Release Date(s)1964 (July 8, 2022)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Imprint Films/Via Vision Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: C-
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: A-
[Editor's Note: This is a REGION-FREE Australian Import.]
During the height of the popularity of epic, sweeping Viking films, with Richard Fleischer’s and Kirk Douglas’ The Vikings leading the pack, other producers and filmmakers jumped on board, including producer Irving Allen (Genghis Khan) and cinematographer extraordinaire-turned-director Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus). The result was The Long Ships, a film that was met with mild controversy in the US but did considerably well in the UK.
Marooned Viking Rolfe (Richard Widmark) boasts to the local townspeople about knowing the location of the mythic golden bell, the Mother of Voices. This, in turn, generates the attention of the ruthless Moorish king Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier), who is obsessed with the legendary bell and willing to do anything to find it. After escaping Mansuh’s clutches, Rolfe returns home to his father Krok (Oskar Homolka) and his brother Orm (Russ Tamblyn) to inform them of the ordeal. Though they initially scoff at him, they, along with a group of men, agree to help him abscond with the king’s newly-acquired ship and set sail to retrieve the bell, taking the princess as a hostage. Unfortunately, Mansuh intercepts, and with the king and his men hot on their trails, all parties converge upon finding the bell and claiming it for themselves, but whether Rolfe will be able to retain the loyalty of his men and avoid death at the hands of Mansuh will prove to be an even greater task.
The Long Ships is old-fashioned, epic scale filmmaking with enormous sets, period costumes, and many extras. Unfortunately, the story elements and performances leave something to be desired. It’s a problematical film in many ways, mostly due to several tedious scenes, but also in how tone deaf it tends to be. It attempts to please all audiences with minor love story elements, zany Viking pillage antics, and a variety of subplots involving double crosses and backstabbings that go absolutely nowhere. It doesn’t help that outside of Sidney Poitier (in one of his few roles as a villain of sorts), performances are lackluster to poor. Richard Widmark sounds like he’s another film altogether, never inhabiting the role but merely acting it out (not unlike Charlton Heston in the biblical epics of old). The story doesn’t really begin to right itself until the final half hour or so when the crew tries to reach the bell under threat from Mansuh, but after that, the film closes with a haphazard battle and a hook for a sequel, neither of which are engaging.
That all said, The Long Ships has plenty going for it in the visuals. It’s a well-shot film with a wonderfully lush score by Dusan Radic and an opening animated sequence by James Bond veteran Maurice Binder. The controversy in the US surrounding Sidney Poitier’s character having a white wife and harem is, of course, ridiculous, but the quality of the film is measured by its failings elsewhere. It was apparently not a happy film, and many of the cast and crew, including Widmark and Poitier, would later admit as such in interviews. But The Long Ships continues to appeal to film fans with a penchant for a big spectacle, regardless of the film’s shortcomings.
The Long Ships was shot by Christopher Challis on 35 mm film using the Super Technirama 70 process, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 for non-70 mm presentations and 2.20:1 for its intended presentation. Imprint brings the film to Blu-ray from a master provided by Sony Pictures. The text before the film begins states that “Due to the original source materials, viewers may notice some imperfections in the presentation of this film. The best available master from the copyright owner has been used.”
It’s unclear what elements were used to create this ancient master, but judging by the frequent shifts in quality, likely different sources. Multiple reels exhibit contrast and exposure issues with oversaturated hues and crushed blacks that appear gray and blue. The bottom edge of the frame is often discolored and the animated opticals at the front of the film are a little rough. However, the second hour sees some improvement with more balanced saturation and contrast. The overall presentation is soft with a crosshatched appearance and unstable grain, which is sometimes pixellated in the shadows. Mild scratches and speckling also appear throughout, but the frame is otherwise stable. Unfortunately, this is not the mark of quality that one associates with Sony high definition masters. It’s watchable, and good enough for a LaserDisc, but not for a Blu-ray.
Audio is included in English 2.0 mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. Sound effects and Dusan Radic’s score offer the most heft, but the majority of the track is flat. The dialogue, while filled with sibilance issues, is always intelligible.
The Long Ships on Blu-ray sits in a clear amaray case featuring a reversible insert, with unknown poster artwork on the front and a still from the film on the inside. Everything is housed in a slipcase featuring the original theatrical poster art. The following extras are included on the disc:
- Audio Commentary with Phillipa Berry
- The Long Shoot (HD – 16:44)
- The Long Wigs (HD – 3:53)
- Kim Newman on The Long Ships (HD – 20:18)
- Sheldon Hall on The Long Ships (HD – 16:26)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 3:23)
The audio commentary with film historian Phillipa Berry is somber as Berry speaks in a very low key manner (which required a mild volume adjustment), but the track is otherwise excellent when it comes to the examination of the film and its creation. He delves into the careers of individual members of the cast and crew, while also speaking on the politics surrounding the film and its eventual release. It’s quite an informative track. In The Long Shoot and The Long Wigs, actresses Jeanne Moody and Julie Samuel recount their experiences making the film. Jeanne Moody provides plenty of great anecdotes, but Julie Samuel’s participation is extremely short. Film Critic Kim Newman discusses the history of the subgenre of Viking films, as well as many facets of the film. He acknowledges its problems large and small, but admits to it being somewhat of a guilty pleasure. Film historian Sheldon Hall goes more into the history of the film, how it came into being, and the problems that it faced during shooting.
Imprint’s Blu-ray release of The Long Ships contains a strong selection of extras that make up for the film’s video and audio deficiencies. It’s in desperate need of a full blown restoration, along the lines of what Warner Bros did for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. It’s still a fine release, but the film definitely needs better attention.
- Tim Salmons