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Sunday, March 08, 2009


Ever wanted to see a movie where a pack of horny Vikings unexpectedly find themselves on the loose in a Moorish harem? Well, here's the movie for you!

Opening with a portentous back story about a gigantic bell — "The Mother of Voices" — being crafted from the melted-down solid gold spoils of the Crusades, THE LONG SHIPS is the rollicking tale of Rolfe (RichardWidmark, chewing the scenery like nobody's business), a Viking whose ship and crew were lost in a crash-landing near Byzantium where he spent two years recovering in the care of some monks.

Richard Widmark, in the midst of an all-scenery diet as Viking scallywag Rolfe.

Learning of the legend of the bell, Rolfe makes a meager living in the Muslim streets as a storyteller and makes the mistake of recounting said legend within earshot of some sword-wielding toughs in the employ of Sheik Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poiter, rockin' a James Brown "process"). In no time he's hauled off for torture in hope of extracting the bell's location since Mansuh wants to claim the bell in the name of the Muslim ancestors who got raped, pillaged and murdered to obtain all the gold that went into its manufacture, but the simple truth is that Mansuh's a greedy, sadistic fuck who just wants to add to his already-Croesus-like riches.

Rolfe escapes and makes it back to his homeland where he's not exactly greeted with open arms; the loss of his ship, coupled with some dirty dealing by the local king, has bankrupted his ship-builder dad, and Rolfe is revealed to be considered a lifelong and notoriously towering liar, so when he suggests trying to go after the bell he's greeted with derision. But the necessity to bail himself out — to say nothing of simple human avarice — convinces his dad to aid in the theft of the asshole king's newly-crafted death ship, so in no time at all Rolfe and his little brother, Orm (Russ Tamblyn, aka Riff in WEST SIDE STORY), have rounded up an equally-greedy crew and stolen the king's daughter, Gerda (Beba Loncar) as a hostage (and convenient love interest for Orm). Thus are the seeds for manly pillaging adventure sown.

Cue the Yngwie Malmsteen: "I am a Vikiiiiiiiiiing..."

From that point on it's one scrape after another for Rolfe and the gang, and while the film feels a bit overlong it's still a lot of fun due to THE LONG SHIPS being a lot more intentionally humorous than just about any other swashbuckling/manly epic I can recall.Widmark looks to me like he understood just how hoary and cheesy his role is, so he performs Rolfe like a smarmy 20th century douchebag and the results are at times jaw-dropping, predating David Carradine's quite similar turn as the titular character in KILL BILL: VOL. 2 (2004), only with laughs. Rolfe is impossible not to enjoy and in no time I found myself saying aloud, "This guy's a complete ass-munch!" as he lied without shame or fear of consequence and fucked-up nearly everything he set out to do (although he inevitably comes out on top of things, otherwise the film would have been over about ten minutes in). Other than the powerful motivating factor of sheer avarice, there is no reason why any Viking in his right mind would follow him, something his crew (and the kidnapped princess) find out the hard way.

Rolfe bravely (?) awaits his ride on "the Mare of Steel."

Also of note is Sidney Poitier's played-so-straight-it's-hilarious villainous role as Mansuh, a Moorish asshole with a mean streak as long as the wall around Byzantium. Nearly every interaction he has with other characters involves some form of torture or violence or the threat thereof, and that treatment even extends to the hot wife (Rosanna Schiaffino) he honestly loves (when she gets out of line he threatens her with a variety of nasty indignities, including being sold off as a slave). I can't recall ever seeing Poitier in a bad guy role, but he's fantastic here and is a joy to watch; Mansuh is one of that rare breed of villains that you totally root for just because you want to see what kind of douchey move he'll pull next, and in that respect he more than does his job. Case in point: after capturing Rolfe and his men for a second time — right after they've had a bit of fun with the ladies in the harem —Mansuh decides to kill Rolfe and enslave his men, ordering them to build him a sturdy Viking-style ship in which to navigate the dangerous seas in search of the Mother of Voices, and his method for Rolfe's execution is both inspired and unspeakably vile. Rolfe is sentenced to "ride the Mare of Steel," in other words he's to be sent on a crotch-first trip down an evil-looking thirty-foot, steeply-inclined razor's edge, which is demonstrated by a poor bastard from Mansuh's own troops who is volunteered for the purpose so Rolfe and company can witness how a true Muslim dies (this is after much bragging of Viking bravery by Rolfe and his men).

The Mare of Steel: kids, do not try this at home.

Too bad this came out in 1964, because that would have made for one hell of a gore effects showcase in the seventies or eighties!

Other than its slight overlength and a theme tune that's repeated so often that it will annoy the shit out of you because of its ubiquity — however it gets played so often your annoyance with it will eventually be worn down to a state of amusement — , THE LONG SHIPS is a lot of fun that would make for an ultra-manly double-feature with 1958's THE VIKINGS. However I would warn women from partaking of that testosterone overload because they just might end up with beards and chest hair as a result of such a concentrated blast of manliness.

The DVD edition: if it looks like Widmark's character just shit his pants, that assessment's not too far off the mark.

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