The Long Ships was a somewhat lame British-Yugoslavian joint venture, shot around Belgrade over six months in 1963-4. Initially, Robert Taylor was lined up to play Rolfe, the Norse leader of a gaggle of seafarers bent on finding a huge golden bell known as ‘The Mother of Voices’, but when that idea fell through the producers fixed upon George Peppard as his replacement. The thought of spending six months behind the Iron Curtain in Belgrade did not appeal to George at all, so he turned down the $200,000 offer. He probably showed good judgment because Sidney Poitier later described it as the worst location he ever encountered throughout his entire career. Nevertheless, both the British and American governments were keen to see the project proceed, the general feeling being that any opportunity to lure President Tito of Yugoslavia away from the Russians and towards the West was worth pursuing. It was hoped that a successful outcome might lead to more western filming in Yugoslavia, more local involvement in capitalist ventures.
Richard Widmark as Rolfe
The choice of Richard Widmark to play Rolfe is a truly puzzling one. He was, after all, due to turn fifty in December 1964, and he looked every day of it! Yet he was not a desperate last-minute choice for the lead. Far from it. He actually turned the part down four times before finally accepting it. And even then he did so on one condition; that his good friend Poitier play the Moorish chieftain Aly Mansuh. Ernest Borgnine had already refused it, which was a pity. Personally, I would love to have seen how he would have portrayed a Moorish prince. Ernie portraying a Moor is almost as silly as 50 year-old Widmark portraying a Viking man of action. And I am still trying to understand why such a fine British actor as Lionel Jeffries would condescend to play a flaming gay eunuch in blackface! Surely he wasn’t that broke. Who says casting isn’t everything?
Rosanna Schiaffino and Sidney Poitier
Former beauty contest winner Rosanna Schiaffino plays Aminah, the Moorish wife of Aly Mansuh. Rosanna was the Italian film star of caricature, a fiery seductress whose private life was only out-headlined by her temper tantrums on the sets of her movies. In The Long Ships her heavy Italian accent is inescapable whenever she opens her mouth, but cinema-goers were content to make believe they were hearing a Moorish-English accent – or something. When we think about it, she was playing a Moor who presumably spoke only Arabic, speaking English with a monstrous Italian accent, and making herself understood to a Norseman who probably only spoke Norwegian! Only in the movies.
a lucky player about to ride the ‘Mare of Steel’
Unmistakably, the single most talked about aspect of this rather silly movie would have to be the ‘Mare of Steel’, a torture and execution contraption thought up by someone with a somewhat questionable imagination. It consisted of a huge, curved, razor-sharp blade with large spikes positioned around its base. At the top was a kneeling platform for the unfortunate soul chosen to ‘ride the Mare of Steel’. On a given signal the platform would tilt forward, pitching him head-first onto the blade. As he ‘rode the Mare of Steel’ to the bottom, presumably the blade would fillet him along the way and the two halves of his corpse would become impaled on the spikes at the bottom. Charming.
the’Mother of Voices’ – the Golden Bell
As historically unlikely as the ‘Mare of Steel’ might be, the issues surrounding the huge golden bell, the ‘Mother of Voices’, were completely implausible. Gold is both heavy and soft. If you strike it, even if it has been moulded in the shape of a bell, it is not going to resound with a deafening ‘boing!’ It is going to go ‘clunk’ at best. If, as happens in the movie, it happens to be disguised in plaster, there would be even less of a ‘boing’ and more of a ‘clunk’ when it is struck. And that begs another question. Why fashion the gold into a bell in the first place? When it bounces down the side of a cliff (as it does during the movie), it is going to be badly damaged, yet when we next see the thing it is in pristine condition. Furthermore, its colossal weight would never allow it to be floated away aboard a tiny wooden raft! It would sink like a rock, raft and all. Dumb, dumb, dumb!
Let’s face it, The Long Ships is a very stupid, totally unbelievable movie. It was intended to capitalize on the success of the recent Viking and Moorish actioners, The Vikings (1958) and El Cid (1961), but poor casting and a ludicrous premise worked against that. In fairness, it was made with nowhere near the budget enjoyed by Samuel Bronston and El Cid, but a lack of funds does not excuse plot holes you could fly a 747 through!
two images of Lionel Jeffries
Possibly the most ludicrous moment takes place right at the start when Rolfe is captured and imprisoned in a very high tower overlooking the ocean in Morocco. He escapes by leaping from the window and plummeting into the ocean far below. I was willing to accept that he just might have been the high-diving champion of Norway in his youth, but when he washes up on a shore in Norway, all credibility went out the window quicker than he did! Geography was not exactly my strongpoint back then, but even I knew that jumping into the ocean off Morocco and washing up in Norway was just not on. How could the producers, editors, scriptwriters, director, (even the kid who delivered pies to the set), not question this? Did they truly expect audiences to swallow that he swam from Morocco to Norway?
Vikings and Moors were separated in history by several hundreds of years, not that such a trivial thing as historical impossibility ever deterred a movie-maker from chasing a buck. I went to the movies as a teenager to see The Long Ships – and I enjoyed it! And I even own a copy of it today I am embarrassed to admit. It is still a pile of rubbish, but it takes me back to my youth, to a time when a movie theatre’s widescreen, colour feature beat the clappers out of anything a tiny black and white TV could come up with!