Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Viking Queen (1967)

The Viking Queen was described by Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn as the daftest work the studio ever produced, so of course I could not resist checking it out. It proved a genuinely odd, near-delirious concoction that tried to graft together an uneasy chimera of tragic melodrama, period feminism, soft-core fetishism, and political commentary. Movies set in Roman-era Britain are hardly a major cinematic sub-genre, although the recent releases of Centurion (2010) and The Eagle (2011) have enlarged the field by about fifty percent, but they almost all tend to share an overtone of contemporary parable about the way political situations sometimes slowly invert but the causes and nature of conflict remains the same. This addition to the roster is based very, very (very) loosely on Boudica’s famous rebellion, and set during the reign of Nero. Boudica’s story does cry out for a decent movie depiction, as The Viking Queen is certainly not it, but it is something sufficient unto itself. Seemingly an attempt to elevate Hammer’s horizons into the heady realm of the historical epic, but without a Samuel Bronston-scale budget to back it up, The Viking Queen falls back on liberal dashes of the variety of exotically sexy hype that had infused the company’s big recent hits She (1965) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) to give it lustre. The result is a weirdly entertaining, occasionally hilarious, sometimes compelling mess, alternating patches of historically absurd but basically solid storytelling, with vignettes of magazine-supplement sexy stuff, and portrayals of historical Druidic worship that seriously suggest what The Wicker Man (1973) might have looked like if directed by King Vidor in his Solomon and Sheba phase. The script, by Clarke Reynolds from a story by producer John Temple-Smith, is distinctly Shakespearean, if by that one accepts Shakespearean as meaning that it steals liberally from King Lear (ancient British king with three daughters and a disputed will) and Romeo and Juliet (lovers from different sides of a cultural war).

The story pits Roman macho prerogative against obsessive religious nationalism represented by Druid High Priest Maelgon (Donald Houston. The Finnish-born, one-time-only star Carita plays Salina, the middle member of the dying king’s (Wilfrid Lawson) triumvirate of daughters, his choice as heir because he feels she will govern best and balance the polarised elements. Older sister Beatrice (Adrienne Corri) is aggrieved, passed over because she’s too aggressively anti-Roman and pro-Druid; younger sister Talia (Nicola Pagett) is young, innocent, and prime Roman rape-bait. New Roman Governor-General Justinian (Don Murray) is fair-minded and very non-Tea Party in his approach to taxation, as is his chief civic administrator Tiberion (Niall MacGinnis). Justinian quickly captures Salina’s eyes and thighs. But his lieutenant Octavian (Andrew Keir) is a corrupt brute who wants to dominate the Brits, whilst being in league with their burgeoning local mercantile class who are profiting from the Roman hegemony and infuriated by Justinian’s taxation. The merchants arrange with Octavian to stage some distracting Druidic ceremonies and bandit raids that will draw Justinian away, and give Octavian a chance to snatch power from Salina and her close associates, including respected chief Tristram (Patrick Troughton) and his son Fergus (Sean Caffrey). This plot works, and when Salina and her loved-ones are brutalised by Octavian, she rallies in righteous fury and goes to war.

The Viking Queen is at least clearly in the usual Hammer mould, of being creatively cynical when it came to revealing historical cultural mechanics, but moving beyond the ripe portraits of rotten aristocracy and Victorian bourgeois repression in their horror films into some theoretically fresh territory. The basic gag here is to make a British imperialist adventure but set in a time when the British are the ones being colonially oppressed. Thus the familiar story elements of the Raj adventure yarn, with the usual cross-cultural romances and secret conniving between unscrupulous opportunists of both sides forcing the more honourable opposites into strife, are turned back on themselves. Here it’s ranting Druids rather than Mohammedan clerics stirring up the passions of the oppressed. Simultaneously, The Viking Queen strains to encompass some embryonic comment on late ‘60s gender liberation, with the masculine order represented by Justinian and a British gynocracy forced into a collision: the inevitable clash between an infuriated Salina and her army and a dutiful Justinian will inevitably lead to tragedy. “Stand fast, they’re only women!” Octavian shouts moments before Salina’s column of riot grrrl cavalry crash into him. Such warrior-woman iconography is now commonplace but almost non-existent at that time in mainstream cinema, which makes the film feel interestingly anticipatory. That anticipation also extends to aspects of that peculiarly British strand of imaginative historical cinema exemplified by John Boorman and Derek Jarman in their stripped-down, tactile sense of period setting. More mainstream recapitulations of this film’s basic ideas include the likes of King Arthur (2004), in its freeform melding of the authentic-feeling, the semi-mythical, and the just plain pervy, and Kingdom of Heaven (2005) with its the-past-is-now theme of centrists caught between and forced to pick sides in clashes of fanatics. More specific to its own era are the attempts to exploit the nascent hippy-era interest in pagan worship and pre-Christian social mores.

Chaffey’s direction displays his usual traits of lunging camerawork and editing, generating a gritty sense of the past as a physical space as in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), but only in flashes and spurts. The environs of the British society of the town are modest, with the royal palace not much more than a large barn with a thatched roof, and unlike a lot of the larger budgeted historical films of the period, like the glistening fantastical Cleopatra (1963), this lack of artifice makes it feel somehow more immediate. There’s some admirably inventive camerawork in the outlandish chariot charge in the finale. Chaffey seems particularly interested whenever Keir is the film’s focus. Keir employs his effortless embodiment of Celtic Alpha Male grit in a sneering villain role, whether prowling about MacGinnis is a shot so tightly framed you practically feel his prey’s nauseous anticipation, provoking Murray to indulge speeches which he shrugs off as pure limp-dick tomfoolery, or lounging about in fleshy indulgence with slave girls in a period bordello. His pleasure in nastiness reaches an apogee when, seizing an opportunity to take these vexing she-devils down a peg by having Salina flogged raw, taking time himself to rape Talia, before burning the tribe’s Great Hall to the ground. It’s the kind of rampant, corporeal nastiness that would have felt quite at home in a Peckinpah or Tarkovsky film of the period. Houston overacts to such a degree that he almost travels into a meta-state of hambone as Maelgon, who bizarrely makes prayer to Zeus, and is determined to force Salina and the Britons into war with the Romans for the sake of his religious-nationalist power hunger. In a discursive but weirdly compelling scene, Maelgon and his druids, including his scantily clad priestesses, dance about a cardboard Stonehenge (paging Spinal Tap!) and make sacrifices to the old gods, with men in a wooden cage hung over a fiery pit until the floor is charred away and they fall into the flames.

The problem The Viking Queen is that, as was a common problem with Hammer’s attempts to elevate their horizons, the production team couldn’t pick a tone and style and stick to it. Period matriarchy, reasonably serious dialogue exchanges, and substantial plotting are all undercut by segues into clumsy glimpses of naked chicks on horses and visions of the villains lounging about with bevies of slave girls, as if the actors are moonlighting in a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with an undertone of indulgent sexism that undercuts the film’s trumpets of feminine empowerment. One supposedly Nubian slave is clearly a plain old English girl unconvincingly painted over. The clash of sensibilities between stolid British realism and the sniggering new-age erotica is all too obvious. But throughout the film, zipping by in disorienting flashes, are fragments of inspired strangeness: scary woad-daubed bandits scream out of the forest. Sack-dress-clad groovy druid priestesses howl the moon. Nipple-tasselled slave girls decorate unused corners of the widescreen frame. Corri as an icon of primal ritual fury sacrificing a Roman captive. Carita gnawing on her own arm to stop herself screaming when being flogged. The wonder of it all is that one can feel the direction a less professional director might have dragged it in, for Chaffey’s attempt to maintain something like a respectable grip on the film works against this polymorphous energy. Rather than wishing the film played straighter, I couldn’t help but wish some real nutcase had directed this, and turned it into a freeform exercise in ahistorical comic book madness: what Russ Meyer or Walerian Borowczyck could have accomplished is worth a happy moment’s thought. Yet The Viking Queen still offers a fitfully delightful parade of camp delight that reaches an apogee when the mini-skirted, fleecy-caped shieldmaidens crash through Roman legions on chariots with scythe blades on their wheels.

Not helping at all are the completely miscast leads: Carita displays only faint acting craft, and her distinct accent is awkwardly explained by her mother having been a “Viking queen”, which also explains the stupid title. Murray, most famous for appearing a decade earlier in Joshua Logan’s film of Bus Stop (1956), looks and sounds badly out of place, and can’t even manage to seem as authentically stentorian as Richard Egan as an American lug in a period European setting. The couple’s big romantic clinch, coming after a spot of flirtatious chariot racing, sees them fall into a pond and make out in the muddy reeds, except that when Murray is supposed to be passionately kissing Carita, it’s clear that for whatever reason he won’t actually put mouth on mouth. But Corri and Troughton do well in their roles as the ferociously bigoted Beatrice, who snaps and snarls and goes to war with real relish, and sceptical patriarch Tristram. The climactic action, so long in getting to, proves a bit sadly curtailed once those chariots have done their business: Salina’s demise, impaling herself on a captor’s sword rather than submit, is neat, but her last words to Justinian are jarringly inane, and the abrupt final frieze suggests the filmmakers couldn’t wait to flee the set. Even if the film as a whole is a fascinating calamity, The Viking Queen’s lessons for cinema titans were not entirely lost: was Keira Knightley leaping about in leather proto-S&M gear in King Arthur anything more than the resurgent spirit of Queen Salina?


Patrick said...

I haven't seen this one, but I did see King Arthur a few years ago and remember thinking that the director probably isn't taking the idea of historical accuracy too seriously when he puts a sword in beanpole Keira Knightley's hands and have her beating up the big bruisers.

Roderick Heath said...

By some accounts the Ancient Britons did have a class of warrior women who specialised in antagonising the enemy by mocking them bare-breasted before battle. I'm willing to bet that they were mostly built like muscly Roseanne Barrs though.