‘It’s fate. All our moves are predestined.’
Sent by the King to broker a peace treaty with the invading Viking hordes, an English nobleman instead springs a deadly trap. As the Norseman are massacred, the two young sons of the Viking king are separated. Twenty years later, when hostilities resume, the grown-up boys find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, neither having any knowledge of the other’s true identity…
The success of Richard Fleischer’s ‘The Vikings’ (1958) starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis kicked off a mini-craze of Italian pictures featuring the exploits of the Norsemen which lasted through most of the 1960s. At first glance, it might seem strange to find director Mario Bava contributing, but the horror maestro only had two official solo pictures to his name before production began, and he regularly worked in more mainstream genres throughout his career.
The occupying Viking army is driven from English shores after being betrayed by the duplicitous Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi). Not only is King Harald (Folco Lulli) killed in the battle, but his two young sons are separated, Erik left behind when the Norsemen flee with his brother, Eron. English King Lotar (Franco Ressel) applauds the result, but not Checchi’s treacherous methods and exiles him from the kingdom. This proclamation proves to be a tactical error when Ressel gets an immediate arrow through the neck, courtesy of Checchi’s right-hand man, who is able to shift the blame to a dying Norseman. Wandering the battlefield at sundown, the grieving Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe) finds the infant Erik and decides to bring him up as the son she can never have.
Two decades later, the Vikings are spoiling for a return match and set out in their longships for English shores. Their forces are led by the grown-up Eron (a blonde Cameron Mitchell), and he’s got a greater motivation than simple revenge. Vestal Virgin Daya (Ellen Kessler) and he are in love, but she’s consecrated to Odin and the only way he can free her from her vows is to become a King and take her as his wife. Mitchell meets the English navy head-on, little knowing that they are led by his brother Erik (George Ardisson) who now goes by the name of Lord Helford. Meanwhile, back at the palace, the slimy Checchi is still trying to get his hands on the throne by marrying the reluctant Christophe.
This is a film intended purely as a commercial, Saturday night crowd-pleaser. The narrative drives from one story beat to the next with a remorseless energy, and Bava delivers frequent bursts of well-mounted action. The film even opens in the middle of the initial battle and only stops to take a breath afterwards to establish the necessary plot points and the characters that inhabit the drama. Motivations aren’t complicated, the adventure is highly traditional and the themes of brotherhood and duty are familiar enough. It has the spirit of the old swashbucklers of classic Hollywood, although it lacks the humorous sparkle that many of those pictures possessed.
In terms of the plot, Bava’s film plays much like a reworking of ‘The Vikings’ (1958). The action is centred on opposing brothers who don’t know each other, and individual scenes are clearly inspired by sequences from Fleischer’s original hit. The breakneck pace may have been an attempt to cover some of the story’s shortcomings and implausibilities. When Ardisson is washed up on the shores of the ‘Land of the Vikings’ after his navy is defeated, we can just about swallow it because the film doesn’t tell us where the sea battle takes place. But when it turns out that Mitchell’s stronghold is only a stone’s throw from the beach where he wakes, suspension of disbelief becomes a little harder. This becomes even more challenging when the first person to find him is Rama (Alice Kessler) who happens to be the twin of Mitchell’s paramour. Of course, the two instantly fall in love, and Ardisson mutters something about fate and predestination. But it sounds more like he’s making a sheepish apology on behalf of the screenwriters.
But what most cult film fans are here for is Bava, of course. So how is the great man’s first Viking epic? Well, it’s a lot of fun, and his fingerprints are all over it. Some of the most striking scenes recall moments from his previous films. We join the Vikings passing judgement on an unnamed couple who have transgressed holy law. A warrior and a Vestal Virgin have been caught giving in to temptation. The lovers are bound in barbed wire, there are close-ups of skulls, and they get the same kind of treatment that Barbara Steele and Arturo Dominici received in the opening scenes of ‘Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan’ (1960). These Norsemen spend a lot of time underground, and their home turf is a Technicolor Hades of fluorescent greens and splashes of purple which can’t help but provoke memories of Reg Park’s trip to the Underworld in ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961). That’s even the great tree of the Hesperides at the back of their throne room! In short, it’s gothic at times and with a beauty that’s always ravishing.
This is never more evident than in the scene where Christophe finds the child Erik on the beach. The sky boils with heavy cloud and the sun has almost set on the far horizon. It’s sheer visual poetry. There’s also the climactic scene where Ardisson goes to rescue Ellen Kessler from the clutches of Checchi. He has her chained to a wall and facing a deadly spider that’s due to escape its cage when the final grains of sand run through an hourglass. The shot compositions look like they belong in a film made for millions – dollars rather than lira. The sea battle is also of note as the only time the ocean makes an appearance is in long shot; up close it’s all actors on sets, but the combination of fog, camera movement and water splashes creates a stylish and acceptable illusion. The sequence wasn’t without its drawbacks, though; the fog proved somewhat toxic forcing Bava off the set. This may have contributed to his six-month break from film after the picture wrapped, although the director also reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown around this time.
There’s further evidence of Bava’s technical wizardry with the SFX. The climactic confrontation between the brothers takes place in front of Christophe’s royal castle, which is heroically played by a photograph that Bava cut out of a copy of National Geographic magazine. That sounds like the worst effect imaginable, but the fact is that it looks more realistic than much of the CGI in current films. Bava simply mounted the picture as part of a glass matte shot, and put a waving flag on top of the hill in the distance. Lining the image up with the landscape and shooting through the glass, it appears that the castle is sitting on the hill with the flag waving from the top of the battlements. Like all the best SFX, it’s not something you even notice when watching the film. It’s only afterwards when you find out how Bava achieved the effect, that the shot becomes so incredibly impressive.
Bava tends to get all his plaudits for his work behind the camera. After all, visual miracles were his main area of expertise. However, that does tend to overshadow his work with actors. The Kessel Twins were a German musical act who had become all the rage in the cabarets of Paris and, although they had previous film experience, they were still primarily stage performers. Here, they make credible Vestal Virgins even if their presence would have been quite a headscratcher to real-life Vikings, being as they were Priestesses who served the goddess Vesta in Ancient Rome.
Our two leading men both display a natural physicality and charisma, Ardisson having played second lead Theseus in ‘Hercules and the Haunted World’ (1961). Mitchell went on to appear twice more for Bava, his vacation in Europe in the 1960s partly down to alimony and the IRS. He returned to the US in the last years of the decade to become a TV star on Western ‘The High Chapparal’ but returned to Europe afterwards, although the quality of the films he made was often lacking. Sadly, both Ardisson and Mitchell have passed on, but the Kessel Twins are still going strong, performing on German television as recently as 2016.
The film was a big hit in Italy, but failed to find foreign distribution until two years later when it appeared in the UK as ‘Fury of the Vikings’. A US release followed, although ten minutes of the film was cut. Bava returned to the Land of the Norse with ‘Knives of the Avenger’ (1965) which again starred Mitchell.
A thoroughly enjoyable historical romp with more than a little touch of class.