Inspired by the success of 1958’s The Vikings, and with Jack Cardiff, the cinematographer of that earlier classic, assuming directing duties, producer Irving Allen’s The Long Ships is one of the damnedest epics I have ever seen.
Shot in Yugoslavia on the cheap, the film nonetheless has the feel of a big-budget adventure, with quite a cast to support it. But there are moments of comedic chaos tossed into the mix that feel more like Benny Hill than Ben-Hur!
Loosely based on a best-selling Swedish novel of the same name, The Long Ships centers on a Viking named Rolfe (Richard Widmark), who is not above lying and cheating to get what he wants. After losing his ship and entire crew in a storm, he is rescued by monks, who nurse him back to health. While there, he is reminded of a fable from his childhood, about a solid-gold bell several stories high, one so big and so loud, it was dubbed the “Mother of Voices”. What’s more, Rolfe discovers that the fable might be more than a tall story.
Unable to return North, he attempts to impress the local Muslims in a Moorish city with stories about the bell, only to draw the attention of King Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier), who has made it his life’s goal to find and possess the bell. He holds Rolfe prisoner, demanding he reveal the location of the bell.
Rolfe manages to escape and somehow swim home. He is chastised by his father Krok (Oscar Homolka) for losing his boat and crew, especially since Krok recently put all his money into building a funeral ship for King Harald (Clifford Evans), only to be swindled during the negotiation (the King paid exactly two gold pieces for it).
Convincing both his father and younger brother Orm (Russ Tamblyn) that the bell is real, Rolfe devises a plan to steal the King’s funeral boat, kidnap his daughter, Princess Gerda (Beba Loncar), and, with a hastily-raised crew, sail off in search of the fabled bell.
Alas, their journey carries them into Moorish territory, where Rolfe once again encounters Aly Mansuh. Despite the protests of his main wife Aminah (Rosanna Schiaffino), Mansuh is as determined as ever to locate the bell, and will use Rolfe and his Viking crew to find it.
That’s a pretty involved, even wild story right there, but that’s not the half of it! There are a handful of well-staged battle scenes (one set on a beach is especially exciting); a few storms at sea (not the greatest miniature effects, if I’m being honest, but far from the worst); a wild Viking party with plenty of ale and scantily-clad serving wenches; and a scene in which Rolfe’s Viking crew assaults King Mansuh’s harem! This last sequence is especially bizarre and over-the-top, with comedy so broad it reminded me of the Busby Berkeley-inspired fight scene at the end of Blazing Saddles!
If The Long Ships has one problem, this is it. Tonally, it is all over the place. Widmark plays Rolfe in a light-hearted manner, proving him a liar, a swindler, and a con artist every chance he gets, only to get deadly serious in a pretty intense scene, where he is breaking a “curse” that has frightened his crew. Sidney Poitier and Russ Tamblyn seem to be taking it seriously, while Oskar Homolka’s turn as Krok was played almost entirely for laughs (especially prevalent in the final act).
That said, I had a lot of fun watching The Long Ships, and enjoyed how many times the movie surprised the hell out of me. Seriously, I don’t know how they got away with some of this in 1964!
Rating: 7 out of 10