Mario Bava’s foray into the world of swords-and-sandals.
It is always fun to see someone who has perfected their craft out of their element. Your favorite action hero stars in the summer’s biggest comedy; the guy who always plays a cop on TV playing a serial killer for a miniseries; the world’s best basketball player decides to try his hand at baseball. (Maybe not the last one. That was just…weird.) The attempt may not always be a success, but it can be interesting if nothing else.
Mario Bava is a horror film icon. The Italian director helped create the giallo sub genre and is arguably the father of the slasher film. Directors as varied as Tim Burton to Quentin Tarantino have discussed Bava’s influence on their works. Black Sunday may be his most renowned film, which made Barbara Steele a star and still consistently places in “Best of” lists.
Sword-and-sandal epics were popular in Italian film from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Much like Spaghetti Westerns would later borrow from their American counterparts, they attempted to emulate American historical dramas. The Hercules films are probably the most well-known to American audiences. After finishing Black Sunday, but redefining horror movies, Mario Bava directed 1961’s Erik the Conqueror.
Erik the Conqueror is a sword-and-sandal film about two Viking brothers that are separated as children during a battle with the English. The titular brother is found by Queen Alice, with the other, Eron, is returned safely to his Viking clan. The Vikings presume Erik dead, but actually is being raised in England by Queen Alice as one of her own children. During the film, there are scenes of love, lust, treachery, and large-scale battles. In more modern terms, though, Erik the Conqueror can best be described as “basic.”
The acting is no different from any other movie of the genre. The honorable Vikings speak heroic words in heroic tones. The villainous Englishmen look and sound evil. The love interests, played by twins Alice and Ellen Kessler, are run-of-the-mill damsels in distress that speak only when spoken to. One thing that’s unique about this film compared to others in the genre is that it’s in Italian. While some dialogue comes off as more forceful due to the cadence of the language, it is also silly to see Englishmen, Norwegians, and Scandinavians speaking Italian. It is a small thing, but it does take the viewer out of the moment.
The sound in the movie is a step above the acting, but it isn’t something to place on a resume. The score never stands out. There are scenes with loud drums, there are scenes with lutes, and there are scenes with light strumming of guitars, music that fits with the genre. The battle scene sound effects, however, stand out. Duels are made more intense as swords clang against each other it, and during the larger battles, the shouts of madly charging men are fittingly frantic. Particularly effective were the thunderous crashing waves during a sea battle. An epic story needs epic sound effects, and Erik the Conqueror delivers.
Bava’s direction is easily the best part of the film. By the time he had made a name for himself in the Italian film industry, Bava was known for his masterful use of colors, shadows, and scenery. Despite being in an entirely different genre, Erik the Conqueror is no different. The scenes shot at the Viking stronghold are appropriately dark. The only light in the cavernous structure is the natural lighting provided by torches. When shooting the castle scenes, Bava uses windows and natural sunlight to contrast with the dark, shadowy stone. Many monologues in the castle are shot with a window in the background, which adds to the grandeur of the moment. The outdoor shots are also beautiful. Weapons and armor gleam, trees look lush, and Bava frequently uses the sea in the background. The film captures vast scale very well.
As Bava became more entrenched in the horror movie scene, he also became known for his snap zooms, especially to emphasize shocking scenes. This is also done in Eric the Conqueror. During an almost comically elaborate torture scene involving a spider, the film zooms in on the victim. The spider is seen menacingly creeping towards its target.The scene is beautifully shot, with a dull red background and a blue-ish hue from natural light, but it would’ve been better suited to a horror movie than a sword-and-sandal flick.
I watched the movie on Blu-Ray released through Arrow Video. The movie is gorgeous and deserves the 2K restoration that it gets here. Special features on the release include audio commentary by Tim Lucas author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, an interview with star Cameron Mitchell, a video essay that compares the movie to the book it was based on, and the original ending of the film.
Erik the Conqueror is an interesting movie for Mario Bava fans, as it provides a chance for admirers to see the director at work before he found his true calling. Many of his trademark elements are present in the film, however the story is generic and effects lackluster, if competent. Erik the Conqueror is well made, but is essentially only for Bava completionists.