‘THE LONG SHIPS’ (1964) – what a stupid, stupid movie!

         

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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                                            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!

34 Comments

  1. Pardon this omission: The producers shd have been commended for being colorblind in their casting for this film. It seems odd but no one seemed to notice. The sight of the Mare of Steel might have made them forget.

  2. Although I’m old enough to have seen this movie in a theatre I came across it only when it was shown on TV’s “CBS Friday Night at the Movies” in 1966 or ’67. During this period the 3 major networks realized it was cheaper to broadcast films released within the last 5 or 10 years than produce new TV series. Eventually every night one network or another had a movie showcase all of them attracting massive audiences. It helped that color TVs were finally being made well enough they didn’t need to be taken to the shop every other week.

    As others have pointed out, The Long Ships is pure escapism. It violates many canons of logic with abandon. You’re right, Alan–gold goes “clunk” when you strike it. The huge bell shd have sunk when it falls into the water, not float. All the chained and shackled men dragged down the side of the mountain shd have fallen to their deaths at the bottom of the sea or, at least, have suffered severe gashes, scrapes and a few broken bones. When Rolfe and the others return to Morocco and King Harold has disarmed all the Moslem soldiers, WHY does the armed Moorish cavalry appear only when a gate is opened? What have they been doing the past few days? While Aminah is dying, telling Mansuh about the Long Ships’ arrival, time stops. All Vikings and all Moors, wait for her to breathe her last before commencing battle.

    Alan, from what I’ve seen, you’re a credible historian but, aa a film reviewer, you missed the point. Even as an unsophisticated teenager I realized The Long Ships is a COMEDY, not history, and by no means to be taken seriously. Just eat your popcorn and laugh as Rolfe dives into the Mediterranean and–somehow–washes ashore in Norway; or, while all hell is breaking loose around them, Krok takes a few moments away from slaying Moors to pay Vahlin for his thane’s chain.

    The next item I want to address is not your sin, Alan, but one of the commentators’. Labelling the scene in which the Vikings invade the women’s quarters as “misogyny” introduces an anachronistic, doctrinaire note of postmodern angst nonexistent in 1964 and certainly unknown to Vikings or Moors of the period. PAY ATTENTION!!! Aly Mansuh has a HAREEM, for God’s sake! Do you KNOW what that means? He considers women to be property. He has enslaved them to service him. Even Aminah complains that Mansuh hasn’t come to her for pleasure in a long while. Talk about misogyny! “Oh, that’s cultural,” one of you virtue-signallers might say with a straight face, paying no mind to your own culture. I sneer at the puritanism affected by serial monogamists.

    One item never brought up in any review of the period nor anything I’ve read after, is that Rosanna Schiaffino is white and Mansuh is black. In fact, all the women of the hareem are white. In 1964!!! Of course, Rosanna is obviously Italian, not from the USA, so maybe that’s why she was given a pass. All those backward Eyetalians–what do they know?

    Not having interviewed any of the cast, I can only surmise that Widmark, Tamblyn, Poitier and Homolka found themselves in the midst of a mish-mosh of a script and simply joined most of the Brit actors in playing it tongue-in-cheek. I came across a comment in IMDb a while back concerning The Long Ships entitled, “Only Widmark Gets the Joke”. It was inaccurate but indicative. Widmark certainly get the joke, but almost everyone else in the cast seems to have joined in the merriment as well.

    It shd be noted that this was Poitier’s first movie released after his winning the Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field. I can only suppose the contract was signed before his Oscar win.

    Alan, your remarks show that, despite all the while you’re arching your brow when watching this film, your inner child revels in the nonsense of The Long Ships.

    Allow me to suggest, next time you watch it have some friends in and let them know the movie is a comedy. Then sit back, get comfy, munch your popcorn and let your inner child conquer the historian.

    • Ha! Fair enough, Sean. I first saw it as a teenager and quite enjoyed it. And I have watched it, perhaps, a half dozen times since, so you are quite right when you say that my ‘inner child revels in the nonsense’. I am found out. I enjoyed your comments and the manner in which they were presented.

      • In 1956, when I was six years old, Alan, I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood the first time it was shown on Los Angeles television. Even in black and white I thoroughly enjoyed it. Rather naturally that romp in Sherwood became the benchmark for every action/adventure film I wd see ever afterward.

        By 1967 I felt pretty comfortable in my film selections. And then I watched The Long Ships and was thrown off balance. I knew actors pretty well by then. So it was hard to believe Sidney Poitier, as the follow up to Lilies of the Field, wd get mixed up with this chaotic nonsense. My older brother later explained that contracts and plans are made months, even years ahead of a film’s production so that part was answered. But I’d seen Richard Widmark in Night and the City, O. Henry’s Full House etc and, as you felt as well, he seemed all wrong to play Rolfe.

        But then, the bell fell down the hillside into the sea, sending men and chains flying, and lightly rolling around in the surf. Widmark pauses a moment then tells Poitier, “Well – that was the quick way to get it down.” That remark put the entire film into context: it’s a comedy! That’s when it endeared itself to me. Because of The Long Ships I was prepared for the hilarity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

        The Vikings with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, as good as it is, is still pretty sanctimonious. Ernest Borgnine’s welcome mugging saves it from sinking under the weight of its own preposterousness as a psychological study of fraternal rivalry. The Long Ships is simply the Vikings out on a lark, comparable to the frat boys at a toga party in Animal House.

  3. Seriously? This wasn’t intended to be a documentary. This is a thing you young people really need to be introduced to…it’s called STORYTELLING. I’ve totally loved this movie since I was a child, and it just gets better with time. It doesn’t need to be historically correct or even perfectly cast. Let’s just set aside the fact that for the first time in cinematic history, a Moor, (Moors were Black, being African and all) was actually played by a Black actor instead of the usual white guy in blackface that you seem to think is better casting. Widmark and Poitier were insanely good actors. So good that they actually became the characters they portrayed. But that’s what good character actors do better than pretty boys who just “look the part”. Widmark made Rolfe come alive. Who says there were no such thing as middle aged Vikings? He became the character. So did Sidney Poitier. He was the perfect choice. So much so that I can’t even begin to imagine anyone else playing these roles. You attitude is what’s wrong with movies today. Too much reliance on good looks, special effects, and plastic surgery, and not enough on talent and respect for the craft. A good storyteller can tell a great story even on a low budget. It’s like the difference between real and fake tits. Fake tits may look more perfect, but real tits just feel nicer. There’s no substitute for the real thing. Widmark and Poitier were the real thing.

    One of my favorite movies of all time!

    • Thankyou for your comments, Gina. I am not sure who you mean when you refer to ‘you young people’, because I alone write this blog and I am 73 years old! You stated that you liked ‘The Long Ships’, and that is your prerogative. I thought it was miscast (Widmark) and did not like it. That is MY prerogative. The concept is called ‘opinion’. You have yours; I have mine. No need to get pissed off about it when those opinions differ. I can honestly say I have NEVER said or even thought that white dudes in black face are preferable to natural black actors! If you intend giving me a blast, PLEASE get your facts right. Widmark was a fine actor; Poitier is a fine actor. But Widmark was far more suited to westerns and contemporary crime thrillers. He looks as much like a Viking as Mickey Rooney looks like a gladiator. By all means have an opinion, but think about what you are writing first.

  4. Just watched this one on TCM and found your critique researching it. To add, respectfully, the Golden Bell bit of the story may have been referring, within it’s mythical context, to the grandeur and stately appearance of that desired object, not necessarily to it’s hypothetical one hundred percent metallic composition being gold itself. More disturbing here was the treatment of the horses filmed tripping over wires to effect falls; animals don’t know they are stunt animals and I despise witnessing the cruelty. The only plus I give this film is no real bad acting and it’s striking color production. Too bad about the bad experience the leads had making it and the money lost, oh well. Peace..

  5. One of my all time favourites, in fact I’m watching it as I type. I’m about the same age as this film and it was a staple of my childhood, along with “Jason And The Argonauts.” As a kid, it never crossed my mind Widmark was miscast. It was just a rollicking adventure story that still enthrals me. And I expect that I’ll have nightmares about The Mare of Steel tonight, even after all these years. I mean, the look on that guard’s face when Mrs. Poitier picks him to go for a ride. Sheer terror.

    • Thankyou for your comment, John. Despite my criticisms of certain elements of the film, I must coyly admit that I usually take another look at it when it pops up on TV from time to time. I was 17 when it was released, so it is a nostalgic exercise for me also. The Mare of Steel was a major talking point at the time. I think we all identified with that soldier chosen by Rosanna Schiaffino’s character, mainly because he was dead set unlucky to be selected out of all those men lined up. Bad luck is something everyone can identify with. As for Widmark (an actor I have always admired), he was miscast, plain and simple. Too old, too un-athletic, too contemporary, too un-Scandinavian. Thanks again for your comments, John. Most responses I receive regarding this article are quite abusive. Yours makes a pleasant and welcome change.

  6. Dear Alan, I understand you are an historian. I recommend you never watch movie productions at all. Movies are never meant to be historically accurat, I also do not undertsnad why they were and are being named. If for example you take the recent productions of Michiel de Ruyter and Redbad its pulls the rims of your ass into a tight noose of which you want to strangle yourself with. Usually the filmmaker tries to make a name for himself by using a historical figure and dramatize the picture. It never works. But do keep comment on, I like it 😀

  7. I think if you just watch it for what it is, a rainy afternoon story, you will enjoy it. I don’t think it was ever supposed to be a historical correct picture, just some escapism. Don’t try to over analyse these old films, enjoy them. I wasnt born until 20 years after this film was made so just think of the garbage I had to watch growing up. I think the old films are better than the remakes and junk that’s made now and even if this picture is an average movie, I still enjoy watching the original stories and great actors from a bygone age.

    • A fair enough comment, Rob. Despite my criticism of the picture I, like most of my mates from those days, enjoyed it for what it was and I still have it in my collection so I am a bit of a hypocrite. Even back in the sixties, however, I was uncomfortable with Dick Widmark and Russ Tamblyn playing Vikings. Too contemporary, especially Widmark who I have always liked in most things. I enjoy escapism, but I am a historian at heart so I like things to ring true if possible. I appreciate your comments. The last person who commented on this article abused me personally and mercilessly. I so much prefer sound criticism to ranting abuse so I thank you for that.

      • You’ll be telling me next John Wayne wasn’t right for the part of Genghis Khan ! lol . It’s all about opinions and agree with your criticisms as you’re quite correct. I love old war films, with my favourites being “The great escape” and “Where eagles dare”. Both films are wrong in alot of ways but I still love them for what they are…….. What you mean there wasn’t helicopters in WW2? lol

        • Ha! My favourite WW2 films are (of course) ‘Casablanca’, followed by ‘From Here to Eternity’, ‘The Man Who Never Was’ and ‘Five Fingers’. ‘The Great Escape’ is terrific also, but I have seen it so many times I can recite it word for word. Dick Burton turned me off ‘Where Eagles Dare’, but otherwise it is a good movie. I have a colorized print of ‘The Longest Day’, which is interesting to compare with the black & white one. I love finding anachronisms. My favourite western, ‘The Searchers’ has a CAR in it! As the cavalry patrol crosses the icy stream you can see its headlights proceeding along a road in the background. Oops!

    • I, too, am a huge fan of Richard Widmark, Linda. I just think he was woefully miscast as a Viking. Westerns and film noirs – terrific – but Widmark as a Viking is tantamount to casting Cary Grant as a gladiator.

    • If I remember correctly, Tony Curtis did not get a Viking haircut at all in ‘The Vikings’. He was as much a Viking as Dick Widmark was in ‘The Long Ships’. Terrible casting in both pictures.

  8. Kumujohn: I was 9 years old when I saw the movie. My brother and I watched it at the Fargo Theater four times in one day. We walked eight miles to see it! This movie and “Jason and the Argonauts” along with “Thunderball” were my all time favorites until I was a Senior at Shanley High and took a film study course. I’ve ramen 30 or 40 college courses and know the difference between fiction and non-fiction (factual) stories. As with all elementary (grades 1-3) school teachers one of our goals has been to produce citizens capable of seeking the truth. I regret that our American Educational Institutions failed to elucidate you.

    • Ha! Fair enough, John. America has made a zillion wonderful movies. I just don’t happen to think this is one of them. Mind you, I have it in my collection for nostalgic reasons, but I think I was turned off the moment it began by the choice of Richard Widmark as a Viking!

  9. Great movie. Suspend disbelief and enjoy being taken out of yourself and the horrors of trump -although sadly the film dies have mysogny but presumably that was how women were treated – and are today sadly . Great acting and score

  10. Watch it today….28/08/17, absolutely ludicrous, but enjoyable. I’ve watched it many a times, but only realized…Lionel Jefferies played the gay eunuch Aziz., but it’s the Made of steel that cracks me up…
    especially when one of the Viking crew mates….mentions, “All he’s got planned for us, is to ride the “Mare Of Steel”. ???

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