Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Last of the Vikings

The Last of the Vikings

1961 Colour 102 Minutes


Two Viking princes return home from their travels to find their father dead and a new king sitting on the throne. Learning that the current ruler murdered their father and now wishes to strengthen his title in an alliance with the Danes, the brothers try to rally the people in a revolt against the tyrant and return their family to their rightful place.
Star: Cameron Mitchell

This synopsis actually is not totally inaccurate. The movie opens with a fight scene – always a good sign. The two Viking royal brothers succeed in capturing another ship, carrying an ambassador from Denmark bound for the “King of Norway”. The brothers protest that there is no king of Norway, only bands of Vikings (i.e. barbarous warlords). They keep the ambassador for ransom, and sail home, only to find their home destroyed and their father murdered. Basically, there’s nobody at all when they get home, just burnt buildings.

The brothers learn what happened during their 10-year absence: treachery and betrayal by Prince Evil (I cannot remember his name; he was often referred to as “prince”), their father murdered without a weapon in his hand. This means he cannot enter Valhalla, afterlife of the Vikings (and hard-drinking bearded guys everywhere) until his death is avenged. Harald swears to Odin (pronounced here “Oh-DEEN”) that he will not rest until Prince Evil is slain by his hand. So far, so predictable.

The cool plot twist happens about here. Another Viking chieftan, possibly named “Vikran” or something similar, an older man with one eye, enters the story. He starts out with a winged helmet, but it is never seen again, sadly. His wife, who is basically a power-hungry bitch, nags him to betray Harald, sign a peace treaty with Prince Evil, and become king of the Vikings. Obviouly, Vikran likes this plan, but is rather cunning and intelligent, so he doesn’t act rashly. His nasty plans are helped by Harald’s great respect for the older chieftan.

Harald’s friend, Unnamed Foreign Guy (with mustache), comes up with a sneaky plan to attack Prince Evil in his big strong fortress. Vikran and a few other Vikings object to sneaky plans, but Harald trusts Mustache and they go ahead. I should mention at this point that the story is fast paced, and there are rapid cuts to different locations. The editing is pretty good, and the writing is excellent – the cuts make sense, provide interesting contrasts, and move the story ahead at a good pace. For example, there’s a minor battle as one of Prince Evil’s generals tries to put a quick end to the dispute by attacking the supposedly-disorganized Harald and friends. The Vikings win, ambushing the unfortunate general. This is followed by much carousing at Harald’s hall, including a fun scene of Guntar, Harald’s younger brother, getting drunk and dropping a wench into the beer vat. There’s a sudden cut to Vikran torturing Prince Evil’s general (who was captured), which provides a good contrast with the party scene.

So, Harald and Mustache pretend to be the ambassador from Denmark and his buddy, respectively, and show up at Prince Evil’s place. They convince Prince Evil they’re legitimately envoys from Denmark, and sign an agreement with Prince Evil regarding an alliance and a supply of troops to help hunt down this troublesome Viking, Harald. Along the way, Harald falls in love with Prince Evil’s cousin, the beautiful Hedri who is to be married to the King of Denmark as part of this long-sought alliance deal.

Prince Evil tones down his overacting for a few moments and hatches a plan to ensure Harald (whom he thinks is a minor prince of Denmark) doesn’t get down and dirty with Hedri on the voyage to Denmark. He holds Harald hostage (as a “guest”) and sends Mustache off with Princess Hedri. As soon as they’re out of sight of land, the Vikings drop their stolen Danish uniforms and get down to drinking – like any good Vikings should. Hedri is confused, but Mustache explains the situation, she’s a hostage, and they sail to “Vikun”, the Viking town (yes, the names are a little confusing).

However, treachery stalks the Viking camp, too! Vikran sets the real ambassador free, and sends him through the forest back to Prince Evil’s place. Guntar discovers the ambassador is missing, and takes off after him. Guntar gets captured, and tortured by Prince Evil, while the ambassador is still wandering the woods – you can’t really blame him, he was a chained slave for an unspecified period of time before being sent off and he’s in pretty rough shape.

The ambassador shows up just as Harald is planning to escape with Guntar, a fight breaks out, Harald pulls the nails from Guntar’s palms (he was semi-crucified in Prince Evil’s dungeon), and they jump into the sea. Everyone assumes they’re dead, including Virkan back at Viking-town, who declares the brothers’ long absence sufficient grounds for him to take over leadership and chuck Mustache in chains.

Just as Virkan is about to really consolidate his power, Harald shows up carrying his brother’s dead body, and then Harald kills the traitor Virkan. The Vikings get all worked up by the sight of blood, and head off to attack the castle of Prince Evil. Somewhere in here a raiding party of Prince Evil’s shows up out of nowhere (they’re actually quite competent, surprisingly for unnamed uniform-wearing characters) and kills all the Viking women while they’re bathing in the river, capturing back Princes Hedri. Seriously, this movie from 1961 totally shows a bunch of scantily-clad women getting zapped with arrows. The servant-girl Erica’s death scene is particularly moving, as she fades on the riverbank with an arrow in the small of her back and her blood dripping into the water.

A few score Vikings show up and panic the local populace in the fields around Prince Evil’s castle. Prince Evil and his military officers are of course quite confident they can defeat this rag-tag band of Vikings, but of course they’re wrong. Harald is PISSED and can’t be stopped. His Viking buddies are happy to help, with a rather cool siege tower that drops burning logs all over the defending soldiers on the battlements, followed by lots of fur-clad bearded guys running around with axes and swords. Huzzah! A very awesome fight scene happens, lasting about 20 minutes, with some quite creative cinematography: one shot is from a camera pointing at the sky as the seige tower rolls completely over it, and another shows a Viking taking an arrow through his left eye.

Harald kills Prince Evil with a thrown axe, grabs the girl (Hedri), and takes off. THE END.

Overall, I thought this movie was very good. The opening fight scene between ships was more like what I think would be realistic than most movies, with the decks of both ships crowded with angry men waving swords. Once the battle is joined and things are happening on one ship only, it’s very chaotic and thoroughly violent. This is characteristic of the movie as a whole. The protagonists are Harald and Gunter, but they’re never portrayed as the Good Guys. Rather, they’re the sons of a Viking Warlord, and they act like it. They’re both quick to anger, quick with a sword or axe, and generally violent and angry. The only reason presented for not going to war against Prince Evil is that this would cut into the raiding schedule – the alternative to kicking Prince Evil’s ass is presented by Vikran as going off to kick ass in England or somewhere else. There’s no sugar-coating of the Vikings here. Obviously, vengence is somewhat more attractive to a Viking than is yet another village to burn.

As I mentioned above, the writing, editing, and cinematography were excellent. The plot moves quickly but does twist in interesting ways, with only Prince Evil fitting a stereotype. He overacts quite a bit, but as bad guys go he’s lots of fun. Of course he dresses in black at all times. Harald was a pretty well-developed character, and his motivations were more interesting than “You killed my father. Prepare to die!”. Vikran was a good character, too, with his own schemes and plans. The action scenes were really well done, with numerous stunts that I don’t think the union would let a director get away with today – multiple guys get stabbed and roll or fall down stone stairs in the final in-castle fight scene.

**** (four out of five stars)

1 comment:

King Aardvark said...

Nice to have one of these things without bronzed men in sandals, eh?