This awful backstory makes Melford's film even more breathtaking than it would have been otherwise. It's the last of three extraordinary films that I know of in the director's filmography, the others being that seminal romantic abduction fantasy The Shiek, and Universal's Spanish-language version of Dracula, which like The Viking was considered a lost film for many years before rediscovery. Like the "Spanish Dracula," The Viking leaves you wondering what Melford contributed to the visuals. Was he or Frissell the auteur of the piece? Whose eye -- or should doomed cinematographer Alexander Gustavus Penrod get the credi? -- captured the awesome images -- probably still irreproducible even with today's CGI -- of the vast rippling, pitching icescapes of the seal hunts, a white world in perpetual tumult, a rollercoaster on a continental scale? Who could not record pictorial wonders in such a setting? You have to wonder because the dramatic scenes before and after the expedition are nothing special, and those are the parts most certainly directed by Melford. Nor is the script by Garnett Weston that special. At its core it echoes The Four Feathers. A despised young man (future Durango Kid Charles Starrett), condemned for weakness if not cowardice and stigmatized as a jinker, proves himself by rescuing a sometimes-hostile acquaintance who's temporarily blinded. This human story is really a sideshow or subplot compared to the amazing actuality footage, which includes a seal hunt that offers a sop to animal lovers. We're supposed to identify with the hunters and their dangerous quest for wealth, but once they catch up with the seal herd and the shots start firing, Melford (or Frissell) cuts to a baby seal bleating helplessly by itself, too young or too frightened to know what to do to save itself. An older seal -- the baby's parent or just a conscientious seal citizen? -- lurches back onto the ice to steer and shove the baby to the shelter of the water. As the shots keep ringing out, the scene fades out on the baby's face peeking through the surface, presumably safe but plainly terrified. The individual's survival obscures the collective massacre, but I can imagine some selectively sensitive people feeling that Frissell and company got what they deserved later.
Varick Frissell was a disciple of Robert Flaherty, the pioneer documentarian and arguable forefather of "reality TV" who combined actuality with dramatization. The Viking's semidocumentary nature strikes me as preminiscent of today's "dangerous job" programs like Deadliest Catch, some of which have lost cast members in real-life accidents. Somehow I find The Viking's foregrounding of acknowledged fiction more honest than the modern pretense of many "unscripted" programs. Back in 1931, I think everyone understood that the story was the necessary excuse for the good footage that actually dominates the film and makes it memorable today. Whoever shot it or shaped it, that footage is so impressive that it'd impress people who have no clue of the fate of the ship and its crew. I'd like to think it'd impress people accustomed even to color and CGI and 3D today. The Viking proves that truth can still be more fantastic than fantasy.
If you missed the TCM broadcast of March 30, The Viking can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.