Bava, as his champions of his films know well, had two particular qualities. First, he was an extraordinarily fine painter of light. In both black-and-white and color films, his movies are extraordinarily rich and evocative. Second, he had the uncanny ability to make cheap movies look vastly more expensive than they actually were. Painting on glass, clipping photos out of magazines, cobbling together bits of cotton and cardboard, he could create castles and spaceships and anything else that might be needed, almost out of thin air and usually within five-minutes' time.
Erik the Conqueror certainly exemplifies both these qualities. An uncredited reworking of Richard Fleischer's superb 1958 historical swashbuckler The Vikings, Bava's film was made for probably one-tenth its $3.5 million cost, yet while Erik the Conqueror lacks the former's stateliness and is a little rough around the edges, it's a very good approximation. The production values appear in the same ballpark.
One of the greatest cinematographers in all of cinema, Jack Cardiff, shot The Vikings, an extraordinarily beautiful-looking movie. To Bava's credit, Erik the Conqueror is equally gorgeous, regardless of the budgetary and scheduling handicaps. Erik the Conqueror simultaneously distills and unnecessarily complicates the basic the plot of The Vikings, recreating (i.e. stealing) plot elements and action vignettes, but has a lot of its original material and look as well. (Including comic relief by an actor that could only be described as an Italian Mr. Bean.) The plot may be unoriginal and populated by genre stereotypes, but they're undeniably sturdy and effective stereotypes. It's easy to become engrossed in its overwrought storytelling.
Ignoring the direct orders of his 8th century English King, Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi) orders the massacre of Viking invaders, including King Harald (Folco Lulli). During the melee Harald's fraternal twin sons Erik and Eron are separated: Eron returns safely but Erik is stranded in England. When the English King tries to strip Rutford of power Rutford has him murdered, blaming the assassination on a Viking. Soon after his widow, Queen Alice (Françoise Cristophe) discovers the cold and hungry Erik and decides to adopt him.
Twenty years pass, by which time the now grown Eron (Cameron Mitchell), a respected chieftain, has fallen in love with Daya (Ellen Kessler), a vestal virgin (in Viking culture?!), and the identical twin sister of Rama (Alice Kessler, Ellen's real-life twin).
King Olaf (Jean-Jacques Delbo) has brought the various Viking kingdoms together to plan another invasion of Britain, an invasion that Erik is eventually chosen to lead.
Meanwhile, in England, the adult Erik (Giorgio Ardisson) is chosen to lead the ships against the invaders, replacing the still-scheming Rutford, who has Erik's ship set ablaze. The battle is lost, but Erik makes it shore where Daya finds him and it's love at first sight. He hides out in a small Viking fishing village. At the grand wedding ceremony for Eron and Daya, Erik mistakes the bride for Daya, insults the newly marrieds and winds up in the dungeon, where a captured Queen Alice is also held.
Arrow's typically great supplements include a wonderful visual essay comparing The Vikings with Erik and the Conqueror, surprisingly (given licensing issues) but pricelessly illustrative in showing footage from both movies, often side-by-side. Whole scenes, details, and a good deal of the plot is directly copied for Erik the Conqueror but, as disc producer Michael Mackenzie points out, there are also many striking differences.
Perhaps none is greater than the nearly opposite look chosen for each film's Viking kingdom. Fleischer's aim with The Vikings was historical authenticity, and for his movie everything was exactingly recreated from what was known about Vikings then. Bava, on the other hand, turned his Viking's lair into something resembling Dante's Inferno, a huge torch-lit cave interior dominated by the enormous lower trunk and roots of a colossal, half-buried tree. As Mackenzie points out, coming from Catholic Italy, there are numerous highly incongruous allusions to Christianity, including a visually arresting double-crucifixion when the locale is first introduced.
I watched the film in English, disappointed that Mitchell's own voice was not used, but happy that it appeared to be a "Titra" dub from the picture's original U.S. release by American International Pictures. (I could be wrong, as this version runs 90 minutes, longer than AIP's version, with only a few seconds reverting back to the Italian soundtrack with English subtitles.) Nevertheless, Mitchell's obvious faith in Bava and commitment to the role is readily apparent. He's very good, as are Checchi, Delbo, and Cristophe especially.
Video & Audio
Arrow Video's Blu-ray of Erik the Conqueror looks splendid in its 2.35:1 Dyaliscope format, culled from the original camera negative. The image is so sharp and the critical color so rich that, even in side-by-side with The Vikings, shot in large-frame VistaVision, the image quality is comparable if stylistically different. English and Italian-dubbed tracks are included, with optional English subtitles. The 1.0 lossless audio is excellent, if weaker in the English version. The disc is region "A" while the accompanying DVD version is region 1.
The great supplements include the aforementioned audio interview with Cameron Mitchell, conducted by Tim Lucas, and the video essay comparing The Vikings to Erik the Conqueror. More extras include another highly-detailed, very insightful audio commentary track by Lucas, Bava's biographer; footage provided by Lucas of the original ending, several seconds missing from the original camera negative; and a booklet essay Kat Ellinger. It's a carefully considered, inventive round of impressive extras.
As a movie Erik the Conqueror is a lot of fun but not great, in many ways a Viking sword-and-sandal genre film like dozens of others flooding the Italian market at the time. But Bava's direction, particularly of the cinematography, raises its value enormously. It's a beautiful movie to watch and most Highly Recommended.