Monday 7 September 2009

The Long Ships (1964)

Director: Jack Cardiff
Stars: Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Russ Tamblyn and Rosanna Schiaffino

The storm rages and the waves crash and the nonsense begins. A Viking longboat is destroyed with all hands with it except for one, who is washed ashore and rescued by monks of Byzantium. The monks, presumably silent, make mosaics to tell their stories, including one about a bell. Apparently they made this particular mosaic first, then gathered gold by hook and by crook from around the world to cast into the great golden bell they call the Mother of Voices, as tall as three tall men. Of course they hit the bell, but its noise sent them all aquiver because the monks are all silhouette figures in the animated story of Rolfe, a Circassian in Muslim lands trying to earn his way home by telling stories.

No, it doesn't excuse this beginning, but perhaps this is just set up as a response to No Way Out in which Sidney Poitier is abused in his film debut by Richard Widmark. They became firm friends on that film, so much so that Widmark even apologised after some racist outbursts the script called upon him to spout. Here the roles are reversed, with Widmark as Rolfe and Poitier as Aly Mansuh, the only villain he ever played in his distinguished career. He looks more like a cross between James Brown and Samuel L Jackson and his wife looks like Princess Leia in her slave outfit. It's a surreal scene for sure.

Aly Mansuh is a dreamer who believes the old legends about great golden bells and he wants to know what lies beyond the horizon. While the folk listening to Rolfe in the marketplace don't believe a word he says, Aly Mansuh believes all of them. In fact he wants him to take him there and he's well prepared to use every means of torture to persuade him to do so. He's forced to mount a terrible fight to take down his Muslim barbarian torturers and escape into the sea through a window that is a conveniently huge hole in the wall, whereupon he promptly arrives home, apparently swimming all the way and swallowing most of the ocean in the process.

It turns out that the boat he lost in the storm cost his father, Krok the Thane the two years of tribute he owes Harald, the King of Northland, so he's in more than a little trouble. He can't even afford to pay the merchants who provide the ale for the drunken Viking revelry that accompanies Harald's taking ownership of a funeral ship Krok has had built for him. Rolfe arrives home just as Harald pays him the pathetic sum of two gold pieces, having deducted the tribute money first.

I should add that these Vikings are a stunning miscast bunch. Widmark is a fine actor but he's hardly the epitome of a wild fighting man of the north, fair hair or not. Then again, given that his father is played by Oskar Homolka, suitably raw and visceral but coming off as some sort of Russian Jew rather than a Viking Thane, he's about as good as we get. His brother is played by Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story, tom thumb and High School Confidential! Everyone else appears to be British, played by actors of the calibre of David Lodge, Colin Blakely and Gordon Jackson, except the King's daughter who's Yugoslavian. The only things remotely approaching authenticity are the Thane's bed and the drunken Viking brawling.

Unfortunately for these English Vikings, it's 1964 and so none of them ever watched An American Werewolf in London. If they had they may have paid heed to Brian Glover's advice to 'beware the Moors' and stay home, but no, off they trot in the King's funeral ship to search for the bell in Moorish Barbary. Stunningly, even though Rolfe really has no clue where it is, they stumble on the bell tolling for them a few days in to their voyage, only to be shipwrecked by the maelstrom right in front of the troops of Aly Mansuh. Remember him?

Well given that the twisted laws of geography used in this film, he returns as if he'd never left. Then again, in this film Rolfe can swim home from Moorish Barbary to the northlands. History is as poorly observed given that the whole premise has Vikings against Moors, and these are pretty pathetic Vikings given that they surrender in the face of superior numbers and give in under torture. The laws of physics don't fare much better as Vikings can throw spears twenty yards and they take down horses a thousand yards away. Aly Mansuh has a gigantic razor sharp method of execution called the steel horse that's as pointless and wasteful as it is cool.

It's really difficult to work out just what the filmmakers were thinking. The source novels the film is based on were written by the Swedish writer Frans Gunnar Bengtsson in the forties and were widely popular. They followed the adventures of Orm rather than Rolfe, who wasn't even in the book, thus epitomising how mangled this attempt at translation to the screen this film is. Al-Mansur isn't even a villain in the books, which were apparently pretty tolerant of the many cultures involved rather than just polarising two of them. As a story this makes next to no sense and would appear to insult its source material.

It's not all bad. The cinematography is solid, hardly surprising given that the film was directed by a cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, far better known for his cinematography than his directorial skills. The costumes are decent too, though they suffer from the same abuse of logic as everything else in the film: all those white Moorish costumes stay very white, even when dragged through the dirt, just as Gerda's hair is always perfectly coiffured even after a violent shipwreck and Aly Mansuh's chief eunuch can stay dry even after he's been utterly submerged in a harem bath. The costumes won a BAFTA Award for Anthony Mendleson, the only award the film received. It's hard to even imagine where another award could have come from, given that the Razzies weren't founded until 1980.

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