issue Erik some proper legwear.
And then Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh live happily ever after, I guess, and Einar gets a big Viking funeral and then there are end credits which, like the intro narration (by Orson Welles!) are based on the Bayeux Tapestry.
So, I think the main thing that I took away from this movie was the rape thing. Like, the bit with Enid is pretty tasteful, but the stuff with Morgana is just … I mean, Borgnine gives this speech about how sex is only good when women fight back as hard the last time as the first time, but it’s OK because they secretly want it, and then Kirk Douglas is all “I wouldn’t want a woman who wanted me, seeing how ugly I am and all” and then he marches out of the feasting hall all boasting about how he’s going to rape Morgana. And then when he gets there she’s all like “oh I have such an ambivalent attitude about your sex crimes”. And even when she’s legit falling in love with Erik and just waffling about how she’s a Christian and he’s a pagan, he does make it very clear that he’s abducted her and that she isn’t necessarily free to leave.
And it’s just … I don’t _think_ it’s mean to be creepy, I think it’s meant to be hot. So yeah. 1958, everybody!
There’s a lot of good scenery in this movie, and the view from the top of the castle, which is totally anachronistic, is really nice, and there’s some fun bits where they run from oar to oar on the Viking ship as it’s arriving. Basically any part of it where there’s no women in it or women being talked about, that’s OK, but like 4/5 scenes with a woman are about a woman being threatened with, or dealing with the consequences of, sexual violence.
I’m aware that the “rape but not really” thing is a whole romance-novel trope, of course, and I guess that’s what we’re dealing with here? But I’m not sure that women who have that fantasy really want to think about Kirk Douglas rubbing his leathery, greasy face on theirs (which literally happens), but on the other hand maybe I shouldn’t speak for them?
Note that the poster for this movie shows Tony Curtis in his last-scene costume with two hands (not in the film), shows Janet Leigh tied to a stake in some kind of shift (ditto), and has the world’s hugest Viking ship filled with fighting dudes (not in the film) … but did see fit to preserve authenticity by including Derpy.
Oh, in the movie Ragnar gets eaten by wolves, but in the sagas it is snakes. Taking something properly Viking and replacing it with something that fits the stereotype better? Big Red X, Hollywood.