‘We’ll string them up to dry like cod in the north wind.’
A tribal queen in hiding from the renegade who is trying to take her absent husband’s throne is saved from his men by a mysterious drifter. The stranger bonds with her son, but comes to learn that his own violent past is a part of her tragic story…
The European success of Richard Fleischer’s big-budget Hollywood production of ‘The Vikings’ (1958) prompted a cycle of similar Norse adventures from Italian cinema in the 1960s. However, by the time that Sider Films attempted to enter the fray, audience interest had waned, and their production collapsed through lack of funding just a couple of weeks into shooting. After several attempts to remount the picture, the producers engaged horror maestro Mario Bava to salvage the project.
Arald, King of the Marvar (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) has been away from the Northlands for three years on a voyage searching for food. In his absence, warlord Hagen (Fausto Tozzi) has returned after banishment and is attempting to take the throne. He intends to marry Stuart’s wife, Karin (Elissa Pichelli, billed variously as Lisa Wagner or just Lissa). She has fled, going into hiding with her young son, Moki (Luciano Pollentin) after being warned of imminent danger by sorceress Shula (an unidentified actress, possibly Gordana Miletic). One fine day, wanderer Helmut (Cameron Mitchell) comes riding by and saves Pichelli and her son from the attentions of two of Tozzi’s men. He decides to stick around, and the three make for a cosy family unit. It’s obvious Mitchell is smitten, but Pichelli reaffirms her loyalty to Stuart even though she’s not sure that he’s still alive.
When Pichelli finally fills in Mitchell on her history, it’s a bit of a shocker. On the day she married Stuart (then a Prince), tribal loose cannon Tozzi murdered the family of rival chieftain, Ruric, not realising that the King (Amedeo Trilli) had just negotiated a lasting peace. A masked Ruric takes revenge by burning the tribe’s villages to the ground, raping Pichelli and having Trilli put to the sword. All this is bad news for Mitchell’s romantic intentions because he is Ruric, having spent the last few years trying to escape the memory of his crimes and, with Tozzi back in the neighbourhood too, a showdown is inevitable.
This was not the story of the film that began shooting with original director Leopolda Savona. When Bava came on board, probably keen to work again with his friend Micthell, he re-wrote the entire script, throwing out most of Savona’s footage and re-shooting about three-quarters of the film. All in six to seven days! Although this seems like a recipe for absolute disaster, this was Mario Bava, a man who had extensive experience salvaging other director’s projects, usually uncredited. It was just such an assignment, on ‘The Giant of Marathon’ (1959) with Steve Reeves, that led to Bava finally getting the opportunity to direct in his own right. So, although there are some issues with story continuity, it’s fair to say that most audience members would have no idea that this was such a troubled production.
What Bava fashioned was pretty much a Viking western, and many commentators have pointed out the general story similarities to George Stevens’ classic ‘Shane’ (1953), which was apparently one of Bava’s favourite pictures. Given the short time he had available to knock the story into shape, it’s not perhaps surprising that he would have modelled his outline on such a tried and trusted original. There’s even one scene where Mitchell rides into town accompanied by the strains of a Marcello Giombini score that has an echo of Ennio Morricone’s work on the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. What does he do when he gets there? Go straight to the tavern and get into trouble with the locals, of course!
Inevitably, given the circumstances of production, there are some problems with the narrative. We’re never entirely sure of when Pichelli learns of Mitchell’s true identity; in fact, we only know that she does because she calls him by his real name in passing during an unrelated conversation. There’s no big dramatic scene in which she learns the truth, and she seems remarkably forgiving to a man who raped her and whose soldiers killed her father. If it wasn’t for that one use of his name, you might reasonably assume from her behaviour that she never finds out. The similarity of Mitchell and Pollentin’s hair colour and style also makes it pretty clear that the boy is the result of that rape, but the issue is never directly addressed.
Bava also struggles to establish the geography of the world in terms of the proximity of the various locations. Whilst in the family hut, Micthell and Pichelli hear Pollentin’s cries for help, but it takes a horse ride for Mitchell to arrive at the beach and come to the lad’s rescue. Similarly, Pichelli has been told to go far away to avoid Tozzi but seems to have set up home surprisingly locally, given the time to takes some characters to get there from the town. Also, Tozzi appears to know where she is but, rather than go there himself until near the end of the picture, keeps sending various minions to get her, only to have them bested by Mitchell. It’s also notable that the locale doesn’t look much like the frozen Northlands, although the script does try to address this by having Mitchell complain about the cold and take the warmer robes of a man he has just killed because the winter months are just around the corner. It’s not very convincing, but at least an effort was made.
But there are some outstanding sequences. The first combat between Mitchell and Tozzi in a darkened tavern is a tour de force of lighting and camerawork with the protagonists facing off like wild west gunslingers before launching into an energetic mixture of fisticuffs and a wrestling match, punctuated by throwing knives. The climactic scenes in the ‘sacred caves’ are also beautifully shot with splashes of colour evoking both the Hades of Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961) and the early scenes of his previous Norse adventure ‘Erik The Conqueror’ (1961). The fact that Bava saves these slightly more esoteric touches for this final location is entirely appropriate. After all, these are the caves where the dead lie and supposedly speak through the local prophetess.
These final sequences are surprisingly brief but, in a way, appropriate, as Tozzi never seems to be a very threatening villain, little more, in fact, than the local tavern bully. This is not due to Tozzi’s performance; it’s because we hear about all his dastardly crimes second hand, the audience seeing far more of Mitchell’s violent past. However, it’s that bloody backstory and subsequent search for redemption that give the character a depth that the actor exploits to the full with his engaging performance.
A fast-paced and enjoyable adventure with a stamp of quality provided by the visual flair of its director. Given the circumstances of its hurried production, it’s one of Bava’s most outstanding achievements, even if it’s not one of his finest films.
Death Falls Lightly/La morte scende leggera (1972) – Mark David Welsh