Where is Dr. Donald Blake when you need him?
While groovin' on his standard Viking plunder and pillage routine, the reckless Rolfe hits a horrendous storm and he loses his entire ship and crew. Bummer. A group of monks finds his waterlogged body and nurses him back to health. They also add, as part of their exquisite bedside manner, a wacky legend about the Mother of Voices, a solid gold bell the size of a Buick. Not quite clear on standard sedan sizes, he still runs around general Arabia gloating that he knows something he won't tell. When Moorish Prince El Mansuh learns that the Norse ne'er-do-well knows about the big be-gilded bang, he tries to torture the anecdote out of him. Rolfe escapes and somehow swims the 47,000 miles back to the fjords of Finswednorland. There he learns that the harsh King Harald is swindling his drunken daddy out of a perfectly good funeral ship. Along with his brother Olm and his highness' dreary daughter Gerda, Rolfe steals the launch, cons a crew into joining him, and off they sail for the glory of the glittering gong. But once again, Rolfe finds the only hurricane in the entire ocean and another HO scale shipwreck occurs. And won't you know it, it happens right near the pissed off minarets of Prince El Manush. So after a Muslim ass whipping, Mannie takes the Vikes captive, uses his torture techniques to again try and elicit the whereabouts of the ding-dong's domain, and decides that Rolfe needs a slide down a razor sharp horsetail sculpture as reward for his reticence. But eventually everyone comes to an understanding about the two ton tinkling trinket and they all head off to "borrow" it. But when they do finally find it, they learn one of the maxims of ancient civilization. An oversized piece of steeple spangle just won't fit in one of The Long Ships.
About as corny as Kansas in autumn or a good pair of unwashed gym socks and suffering from some of the standard clash of cultures when decidedly cosmopolitan actors appear in a weird era costume drama, The Long Ships is still one Viking voyage tale that manages to work up a decent lather of adventure, despite its daffiness. It doesn't help matters that it casts Richard Widmark, who always acts like he's ordering a hot dog and a beer at the racetrack, to play a randy rapscallion named Rolfe. He's the least convincing Scandinavian since Lee Majors essayed Thorvlad in The Legend of Boggy Creek creator Charles B. Pierce's Florida (?) based saga The Norseman. The Gods council in Valhalla must still be weeping over that cruel bit of contemporized cultural character assassination. Indeed, Widmark suffers from a standard period piece conundrum called "My Lady" syndrome. Simply put, when an actor can't make that simple statement of etiquette sound legitimate and of its movie's era, you know he is doomed for denouncement (ain't that right, Hayden Christiensen?). He may be capable of some of the physical requirements of the role, but there is no threat of mistaking ole' Dickie W. for Thor Heyerdahl anytime soon. Sidney Poitier is barely better in the thankless role of the mean mad evil non-Michael Moor El Manush. Looking like Islam's answer to Screaming Jay Hawkins, complete with piled high pompadour, he gives his line interpretations the same clipped cadence and faux British bent that mars a great many of his performances. Add to this a hilariously hideous costume that makes him look like a waiter in a Moroccan restaurant, and you've got two leads who lessen the realism of their heroic struggle from the get go.
Thankfully, The Long Ships doesn't rely on this duo of problematic performers to save its permanently floundering formula. It throws in gratuitous scenes of Vikings in full rape and looting mode (one especially hilarious scene finds our Finnish fiends literally jumping the bones of bawdy wenches in the Prince's harem) and adds the wonderfully eccentric routine by Oskar Homolka as the permanently ale pickled Krok (Rolfe's father) to emphasize that not everyone is out of the period piece loop. Some are as soused as the herrings. But probably the one thing that saves The Long Ships from being a totally hopeless horror is the sweeping scope of the sets and scenery. There is lushness and grandeur to the Moorish castles, a true handcrafted fishing village look to the Viking enclave. Even the boats, when not miniaturized and set to sail in studio tanks, have a wonderful tactile quality that makes them totally believable onscreen. When the plot is not successfully sailing the seven seas, these elements keep The Long Ships afloat. And since it's a member of the "Holy Grail" genre of quest films, we, the audience, want to witness the discovery of the supposedly miraculous golden bell along with everyone else. This narrative thread will carry us even through the most atrocious mechanical line readings. Thankfully, the entire revelation sequence is handled with humor and some ingenuity. Even if the ending seems a little pat and confusing given all that has happened before, there is still room for some forgiveness here. The Long Ships never tries to be anything more than an eager epic about bravery, greed, and lascivious Laplanders. Perhaps with actors more in sync with the epoch depicted this movie would work its way into the pantheon of worthy sword and sandal (or in this case, sea and saber) showcases. As it is now, The Long Ships misses the launch by just a few fathoms.
Released by Columbia Pictures in a newly remastered digital print, The Long Ships does have some transfer issues. The image, for the most part, looks wonderfully bright and crisp in the anamorphic widescreen 2.20:1. But when night hits the movie, the picture goes from clear to cloudy. It's not compression so much as an overall fuzziness, as if the technicians forgot to flip the right set of switches. There are several sequences rendered almost indecipherable by this visual miscue. Thankfully, the aural mix, in Dolby Digital Mono, is just right, striking a good balance between score, dialogue, and sound effects. As for bonus material, Columbia limits the loot to a few trailers. One look at the horrendous ad for The Long Ships will show you just how much restoration work was done to the negative. The inclusion of Sinbad promos indicates that the powers that be think The Long Ships can hold its own against those haughty Harryhausen swashbucklers. Unfortunately, the only thing stop motion about this Viking saga is Russ Tamblyn's West Side Story swordplay.
While not as bad as the idea sounds, this is still one land lubbering lesson in finding the right rugged rascals to portray the rogue roles written for them. It's often said that a great actor can rise above the limitations of the material provided for him or her and still produce a realistic and moving performance. But after viewing the watchable yet watery The Long Ships, you'll have a hard time believing Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier could even play a cold blooded killer and a big city detective, respectively. Allah and Thor are actually fighting in Paradise, right now, as to who will take the blame for this miraculous bit of miscasting.
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