Thursday, May 1, 2014

DVR Diary: THE VIKING (1928)

No, Hollywood wasn't quite ready to give us a true warrior woman at the end of the silent era. Pauline Starke looks awesome in the role of Helga Nilsson, especially since Roy William Neill's film was shot in Technicolor and was, in fact, produced by the Technicolor company (and distributed by M-G-M) to show off what it could do, but while Helga is described as one of Leif Ericsson's captains, we never really see her fight. In fact, she's introduced to us falling off her horse. Leif the Lucky (Donald Crisp) raised her as a viking because her father was one of his comrades who died in battle. Helga's little more than a brat, however. She walks the walk in that pulp-cover-come-to-life costume, but she doesn't talk the talk, since this is, after all, still a silent film, albeit with a synchronized soundtrack of Wagner, Grieg and various sound effects.  The Viking ends up being a romantic triangle, as Leif decides he wants the marry the woman who had practically been a daughter to him, while she falls in love with the English slave Alwin (LeRoy Mason) her band captured on one of their recent raids. I suppose it's a quadrangle, since Egil the Black (Harry Woods) also longs for Helga, since what man wouldn't? But Helga likes a clean-shaven man, like Alwin, and that means trouble for everyone.

Leif, a Christian, is ambitious to spread the faith and discover new lands. He has a plan to sail west until he finds something, but more dangerous than the journey across unknown lengths of ocean is a visit to Dad for supplies. Leif's Dad is Eric the Red (Anders Randolf), the ruler of Greenland. In an age before Marvel Comics, Eric is Thor the thunder god's biggest fan. On The Viking's evidence, Chris Helmsworth has been misclad. Eric's Thor statues are red-skinned and horn-helmed, and the thunder god has lightning bolts for accessories along with his hammer. When Eric adjudicates a dispute between his subjects, he expects them to sanctify his decision by paying homage to Thor. When one subject proves unwilling, and is revealed by his crucifix to be a Christian, Eric executes him on the spot. It doesn't look promising for Leif, and as it turns out Eric doesn't believe in double standards or family favoritism. When Leif affirms his faith, and still asks for supplies, a mini civil war breaks out in Eric's hall. The best we can say for Eric the Red is that, once Leif and his crew make good their escape from Greenland, he has a sort of pride in his boy's fighting ability despite his goddamn hippy spiritualism.

It's hard to keep a crew in line when nobody knows how long your voyage is going to take. Nor does it help when most of your crew expect eventually to fall off the edge of the world. The dominoes start falling when Egil decides to pull a mutiny on Leif. Alwin, whose intellect Leif has respected, intervenes to rescue his master -- he was first purchased by Helga, who gave him to Leif as a gift -- but when Alwin goes down Helga panics and reveals her love for him. This enrages Leif, who's about to channel his father's patriarchal wrath when he remembers his faith instead and lowers his sword. It may be no accident, however, that after the ship finally reaches land, Leif leaves Helga and Alwin to start a colony at the future site of Newport RI while he goes back where he came from.

The Viking definitely serves its purpose as a Technicolor showcase. It has a richer palette than most contemporary color films, getting closer to genuine blue for seas and skies. Cinematographer George Cave and perennial Technicolor consultant (i.e. the boss's wife) Natalie Kalmus hit a visual home run here. The costumes may no longer represent how we visualize Vikings -- horned and winged helmets have become passe over 85 years -- but they give the film a fantastic flavor the actual story lacks. It simply lacks the degree of mayhem most people, even then, may have expected from a Viking movie. Since much of the story is historically suspect, why not indulge, as other filmmakers have done since, in some fantasy-league Vikings-vs.-Indians action? Instead, some Natives show up toward the end to shake hands with Leif and live in peace with the colonists. Only the melee in Greenland really lives up to expectations, though Pauline Starke is a spectacle that nearly compensates for any omissions. The Technicolor alone makes The Viking a must-see for film history buffs, but the film should still prove a visual treat for general audiences as well.

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