Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Viking Queen (1967)

Back in the mid-60s Hammer Studios were putting a lot of their energies into adventure/fantasy movies, some if which were pretty good (She) and some of which were pretty bad but still great campy fun (One Million Years BC). And some were just downright weird (The Lost Continent). Most (including One Million Years BC) were visually fairly impressive. So their 1967 release The Viking Queen sounded like it should at least be fun.

The setting is the newly conquered Roman province of Britain during the reign of the Emperor Nero. The dying British king of the Iceni bequeaths his kingdom jointly to his daughter Salina and to the Roman Emperor. A Roman officer named Justinian is appointed as the emperor’s governor-general. It appears that in practice Salina is queen in name only, with the Romans calling the shots. Fortunately Justinian is a virtuous and intelligent Roman who wants peace and prosperity, a desire shared by Queen Salina. Justinian and Salina also happen to be hopelessly in love.

There are however a couple of flies in the ointment. Justinian’s second-in-command, Octavian, is bitter that Justinian was promoted ahead of him. Octavian is also ruthless and vindictive, and he despises the British. Salina has her own problems - the Druids are continuing to practice their abominable rites, including human sacrifice, even though the public performance of these rites has been banned by the Romans. The Druids want a war of liberation to drive the Romans into the sea, and they are excited by the prophecy that one day a queen will take up the sword and expel invaders from the land. They believe Salina is the queen of the prophecy.

The immediate cause of contention though is the planned marriage of Justinian and Salina. This marriage is absolutely forbidden by the Druid high priest Maelgan. The Druids are in fact plotting to bring about a situation that will force the Iceni to rebel against their Roman overlords. Justinian and Salina, aided by her faithful follower the Iceni prince Tristram, must struggle to prevent a war that will see them face each other as enemies.

Now at this point you’re probably wondering what happened to the Vikings. I’m afraid I have some bad news. There are no Vikings! So why is the movie called The Viking Queen? Presumably because it seemed like a more enticing title than The Ancient British Queen.

Apart from the total absence of Vikings the movie has other, more serious, problems. The first problem is the pacing. In an action adventure movie you expect some action and some adventure, and there’s precious little of either until the very end of the film. This also means that the climactic scenes seem very rushed and the ending seems much too sudden, as if everyone just got sick of it and decided to end the movie. Another problem is that the movie is so campy it almost becomes self-parody. At times it seems more like a Carry On movie than a Hammer movie.

The biggest problem of all is the casting. A Finnish model named Carita plays Salina, and this movie more or less started her acting career and more or less ended it as well. She’s certainly beautiful, but she’s unfortunately rather dull. The Hammer adventure movies of this period that succeeded mostly did so because they had a female lead with both beauty and charisma - Ursula Andress in She, Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. Acting ability was not a major requirement, but charisma most certainly was. And Carita totally lacks charisma. She also lacks the physical presence to be convincing as a warrior queen.

Don Murray is even more lifeless as Justinian. Fortunately the supporting cast is rather better. Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor Who) is fun as Tristram. Andrew Keir is delightfully villainous as Octavian, and Donald Houston chews the scenery with great enthusiasm as the chief Druid.

The movie’s battle scenes might not be historically accurate, but since nothing whatsoever in the film is historically accurate that hardly matters. What does matter is that they seem very small-scale, although the chariot charges are reasonably spectacular.

With the movie lacking so much in the action department, the movie might be expected to rely heavily on sex and sleaze. But this was a British film in 1967, so it’s somewhat lacking in those areas as well. It tries its best to be sleazy, but the sexy bits come off as more camp than sleaze.

This was definitely not one of Hammer’s finest moments. It does almost make it as an outrageous campfest, but as with everything else in the movie even its campiness is just a little half-hearted. With a stronger actress in the lead role it might well have succeeded, and it’s still reasonably entertaining if you’re in the mood for silly fun with chariots.

No comments: