Mario Bava is most famous for his superb gothic horror films but he also made some great action adventure films including a couple of excellent Viking movies. Knives of the Avenger (I coltelli del vendicatore) was the second of these Viking movies, a follow-up to his wonderful Erik the Conqueror (Gli invasori, 1961). Both movies starred American actor Cameron Mitchell (who made a total of three films with Bava).
Karin (Elissa Pichelli) and her son Moki live in a rude hut not far from the sea. One day a stranger rides into town, a man named Helmut (Cameron Mitchell). Helmut saves Karin from a couple of thugs and he stays on for a while. Helmut teaches Miki to shoot a bow and starts to teach him the art of killing with a throwing knife (something at which Helmut is an expert). Karin is not at all happy about this idea - she does not want Helmut teaching her son to be a killer. Apart from this minor problem it’s clear that there is an emotional bond developing between Helmut and Karin although Helmut seems curiously unwilling to push things to their logical conclusion and their relationship remains strictly platonic. We will later learn that both Karin and Helmut have good reasons for exercising such restraint.
Karin is in fact a queen in exile, and in hiding. Her husband King Arald is believed to have been lost at sea. His disappearance followed a series of tragic events. Their wedding was supposed to unite two petty kingdoms but these hopes were dashed by the violent and destructive behaviour of Hagen (Fausto Tozzi). Hagen killed the wife and child of a neighbouring king, Rurik. Rurik reacted (or overreacted) with a campaign of terror.
These subplots will come together in a surprisingly effective way, as none of these characters succeed in escaping their pasts, or their destinies.
You might think that the plot sounds vaguely like a western. When you watch the movie that impression will be reinforced considerably. This is in fact a classic revenge western. It also bears a very strong similarity to the classic western Shane. Given the fondness of the Italians for the western this is undoubtedly very deliberate indeed. The screenplay (by Mario Bava, Alberto Liberati and Giorgio Simonelli) actually adds a good deal of extra complexity. Shane is a man who has grown tired of violence but while we have no doubt that in his younger days he went looking for trouble and took some pleasure in his skill as a killer we also have no doubt that he only ever killed men in fair fights and that the men he killed almost certainly deserved killing. The protagonist of Knives of the Avenger is rather different - he is not an evil man but he has certainly done very evil things indeed. He also still derives a disturbing amount of enjoyment from killing for its own sake.
We feel that Shane’s path to redemption will not be easy but his moral standards encourage us to believe that he will achieve it. We cannot be so sanguine about the chances of the protagonist of Knives of the Avenger.
Mario Bava never made a spaghetti western but this movie suggests he might have done something quite interesting had he ever attempted that genre. Visually this movie has nothing in common with the spaghetti western but in tone it’s very close indeed. The fact that the protagonist is a knife-fighter makes the affinity even stronger. When the hero confronts the villain the scene plays out exactly like a western gunfight.
The hero in fact relies mostly on his skill with throwing knives. I very much doubt if Vikings actually bothered with throwing knives but in film terms it has two very great advantages. Firstly it makes the action scenes more interesting, but secondly and more importantly it adds greatly to the western flavour - Helmut uses his knives the way a western hero uses his six-guns.
Knives of the Avenger is not quite as visually stunning as other Bava films but it does have some classic Bava-esque moments, especially the scenes in the grotto.
Cameron Mitchell does a fine job, as he always did for Bava. I wasn’t so impressed by the rest of the cast. Fausto Tozzi as Hagen is a nasty villain but he needed to be a little bit more larger-than-life. Elissa Pichelli as Karin is just a tad on the bland side.
There’s a romantic triangle although it doesn’t exactly set the screen alight. Which is perhaps not such a problem since the revenge and redemption angles are what really matter.
Anchor Bay’s DVD, from their Mario Bava Collection Volume 1 boxed set, offers a fine anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in the ’scope ratio). The lack of extras is a slight disappointment.
Knives of the Avenger isn’t quite top-rank Bava but it’s an excellent and rather thoughtful action adventure flick. Bava didn’t have the budget for large-scale land and sea battle scenes but he has no difficulty in keeping things interesting. Not as good as Erik the Conqueror but still highly recommended.