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To follow their Mario Bava Collection Volume 2, Anchor Bay have quietly released a stand-alone disc of Mario Bava's Viking action film Erik the Conqueror. This relatively lavish 1961 epic is one of the maestro's more entertaining features, with wild colors, spirited direction and an attractive cast. Sergio Leone has nothing on Bava when it comes to plagiarism, as Erik is a barely-disguised lift of the basic plot of Kirk Douglas & Richard Fleischer's 1958 The Vikings. Armed with a high-momentum story and a dynamic performance from Cameron Mitchell, Bava again delivers prime matinee entertainment.
Erik the Conqueror is an impressive surprise, a reasonably large-scale sword 'n' axe bash-o-thon shot through with Mario Bava's striking visuals -- dazzling color effects and expressive direction. I'd been misled to expect a much more modest show, like the rather stripped-down Knives of the Avenger, also with Cameron Mitchell. Bava doesn't have real Norwegian fijords or a full castle to play with, but he makes excellent use of a castle set, several Viking boats and a sizeable number of extras. There's no lack of energetic battles and sword duels, even if some of the better set pieces are lifted from Richard Fleischer's playbook. In The Vikings Kirk Douglas assaulted a castle by climbing on axes hurled at a raised drawbridge; Bava's Erik does the same on a wooden tower, using arrow-hits as hand-holds.
Sword 'n' sandal costume pictures frequently suffer from dull passages: pinch-faced bad guys plot against the feeble old king, or the writers try to take up slack with goonish comedy relief. Erik the Conqueror's exposition, conspiracy and kissing scenes benefit from Bava's seemingly unlimited visual invention. A sleek craning shot rises past a pair of skulls to reveal a pair of unlucky lovers chained back-to-back to a post and wrapped in barbed wire. The shot continues up to reveal a chorus of dancing beauties fanning out behind them, to entertain at their trial! Bava's camera circles a Viking love embrace, finding new contrasts between skin & fur, and the cold blues and greens of rock walls. Visually, the movie is a perfect candy store -- there's always an arresting new sight to 'taste.'
As in the delirious Hercules in the Haunted World, Bava's visuals still do the heavy lifting, but the cast is much better overall. Run ragged from playing cowboy rapists, gangsters and wife stealers in 50s Fox CinemaScope productions, Cameron Mitchell fills the role of a heroic brute, looking masculine as all get-out in an abbreviated leather outfit and blonde crew cut. Giorgio Ardisson's Erik has a muscleman's body, a terrific head of hair and a face reminiscent of Dirk Bogarde; he's convincingly idealistic. The knockout Kessler twins exhibit a modicum of acting ability to back up their graceful Nordic looks. As the beleaguered queen, Françoise Christophe has very expressive eyes. Add Andrea Checchi as a supremely perfidious villain, and Erik the Conqueror's acting ensemble is complete.
Anchor Bay's presentation of Erik the Conqueror is first rate. The rich enhanced transfer retains the saturated Technicolor look of Bava's extra-wide Dyaliscope images; when the Italian skies don't cooperate with dramatic clouds, Bava airbrushes them onto glass mattes. Savant only noticed a slight unsteadiness in a scene toward the end, evidence of film shrinkage? Italian and English tracks are present, and both appear to carry the original Roberto Nicolosi score -- we don't find out what Les Baxter's A.I..P. re-score sounds like. English subs are removable.
I talked to the Anchor Bay added value producer early in 2005 when the company licensed Erik the Conqueror; he wanted to take Caltiki, the Immortal Monster as well, but that picture was rejected, probably because it was in B&W. Anchor Bay's copy of the Viking picture has Italian main titles (Gli invasori) but at least one inter-title in English. When the original negative turned out to be missing its last shot, AB disc producer Perry Martin replaced it with a substitute VHS tape loaned from Tim Lucas! Filling out the extras are a lengthy audio interview with Cameron Mitchell conducted by Lucas, two trailers, a still and artwork gallery and Richard Harland Smith's succinct Bava bio.
Tim Lucas' welcome commentary contains a number of surprises. It's fun finding out that King Harald is played by the Italian Folco Lulli of The Wages of Fear, and realizing that Joe Robinson is the beefy muscleman in Carol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings. Some of Bava's most successful special effects are here, particularly a stunning castle shot that Lucas tells us was obtained by attaching a photo from The National Geographic to a sheet of glass!
Erik the Conqueror is an exciting release for Mario Bava fans -- one of his best shows in an attractive presentation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Erik the Conqueror rates:
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