Erik The Conqueror
directed by Mario Bava
starring Cameron Mitchell, George Ardisson, Alice Kessler, Ellen Kessler
Postwar Hollywood ruled the entertainment scene with Technicolor, big budgets, and swashbuckling heroes. Italy was a sad hanger-on, but low budgets in Rome often forced innovation. This swords and sandals epic by Mario Bava is a good test case for using clever film tricks to overcome small budgets. Erik the Conqueror clearly rips off MGM’s 1958 The Vikings (with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, dir. Richard Fleischer). The plot is incidental, but just for the record: Eron (Mitchel) and Erik (Ardisson) are separated at birth when the Viking raiders attacked England. Only a tattoo identifies their relation, and each grow up to powerful roles in their respective homelands. Eron is a feared Viking war lord, and Erik is Duke of Helford and first counselor to the Queen. The Vikings look for land and plunder; England is in disarray with no strong central leader or any organized defenses. Climate change and bad politics – never a good mix.
The visuals are close and surprisingly effective and one of the special features contrast scenes from each version of the story. A map and an Italian crawl with English subtitles explain the back story; then we open with a map catching flame as a village is sacked. A strong start, and the action is consistent for the next hour and a half. Sure, a few minor anachronisms are in here for the obsessive, but I prefer to focus on the well-stage action, the dramatic battle at sunset in the sea, and the solid, consistent action. The two brother’s separation is the goal of that opening in action, then we magically transport 20 years into the future.
The Vikings pre-battle ceremony is wonderfully weird with a long, vaguely erotic dance in a cave showing the decadence of those Norsemen. Here we meet the Kessler Sisters, by far the most interesting part of the story. This pair of identical twins had a long, successful career in Europe but made insignificant impact in the states. Eron is having a fling with Vestal Virgin Daya (Ellen Kessler) and that’s a big no-no as well as a serious continuity issue. Her sister Rama (Alice Kessler) is also in the Vestal trade, and they fret over which man will end up with whom. Eron wants to lead the Viking army so he can marry Daya but faces completions from Garian (Joe Robinson) with his ridiculously good looks, muscle bound body and amazing hair. The British follow the fussier and better smelling Erik (Ardisson). He was raised in a surprisingly churchy and elegant world surrounded by plotting enemies, principally the evil Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi.)
The story is adequate but I can’t say enough for the battle scenes. They are active, filmed at close range, and climax with Eron climbing a castle wall aided by arrows shot ahead of him by his troops. Its pure Mythbuster’s material, but still fun to watch. In the end, everyone is either dead or married, so there are no loose ends or sequel set ups. Specific features help explain things, and film historian David Del Valle adds a fun and informative audio track to guide you through this Italian swords and sandals epic. Highly recommended, even in this era of over the top action films.