On the whole, I’m not a fan of sword and shield pictures. I find the clashing of metal against metal to be fairly tiresome, I have trouble following the rather arbitrary distribution of royal titles, and a flaming arrow leaves me cold. Yet, I loved Erik the Conqueror (1961). The storyline and action set pieces in Erik are every bit as silly as one would find in most clattering adventure epics and the acting is a tad on the theatrical side, but the movie has one element that the others lack — Mario Bava!
Cinematographer turned director Bava was mostly known for Gothic horror films (Black Sunday, Black Sabbath) and gialli (Blood and Black Lace, Bay of Blood), but he also dabbled in other genres, including peplum (sword & saddle pictures), Westerns, sci-fi, and even a sex comedy. What all the films have in common, regardless of genre, is beautiful photography, initially in black and white, but primarily in glorious Technicolor. Inky blacks butt up against vibrant reds, purples, and greens. Whether inside a Gothic castle, in the woods, or below deck in a tall ship, multi-hued spotlights illuminate the space at odd angles. As in Bava’s other work, the lighting in Erik the Conqueror is in no way naturalistic, but it is always more colorful, painterly, and beautiful than one would expect.
The Italian film industry was notorious for copying (some would say “ripping off”) successful American movies; and it is no coincidence that Erik the Conqueror followed closely on the heels of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958). The plot Erik steals liberally from Fleischer’s film, but it also incorporates elements of another successful late-Fifties film, The Ten Commandments.
The plot gets rolling when a Viking king is killed on the coast of England, and his two sons are separated during the battle. One of the sons is brought back to the Viking homeland to grow into Eron (Cameron Mitchell), the eventual heir to the throne. The other son is discovered by the widow of the English king, who has been murdered by the same villain who slew the Viking monarch; and she raises him like her own little baby Moses. That son grows up to be Erik (George Ardisson) the blandly handsome, nominal hero of the piece. Of course, the two boys have to reunite whilst fighting on opposing sides of the conflict, but first they have to individually fall for a couple of twin Vestal Virgins (played by Alice and Ellen Kessler, known in cabarets in the 60s as the Kessler Twins).
Of course, the plot hardly matters. It is just an excuse for florid acting, land and sea battles (which effectively make the most of the low budget), and Bava’s masterful lighting and camera work. With Mario Bava at the helm, the whole ridiculous enterprise is a lot more fun and memorable than it has any right to be. Pick up Erik the Conqueror for some mindless Saturday morning viewing. You won’t be disappointed.
Italy/C-89m./Dir: Mario Bava/Wr: Oreste Biancoli, Piero Pierotti, and Mario Bava/Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Alice Kessler, Ellen Kessler, George Ardisson, Andrea Checchi, Françoise Christophe, Joe Robinson, Jean-Jacques Delbo, Franco Giacobini, Raf Baldassarre, Enzo Doria, Gianni Solaro, Franco Ressel, Livia Contardi, Folco Lulli
If You Like: Fans of Bava’s more famous works (Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace) will probably enjoy Erik, for the visuals, if for nothing else.
Video: Arrow Video’s
Erik The Conqueror (2-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray + DVD] features a new 2K restoration of the film from the original 35mm camera negative, and the resulting image quality is vibrant, sharp, and beautiful. This is the only way to watch the film. The Blu-ray also includes both the original Italian and English lossless mono audio tracks. I recommend the Italian track, which features newly-translated English subtitles.
The package also includes a robust set of extras:
- A new audio commentary by Tim Lucas, the go-to Bava expert and the author of the definitive book on the director,
Mario Bava : All the Colors of the Dark
- Gli imitatori, a comparison between Erik the Conqueror and its unacknowledged source, The Vikings
- The original ending — The final shot of the original film is not included in the restoration, as it only exists in poor, duped VHS-quality. This only consists of a few seconds of footage, so the fact that it is not part of the feature itself does not hamper the enjoyment of the film.
- A reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
- And a collector’s booklet (1st pressing only) featuring new writing on the film by critic Kat Ellinger
Streaming: Not currently available
More to Explore: Mario Bava reteamed with Cameron Mitchell for another Viking movie,
Knives of the Avenger (1966), which is available on DVD from Image Entertainment.
Trivia: The stunt in which Garian (Joe Robinson) stabs a mainsail and slides down the length of it while holding the knife hilt in both hands is lifted from Douglas Fairbank’s silent The Black Pirate (1926).