Blu-ray review: “The Long Ships” (1964)

“The Long Ships” (1964)

Drama

Running Time: 126 minutes

Written by: Beverley Cross and Berkely Mather based on The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

Directed by: Jack Cardiff

Featuring: Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Russ Tamblyn and Rosanna Schiaffino

Aly Mansuh: “We sail tomorrow and may Allah send us a fair wind and a calm sea.”

Rolfe: “And may Thor do the same, my lord.”

Critical Commentary

Released recently onto Blu-ray through the Imprint label is the Viking themed “The Long Ships” (1964), a movie that was designed to cash in on other big box office hits of the time, like Richard Fleischer’s and Kirk Douglas’ The Vikings (1958) leading the pack, other producers and filmmakers jumped on board, including producer Irving Allen and cinematographer turned director Jack Cardiff. 

“The Long Ships” largely revolves around the possible existence of a massive golden bell nicknamed “The Mother of Voices”; Moorish king Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier) is its most ambitious seeker and he’s not above kidnapping a shipwrecked Norseman named Rolfe (Richard Widmark), who apparently knows its location. After insisting golden bell is most likely a myth, Rolfe escapes captivity… but as revealed to several family members later, the Norseman knows more about its existence that he initially claimed. Soon enough, Rolfe and his brother Orm (Russ Tamblyn) are able to hijack a ship built by their father for the Danish king Harald (Clifford Evans), getting a two-for-one when they persuade drunken Vikings to serve as their unwitting crew. But Rolfe’s earlier escape won’t be his last run-in with the Moors, who still stand in they way of a glorious treasure that may or may not exist.

“The Long Ships” really is an old-fashioned, epic with an attempt at large scale filmmaking with massive sets, costumes, as well as a huge amount of extras for background scenes. However the tone is a little off, this should be an adventure for the audience as well as the characters but there are too many meandering scenes to make it truly enjoyable, it takes away too much from its two dynamic leads. It’s worth at least one viewing for genre fans, but “The Long Ships” can’t compete with more well-known and enduring epics from this era because it doesn’t really succeed on anything deeper than occasional surface-level thrills and the connect-the-dots appearance of its higher-profile cast members. 

Written by Beverley Cross and Berkely Mather who were both extremely good writers of action as well as having some experience with fantasy which of course some of “The Long Ships” definitely was based on. It is a real shame that both writers did not lean into their strengths, that is a simple plot with a classic narrative and action to punctuate scenes. Of course with the experienced and talented cinematographer Jack Cardiff as the director it is a great looking movie which is its true strength along with the score by Dusan Radic and an opening animated sequence by James Bond veteran Maurice Binder.

In terms of performances it is Sidney Poitier who shines among a large cast, it is difficult to think of a bad performance by the actor, it is unfortunate that the rest of the cart seem a little lost. Richard Widmark looks and sounds like he’s another film altogether, never inhabiting the role but merely acting it out. 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.

“The Long Ships” is far from a perfect movie, but it does give some insight into the type of movie being made and some of the actors that were at their peak as those that were on the rise. In a way this movie represents what was wrong in Hollywood and in less than six years these types of movies would be non existent for another decade and a half. However because of other issues like the picture and sound this movie really is only a curio.

Technical Commentary

Video

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. 

Audio

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 PCM 2.0 audio mix doesn’t fare much better, although the modest expectations of this era’s sonic source material makes certain elements a little easier to digest. Of course, the raw soundtrack has likewise not been subjected to any sort of restoration and this means that decades worth of damage can be heard such as occasional hiss, pops, crackle, and even sibilance issues during a number of conversations.

Special Features

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)

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