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April 13, 2006

Two Voyages with Richard Fleischer

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The Vikings
Richard Fleischer - 1958
MGM Home Video Region 1 DVD

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Fantastic Voyage
Richard Fleischer - 1966
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

In looking over Richard Fleischer's filmography at the time of his death a last March 25, I realized that I had only seen a handful of his films. Several of the films I had seen were in no way as Fleischer intended, full screen, edited, and on black and white television. One of those films seen that way was The Vikings.

This is old school Hollywood doing what it does best - a big costume epic with real movie stars. In the DVD supplement, Fleischer discusses the efforts made to be accurate with the sets and costumes, and I'll take him at his word. The accuracy stopped with the casting as 41 year old Ernest Borgnine plays father to the one year older Kirk Douglas. And while Tony Curtis will probably always be known for his youthful spirit, he hardly looks like the 21 year old man that the script calls for. Janet Leigh is totally gorgeous as an English princess. A director less trusting of his material like Rob Marshall would fret about the fact that no effort is made to disguise actors' natural speaking voices, or that the Vikings and the English characters all speak English to each other. Fleischer, like some of his characters, just dives in for the sake of adventure and spectacle.

The DVD of The Vikings may be worth studying on how to direct an action set piece. Fleischer explains how the swordfight between Douglas and Curtis was created using shots of no more than three sword strokes. The cinematography is by Jack Cardiff who used creative angles is shooting the final duel, as well as creating the luminous shots of Janet Leigh. The commercial success of The Vikings may have contributed to Cardiff making his own Viking film, The Long Ships. Screenplay writer Calder Willingham worked previously for Douglas as one of the screenwriters for Paths of Glory as well as contributing to Spartacus. Screen story writer Dale Wasserman's most famous association with Douglas came with the play version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Between the action and some sly humor, what's best about The Vikings is that it is a reminder that one could make a big costume epic without being bogged down with too many pretensions of self-importance.

Briefly in Fantastic Voyage, rival brain surgeons Arthur Kennedy and Donald Pleasance briefly debate evolution versus intelligent design. The debate effectively ends when the micoscopic sized Pleasance is consumed by a while corpuscle. The discussion is a small portion of the film that may have been no more than a thought provoking blip forty years ago, yet unintentionally acts as a reminder of more recent events. The story of a group of doctors shrunk so small that they take a voyage in a man's bloodstream to do brain surgery is silly. The shrinkage can only last for sixty minutes. Even within the logic of the basic premise, my significant other and I wondered why the tiny medical team wasn't injected into the ear or brain in the first place instead of taking the long way to their destination. It was probably written that way, but the film is crafty enough to have the sixty minutes of shrink time last exactly that long in screen time. The best moments of Fantastic Voyage are pre-CGI special effects of blood, tissue, bacteria and other microscopic matter that in their own way anticipate some of the psychedelic wonder seen two years later with 2001.

Posted by peter at April 13, 2006 12:01 AM

Comments

Nice post, Peter. I watched THE VIKINGS on DVD not so long ago and enjoyed the hell out of it. It is enjoyably unpretentious, as you say, and despite the somewhat goofy casting, those actors were MEN, dagnabbit, and so FEEL appropriate.

The long opening scene of the viking ship sailing into the fjord, and home, is lovely, and so refreshing in NOT being CGI. A real ship built and sailed. A epic in the old style, and pleasantly vicious.

FANTASTIC VOYAGE is a fun timewaster, with good effects but a pretty flat script. Haven't seen it for awhile, though, so should probably give it another spin, if just for the "intelligent design vs. evolution" debate you mention. And, of course, Racquel in her form-fitting wetsuit...

Posted by: John T. Chance at April 13, 2006 07:26 AM

Another key element in the success of The Vikings is the music, especially over the Bayeux Tapestry-style titles sequence. Never has a Norse hunting horn sounded so cool!

Posted by: Cultural Snow at April 13, 2006 10:29 PM

Hey, I had no idea Fleischer did The Vikings. I saw it long ago and enjoyed it immensely. One of the biggest flaws in so many epics is a cumbersome pace, and as you point out, The Vikings just charges ahead.

Posted by: Campaspe at April 16, 2006 05:53 PM