The Vikings (1958)

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I was going to do a Man Candy Monday retrospective of Kirk Douglas’ work, considering his recent death at the truly ripe old age of 103, but it would have ended up being about two dozen crappy a-historical Westerns set in Ye Olden Days, with a detour here and there to a film that had decent historical costumes. After about the sixth Western, I hit my limit, and had more or less written off the entire idea when The Boyfriend suggested we watch The Vikings (1958). (Don’t worry, Trystan took on the task of doing a Kirk Douglas Man Candy Monday post, which will be forthcoming next week.)

Now, understand this, The Boyfriend takes his Norse shit seriously, but he also has a deep and abiding love for the cheesy historical films that were probably played on reruns when he was a kid. I dunno, I grew up with Nick-at-Nite, so I missed out on the truly desperate TV programming of the early-1970s when you were held hostage by three channels and whatever they had secured the rights to play.

After a few cocktails were consumed, we settled in to watch The Vikings, and folks, I have to say, I didn’t hate it. In fact, there were several points throughout the film where I was impressed by the sets (shot on location in Norway, Brittany, and Croatia), the attention to detail (the longboats were impressively constructed), and the fact that they didn’t completely throw history overboard the way that the modern show of the same name has done repeatedly (“England? Where is this mythical land that we can literally see from the coast of France on a clear day. It couldn’t possibly exist.”) In short, there was less face paint and more bullet bras, but overall I am pretty cool with that trade-off.

The Vikings focuses on the feud between Einar (Kirk Douglas), son and heir of the fearsome Ragnar Lothbrok (Earnest Borgine), and an uppity slave name Eric (Tony Curtis), and the shenanigans that ensue when both inconveniently fall in love with Morgana (Janet Leigh), the bride-to-be of the English king Aella. Already, I’ve named four major stars of this era in one film, and there are more “hey, it’s that guy!” actors in the cast, so this was clearly a big budget endeavor, and the costumes and sets reflect this.

I’m not saying you should use this film as documentation for a Viking kit, but IF you were going to do so, it’s way better than The Vikings.

Can we just not?

The most historically plausible costumes are on the English, and for a film made in the late-1950s, they’re actually pretty decent. The Norse all wear way too much fur and leather jerkins, and we are treated to a lot of man-thigh in Tony Curtis’ skimpy tunic-and-manties costume (I’m not complaining, mind you), but even then, there’s a glimpse of proper layers and at least a basic understanding of what the Norse likely wore in the 9th century. A lot of the women are obviously wearing bullet bras under their gowns, but that’s par for the course with this era of film-making. But all in all, I wasn’t horrified; I was pleasantly surprised.

I’m just saying, it’s A LOT of manly thigh to deal with. But it does visually set Eric apart, as a slave, to the rest of Ragnar’s court.

 

The English court’s costumes were pretty spot-on for what we know of early medieval fashion. I mean, it’s still filtered through the 1950s lens, but honestly, it’s better than we see in a lot of modern films set during this period.

 

Morgana’s crown is ridiculous and Not Period At All, but I really like Aella’s mantle and giant bow brooch. And of course, as the leading lady, Janet Leigh wears her hair down and uncovered for most of the film, but occasionally sports a veil.

 

Appropriate headgear for praying in the chapel, like a good Christian woman. You don’t get to see much of the rest of this outfit in detail, but the embroidery on her sleeves is very evocative of early medieval Christian costume.

 

Not surprisingly, I really liked this veil arrangement at the very end of the film, when Morgana and Eric bear witness to Einar’s Viking funeral. His armor, btw, is pretty weird, but at least they have him in mail.

 

Also really liked the dowager Queen’s costume from the first few minutes of the movie. Again, the crown is pure Hollywood pretty pretty princess, but the ornate collar on her dress is evocative of the fashions worn during this period in the Byzantine court, which perhaps is a bit of a stretch for the backwater English court, but better than the usual Hollywood alternatives.

 

Einar and Eric both wear these kind of weird pillowcase tunics, like a Viking version of a sleeveless muscle Tee, I guess?

 

That is, when Eric is wearing a tunic at all…

 

Hey, look! Eric got actual pants! The leg wraps you can kind of barely see on Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas are kind of a misinterpretation of winnegas (narrow woven bands that were wrapped around the lower legs) but points for them at least trying. Janet Leigh’s bullet bra remains enduring.

 

The longships in the film are, to quote my boyfriend, “Dope as fuck.”

 

They also were seaworthy, even if the crews encountered some technical difficulties based on the proportions of 20th-century human males versus the considerably less robust 9th-century variety.

So, there are a handful of anachronisms worth mentioning, such as the fact that even though the film was shot in castles on location in Brittany, stone castles were very much not period for the 9th century anywhere. Wooden keeps were what would have been seen, but you know, as things go, I’m less stressed about the choice to use a crumbling stone ruin as a dramatic backdrop. Like, I’ll take man-thigh over things like face paint and smokey guyliner. It’s always a trade off.

 

Did you like The Vikings (1958)? Tell us in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

30 Responses

  1. thedementedfairy

    one of my fave Sunday afternoon films EVER! Da-daaaa-da, da-daaaa-da, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
    And the bit where the bloke jumps in the wolf pit! And the bit with the hawk! And the plait-chopping and the crabs and and and and
    What does your old man think of ‘The Long Ships’ from five years later, with Richard Widmark and Russ Tamblyn? I LOVES IT TOO

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    I vaguely remember that I had watched it and vaguely remember liking it. I also thought that the costumes were okay-ish.

    I think the Bullet Bra deserves it’s own snark post. Say – Bullet Bra the Bra that Conquered….

    But my favourite Kirk Douglas frock flicks are Lust For Life and Spartacus.

    Btw how are costumes for Carnivale coming along?

    Reply
    • Shashwat

      I think there should be a complete snark week on improper bust support through the decades.Remember that Jane Seymour dress from the Tudors”thy udders proclaim thy fertility”…

      Reply
  3. Katie O

    This looks like a pretty impressive attempt at historical accuracy, especially for the 50’s. I have a hard time reconciling Kirk Douglas with the claims that he raped Natalie Wood when she was sixteen though. I hate that we’ll never know one way or another what actually happened.

    Reply
  4. Antonija

    One of my mother’s favorite movies—and mine, too. Never considered the costuming while watching as a kid, but happy to hear they were somewhat accurate, unlike myriad other 50s movies. And… yay for Tony Curtis thighs. You see them in Spartacus and Taras Bulba as well. :)

    Reply
  5. Roxana

    Those are pretty good costumes! And I just love that it’s the men who are showing skin! 😉
    Of course the women really should be wearing hangerocks, apron dresses, over their kirtles and both should hang loose from the shoulders but nobody can expect Hollywood to hide the leading lady’s curves!

    Reply
    • Terry Towels

      From what I’ve read, directors had a hard time keeping the clothes ON on these two leads. They both loved their bodies, and wanted them exposed as much as possible. Kinda the male equivalent of Raquel Welch.

      teehee Men can be vain too.

      Reply
    • angharad

      The sleeveless tunics make me snort, though. I can’t see any of the guys in my Viking group running around like that. And they are definitely too short. So scandalous!

      Reply
  6. Deborah Parkes

    I actually have a soft spot for this film as I grew up with it and I love Kirk Douglas. Soundtrack is pretty good too!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Natalie Wood did only a handful of historical costume films, mostly as a child. And if you’re referring to the rumors about her & Kirk Douglas, it’s just that, one rumor. She never named him or even hinted that he did anything to her.

      Reply
  7. Lee Jones

    Kirk Douglas also did “Mourning Becomes Electra”, “Spartacus”, “The Big Sky” (which was actually pretty good), “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “Ulysseus”, “Lust for Life”, “The Devil’s Disciple”, “The Way West”, and “Queenie”.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Yes! There are definitely plenty of Kirk Douglas period films that weren’t Westerns. No excuse for not doing an MCM.

      Reply
    • Maggie May

      I am quite fond of The Devil’s Disciple; as usual for GBS, it has more to do with Shavian Wit than Real History.

      Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster helped produce this prestige project. Neither let 18th century style hide their Hollywood Star personas, but they both exhibited gusto. Laurence Olivier relished his turn as Gentlemanly Johnny Burgoyne–who was also a playwright, thus earning a fair serving of said Wit.

      The film was shot in England. Most of the supporting cast, including many redcoats, seemed fairly authentic.

      Reply
  8. Donna

    And the oar dancing … that part was great. Kirk Douglas did it himself, not a stunt double. Drove the studio execs crazy.

    Reply
  9. Thora Sharptooth

    I focused on studying this culture and period (Vikings in England) so laser-hard for so long that this movie does nothing but disappoint me garb-wise. Still, it’s also so full of iconic moments that I still love it passionately after more than 30 years. Ragnar Loðbrok leaping into the pit with his sword is a priceless bit of perfection.

    We still quote this movie liberally around my stead, particularly the “scrapes his face like an Englishman” bit; my husband still plays the horn riff when he’s feeling silly in camp.

    Reply
  10. mmcquown

    If you liked that, you might also want to see “The War Lord” with Charlton Heston, wjo is sporting quite a proper Norman soup-bowl haircut. At the time, it was highly lauded by the SCA — for what that’s worth, especially that early on.

    Reply
  11. zeniamoon

    You’re right! Tony Curtis is totally pretty! I was thinking that as I read and saw the pretty pretty pictures. Surprised it’s the first time to use that tag!

    Reply
  12. Iliana Bat-Or

    This is still one of my favorite movies! Thanks for your hard work at Frock Flicks and doing a post on this one :)

    Reply

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