Shorts don’t come shorter than the ones Tony Curtis wears in Richard Fleisher’s The Vikings, but ever wish there was a Viking film that featured more men in short shorts? Whelp, that film exists and it’s Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships. Starring Richard Widmark (short shorts), Russ Tamblyn (short shorts), and Sidney Poitier (no short shorts, but a wig that makes up for it), Poitier is a Moorish prince named Aly Mansuh (or maybe Moorish king – his title’s never really confirmed) who thinks Widmark’s Rolfe isn’t being forthcoming about what he knows, regarding a golden bell Mansuh wants. It’s a treasure that would change his people’s lives, and Rolfe was heard telling stories about it, but whether Rolfe really knows where the bell is hidden or just knows what stories will please a paying crowd, he manages an escape Errol Flynn would be proud of and starts the trek home to his family.
Take one of Widmark’s desperate, noir liars and drop him into a Viking movie and that’s essentially what The Long Ships is about. Rolfe’s a bit of a no-good son (Oskar Homolka is hilarious as Rolfe’s exasperated father) and when his coming home empty-handed is met with derision, he decides to promise his father what he denied knowing about to the Moors. Let the search for the golden bell begin!
While less exclusively about Vikings than The Vikings (and possibly less historically accurate), The Long Ships has a sense of humor, and wider long ships where the Vikings onboard actually look like they have room to row. There are also more layers to the plot, like political unrest among the Vikings (some of whom bare animosity towards the king (Clifford Evans)) and superstitions that threaten to derail the mission.
There is a whiff of racism and religious superiority to some of the confrontations between the Vikings and the Moors (with pagan might usually shown triumphing) and as film critic, Kim Newman, expresses in a new interview for Imprint’s release, having Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Lionel Jeffries in blackface is “inexcusable,” but the contrast of the moors on horseback, with the Vikings on the beach, makes for an exciting match-up visually (also, fun fact: besides directing The Long Ships, Cardiff was cinematographer on The Vikings).
As far as female characters go, Aminah (Rosanna Schiaffino) doesn’t get too many scenes – she’s head wife in Mansuh’s harem – but the crumbs of backstory we’re given, about how they’ve known each other since childhood, add heft to their interactions (and Schiaffino does a lot with a little). Beba Lončar fares much worse, as a Viking damsel in distress.
While it doesn’t show on screen, it’s abundantly clear while listening to film historian, Phillipa Berry’s, commentary that The Long Ships was not a favorite shoot of most of the cast. In a new interview, Jeanne Moody (who plays Tamblyn’s ex) talks about the lack of mixing between the Yugoslavian and English cast and crew (The Long Ships was a British-Yugoslavian co-production) and how a lot of her part was cut from the finished movie. There’s also a new interview with actress, Julie Samuel, who memorably clobbers a handsy Viking in the film.
Film historian, Sheldon Hall, goes more in-depth into the film’s production history (Jose Ferrer was originally slated to direct) and the ways in which the film subscribes to Orientalism, while Newman considers the short-lived Viking movie subgenre.
The Long Ships is available on Blu-Ray from Imprint Films. While the company is based in Australia, I had no problem watching the film on a Region 1 player.