Twenty years ago a rousing, handsomely mounted adventure movie called "The Vikings" enjoyed a considerable vogue at my high school. For weeks classmates derived great amusement from yodeling invocations to Odin down echoeing corridors.A playful interlude in which Kirk Douglas and several other performers walked the oars of a Viking ship as it glided across a gorgeous Norwegian fiord was an overwhelming crowd-pleaser. So was an unintentionally funny line entrusted to Tony Curtis.
Curtis and Douglas costarred as half brothers condemned to mortalenmity. The younger, illegitimate sibling, Curtis never learns that he and Douglas were fathered by the same insatiable patriarch, a lusty Viking chieftain played by Ernest Borgnine. Douglas is informed of the fraternal connection shortly before facing Curtis in a climactic swordfight. It proves a fatal eye-opener.
Customarily ferocious and merciless, Douglas hesitates when he has a chance to deliver a death blow. Curtis seizes the opportunity to kill Douglas. Joined by heroine Janet Leigh, Curtis knits his brow and asks, "Why did he hesitate?" An instant comic sensation, this line inspired constant sarcastic limitation. It swiftly became a catch phrase, recalled whenever someone made an inexcusably out-of-it remark.
Fond recollections of "The Vikings" must have been batting around the belfries of Lee Majors and B-movie producer-director-writer Charles B. Pierce when they joined listless forces for "The Norseman." Their collaboration proves inexcusably oafish. "The Vikings" had its occasional howlers, but they added a gauche charm to a fundamentally sturdy and appealing piece of hokum. The laughs were incidental. The only thing "The Norseman" is good for is an occasional derisive laugh.
Majors evidently aspires to swash-buckling roles, but a decade or so of TV stardom seems to have drained him of the necessary dash and enthusiasm. The freshness be projected in "The Big Valley" has long since vanished. Now he seems to specialize in scowling, sullen hostility, monotonous to behold and difficult to fathom.
Cast as a Viking warrior called Thorvald the Bold, Majors leads a rescue mission to the vicinity of Tampa, where a tribe of Indians has blinded and enslaved an earlier party of explorers led by Thorvald's father, protrayed by Mel Ferrer behind a long silvery mane and longer silvery whiskers. The ostensible period is the early 11th century, a detail that makes the Florida beach locations and Thorvald's seamanship look absurdly farfetched. The sight of Deacon Jones as a token black Viking comes as a hilarious surprise, particularly after a prologue singing the praises of a hardy breed of blond giants.
That breed must have shipped out on a more plausible expedition. Only Pierce's ineptitude as an action director spares Majors' loutish crew from instant annihilation at the hands of savage aborigines, who look every bit as authentic as the Norsemen. The fight scenes are are rendered in a remarkably ill-timed, ineffective slow motion, presumably inspired by the cliched action sequences of "The Six Million Dollar Man." One seems to be watching a batch of bionic redskins and bionic Vikings playing interminable games of chase.
Majors projects so little animal magnetism that one can't help wondering how Thorvald became known as The Bold. His southern accent is surely centuries ahead of its time, Chuck Pierce Jr., cast as Majors' kid brother, has and even more pronounced accent. Obviously, it would have been unreasonable for the director to correct an anachronism in his son's performance that he permitted in his star's.
Although relegated to a backup role, Cornel Wilde seems more robust and commanding than Majors. Jack Elam cuts a grotesquely diverting figure as a hunchback Viking wizard, and kathleen Freeman looks even more preposterous as his Indian counterpart, a gibbering crone who carries around a staff that appears to have a floppy stuffed raven mounted on top.
Pierce has no discernible aptitude for pictorial storytelling or sensory stimulation. Even scenic landscapes look pale and stale from his klunky camera positions. At best he shows a pleasing affinity for outmoded dialogue, reviving such chestnuts as "What say you?" and "So be it," not to mention the chewier "This day is far from over" and "Let it be written that the name of Olaf will live in the land of the Norse."
Pierce may rationalize "The Norseman" as the best adventure movie imaginable without the financial resources of a major studio, but it's impossible to believe that he could have done better on the budget of a "Superman" or "Apoclaypse Now." After six features his technique still looks incorrigibly amateurish. Bush he began in "The Legend of Boggy Creek" and bush he remains.