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Posts Tagged ‘Don Murray’

Warning: may contain spoilers for the Boudicca Rebellion of 60AD.

‘See the accursed blood rites of the Iceni! See men roasted alive in the cage of Hell! As barbarism and passions inflame a pagan pleasure empire! See the occult terrors of the Druids! As the Roman lash tries to tame the will of a golden goddess!’

Gotta love those mid-Sixties Hammer trailer scripts. We are here, as you may have guessed, to discuss Don Chaffey’s 1967 offering The Viking Queen, from the studio’s peak period when they were wandering quite a long way from their horror and fantasy heartlands. The Viking Queen certainly isn’t either of those – it appears to be Hammer’s crack at doing a sword-and-sandal epic, with more than a dash of the dodgy exploitation movie about it.

Oh well. Our story unfolds in the Roman Empire of the first century, where the subject races are apparently kept in their place solely by stentorian voice-overs and stock footage from other, bigger-budget films. The nicer parts of Britain are currently under the joint rule of local king Priam (yes, I know, we’ll come back to this) and visiting Governor-General Justinian (Don Murray), whose accent suggests he’s come not from Rome but somewhere in California.

Priam snuffs it, following a King Lear-ish scene in which he decides to leave his kingdom to middle daughter Salina (Carita), whose own accent suggests she has recently arrived from Helsinki. The local chief Druid (an almost uncannily bad performance from Donald Houston) prophesies she will wield a sword and that the land will run with blood, but everyone ignores him (perhaps they are hoping he will be cut out of the movie at the editing stage). Justinian and the new Queen strike up a close relationship and, following a spot of recreational charioteering which concludes with them both falling in the river, find that shared possession of dubious accents really can be the basis of romance.

Needless to say, the Druids don’t like the planned wedding of the Queen of the Iceni to the Roman Governor, and nor does Justinian’s brutal second-in-command Octavian (Andrew Keir) – any historians watching the movie will probably also have strenuous objections to make, but it’s just too late, guys. With Justinian’s permission Salina really turns the screws when it comes to taxing the local rich merchants (you could get away with this sort of redistribution of wealth pre-Thatcher), which prompts them to cook up a plan with Octavian to get Justinian off the scene for a bit so normal service can be resumed.

As you might expect, Octavian gets a bit carried away with his reign of terror and before you can say ‘At least One Million Years BC had Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs to soften the impact of the terrible historical accuracy’, Salina and the Britons are painting themselves blue and fixing scythes to their chariots, preparatory to a rebellion against the Romans…

There’s a persistent story that, at one point in The Viking Queen, a Roman soldier comes on wearing a wrist-watch, and that this is fairly indicative of the film’s grasp of historical fact. I, like a few others, have looked for this anachronistic chronometer and been unable to find it – so it may in fact be an apocryphal anachronistic chronometer. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which it’s quite surprising how much of the general background of the Iceni revolt this film gets broadly correct. Character names and relationships have been changed, but the politics of the story and the progress of the uprising are clearly based on what actually happened (though we don’t get to see London razed to the ground).

However, when it comes to the particulars, the movie energetically gets things wrong with a consistency that’s awe-inspiring, if slightly painful. The Druids, not content with being uniformly badly played, are depicted as worshipping Greek gods. Half the Britons look like medieval serfs, while the rest appear to be cavemen – and while the Druids predict that Salina will ‘wear armour’, the outfit she eventually chooses to go into battle in resembles a fancy dress costume rejected by Jordan on the grounds of excessive tackiness. We have already heard that the king of the Iceni is named Priam – add to this the fact he has subjects named Fergus, Nigel and Osiris and you get an overwhelming sense of a scriptwriter with zero feel for this setting.

Having said that, this movie could just about work as a piece of fluffy, slightly naughty fun, if you were able to buy into the central romance. But you can’t. Carita is just one of a long line of thickly-accented buxom Nordic glamour-pusses imported by Hammer for this kind of role and she brings nothing to the movie but hair, legs, and cleavage. You would expect that a veteran performer like Don Murray would do better, but the fact he’s the only American in the movie is very intrusive, and the screenplay – which never really gives him much to do – increasingly sidelines him. Towards the end he mainly spends a lot of time staring around him in aghast horror, but this may just be a result of finally having read the script. (Murray’s next outing as a governor having to deal with a slave uprising would end less well for him.)

Not all is rotten in The Viking Queen‘s acting department, though, as this film features a number of actors who always seem to make a point of doing the best they can whatever the quality of the script. Most prominent is Andrew Keir, making the most of a rare role as a villain: he’s easily the most convincing character in the movie. Patrick Troughton does his usual sterling work as a British courtier – this was Troughton’s last film for a while as immediately after he went off to do some job or other at the BBC for three years. Niall McGinnis has a smaller role as one of Justinian’s assistants and makes the most of it.

After you’ve been watching The Viking Queen for a while, you becomeĀ grateful for whatever crumbs you can find, because while the production values are adequate they’re certainly no more than that. The action sequences are hardly lavish, but at least the scenery is nice (County Wicklow in Ireland stands in for Norfolk). Time and again you get the sense of ambition being thwarted by a lack of resources (numbers of extras, leading actresses who can act, supporting artists of the right ethnicity – there’s a horribly obvious example of a woman in blackface (rather more than face, actually) amongst Octavian’s harem). But the problems nearly all start with the script. The Viking Queen would really like to be an epic, romantic tragedy, but its budget can’t run to epic and the romance doesn’t remotely convince. As a result, rather than a tragedy it just comes across as a piece of absurd camp – highly entertaining if approached in the right spirit, but utterly impossible to take seriously.

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