The Vikings

In memory of Tony Curtis, whose obnoxious New York accent pissed off snobs and critics everywhere, I bring you one of Hollywood’s best sword and sandal epics: THE VIKINGS!

Played for pulp, starring Kirk Douglas as a brutish warrior and Tony Curtis as his secret half brother, both sons of the rapacious Ragnar, played by none other than Ernest Borgnine. It’s one of those melodramatic sagas, so let me lay out the plot for you: Ragnar was raiding the English coast one day, when he slew the king of Northumbria and raped his queen. When the king’s slovenly brother took the crown, the queen learned she was with child, and fled to exile, since kings have a nasty habit of chopping up babies who are the rightful heir, and all that. Her son Eric grows up to be Tony Curtis, Bronx accent and all, but he is enslaved by the Vikings. Ragnar’s other son is the prodigal Einar, the paragon of all things Viking, the eye patched and ripped Kirk Douglas, who’s always got a throwing axe in one hand and a flagon in the other.

One of the most memorable scenes is when the one-eyed Einar plays a drunken axe-throwing game, trying to cut the locks off a slave girl’s hair. While the Vikings are portrayed as cartoonish brutes, they certainly don’t play down the pillaging and brutality too much. The Britons want revenge, and eventually Ragnar is captured and thrown into a pit of ravenous wolves. But his unknowing son throws him a sword, so he may die like a Viking and go to Valhalla. This puts Tony Curtis on the British shit list, so he flees, and eventually teams up with Einar, as they both want to kill a bunch of Englishmen and get their grubby mitts on Princess Morgana, played by the lovely Janet Leigh. Curtis and Leigh were married in real life, so you can guess that Kirk doesn’t get to show her his other little one-eyed Viking. But not for lack of trying!

The movie has many fun battle sequences, campy though some are. I love any movie where Ernest Borgnine gets to put on that maniacal smile of his and galumph around with a sword, guzzling ale and cackling with glee. As I am one of the great apes, barely shorn, I cannot empathize with Kirk and Tony, who even in their prime, I could use as weights in my gym. So I like seeing a big burly brute like myself get to cavort on screen, even if he ends up as wolf chow. The dialogue is peppered with delightful purple prose, like “Love and hate are two horns on the same goat,” and “Look how he glares at me… If he wasn’t fathered by the black ram in the full of the moon my name is not Ragnar!”

So sure, this is far from historically accurate, and is cheesy in a way only old Hollywood could make it, but it’s still a lot of fun to see Kirk, Tony, Ernest and Janet in a costume epic with bloody battles, campy drinking games, and bawdy dialogue. In memoriam to the great Tony Curtis, watch THE VIKINGS! Thanks to my pal Keith over at Coolness is Timeless for posting the youtube clip.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

demonic duo: Faust and The Devil’s Rain

Movie Nights with Milky

My pal Milky and I have had a weekly tradition of renting random crap to watch over Chinese food, Lil Burgers, or sushi. Last week we happened to both receive Satanic flicks in our Netflix queues: he had Jan Svankmajer’s surrealist take on Faust and I rented The Devil’s Rain after Final Girl posted about it. It intrigued me. Shatner, a goat-faced Borgnine, John Travolta’s debut, Tom Skerritt in full mustachioed glory, and a tale of Devil Worship set in the barren West? Who could resist?

I’d totally rock out to a metal band called “Borgnine”

The Devil’s Rain is pretty awful. We meet the Preston family one dark and stormy night when Poppa comes home without no eyes! And then his face melts off in the rain. Momma (Ida Lupino of all people) and her idjit manchild servant run to get son Mark, who’s a sheriff round these parts, played by William Shatner in all his dramatic, shirtless glory. They tell him of his family’s peculiar destiny, to keep a Satanic book from the hands of devil worshipper Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine). The next day, when Mark goes to confront Corbis at the old abandoned church in the desert, they have a quiet stand-off where Borgnine exudes malevolence. How great the movie could have been, with these two giants butting heads.

Butt heads… get it?

But no. Mark returns to find Momma kidnapped and the idjit trussed upside down, and then he himself gets captured by Corbis’s devil cult and tortured, shritless of course, until he becomes one of the many eyeless minions. As Borgnine performs the creepy ritual, he becomes a goat-faced devil, and the effects are actually pretty good. But the story is a huge mess that put us to sleep. From here, we learn there are more Prestons, played by Tom Skeritt in his pre-Dallas from Alien days, and Joan Prather as a psychic girl in the mold of The Fury (full review). No offense, but at this point the movie is better than Ambien and we both dozed off. Once they track down Corbis, they get attacked by a young, eyeless John Travolta, and then join forces with Sheriff Eddie Albert to disrupt the final ceremony.

Shatner’s contract demanded a shirtless scene

We get a flashback to pilgrim days to see how the familial curse began, and learn that Corbis’s book contains the names of all the people who sold their souls to Satan, and without his rolodex he loses all his power. They don sacrificial robes and sneak in, and something that looks like the clock in Grand Central Station is declared to be “the Devil’s Rain,” but I never understood why. Does it matter? There’s also a hole in the desert floor full of explodium, since whatever falls in there explodes. Maybe it goes to Hell. The Sheriff throws the “Devil’s Rain” in there and it of course explodes, and frees everyone from Corbis’s curse. It also makes it rain, which makes all the eyeless minions’ faces melt off. And Corbis’s goat-face too. I’m guessing they wanted to call this movie The Devil’s Reign and misspelled it, and then had to put rain in it so people wouldn’t be confused.

Mista Kotta… I’m meltin’!

Directed by the man who brought us the Dr. Phibes movies, I expected better. It’s worth seeing to watch Shatner do his thing, and more importantly to see Ernest Borgnine play the Devil’s Left Hand. He’s always amazing, even when he’s reading a terrible script. Not only was Ernie the first guy to make an ugly momma’s boy gets the girl movie with the Oscar-winning Marty, he was perhaps the evilest-looking of The Wild Bunch, the cabbie from Escape from New York and most recently, the 92-year-old coot who authored an autobiography titled I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, I Just Want to Keep My Nuts Warm. The man is something else. He said he got the title from a guy selling roasted chestnuts in New York. And he’s grumpy that in the U.S., the title got changed to avoid offending the Midwest. Gotta love this guy.

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Faust is the first Jan Svankmajer movie I’ve actually sat down to watch; I’d seen bits of Little Otik on Shotime Beyond, heard of his surrealistic take on Alice in Wonderland, and of his fantastic stop-motion animation work. I’ve always liked that form of animation and his style is rather unique. Darth Milk has always wanted to read Goethe’s Faust, but the mix of dramatic theater and epic poem is a bit daunting even for us snooty English majors, so he put this in his queue and brought it over. Say what you will about Svankmajer’s style, but the bizarre concoction of surrealism, stop-motion effects, full-size marionettes, and the play-within-a-movie structure certainly are gripping.
I like David Lynch like any good internet film nerd, and also Luis Buñuel and Peter Greenaway. So this wasn’t a shock to my sensibilities. I was unsure of exactly what Svankmajer was going for, but that’s part of the fun. As a story, it works in a circular fashion and as a dreamlike take on all the forms the Faust story has taken- opera, film, play, moral folktale. He has a morbid sense of humor and in one hilarious scene, the devil sends a demon disguised as Helen of Troy to seduce our Czech everyman who’s been forced to play Dr. Faustus. What’s the disguise? Well, he drills a hole in the life size marionette and pats on a little tuft of hair, and slaps a mask on him. The claymation effects for the summoning of Lucifer and how he appears are quite memorable too. It begins with a clay baby with a spell stuffed in its mouth; this disintegrates into three egglike blobs that roll around, merging into a horned and fanged face, or merely eyes and a mouth, depending on its whim. In the Englush version, all the voices are dubbed by one man- Andrew Sachs- who’s been in many small roles, including Gerard the Frenchman in Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One.
If you’re in the mood for an odd one, this one gets Milky and I’s approval. Svankmajer’s Alice and Little Otik are queued for future movie nights.

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The Emperor of the North Pole – stabbin’ people with my hobo knife

Two of the manliest men in cinema were Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Both of them looked like you could clobber them with a two-by-four to no effect. But what if they each had a two-by-four, or better yet, a fireman’s axe and chains, and battled it out? That’s the premise of this movie, where Marvin plays a tough hobo and Borgnine is a brutal conductor infamous for kicking freeloaders off his train. Sure, the director said that they symbolized the Establishment and Anti-Establishment, but I think they symbolized Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine locked in a locomotive thunderdome, battling it out on a flatbed rail car, and that’s deep enough for me.

Cool Lee Marvin, A #1.

Who didn’t want to become a hobo when they were a kid? Nowadays they probably have NinHobo for the Wii, and you have to swing the controllers around to cut open a can of beans, hop trains, and stab people with your hobo knife. But back in the 70’s when this film was made, our “controllers” were called “sticks,” and we made everything out of them: Rifles. Hobo knives. Lightsabers. It was the Swiss Army Knife of toys, and yep, you could even pretend it was a Swiss Army knife. To be a hobo, all you needed was a stick and a bandanna or a handkerchief, or a washcloth snatched from the sink, tied up around your “bindle” of necessities for life on the road, like a bologna sandwich and a few Hot Wheels cars, for bartering. You could rub some dirt on your face for stubble, or burn a piece of cork if you were feeling audacious.

That’s about all that’s needed for this movie, too. Except for the trains of course. There’s a lot of train porn in this movie. I call it that because train fanatics, or “railfans” seem to be the only people who remember this film, down to the specifics of what kind of train was used, and so on. In Britain they are called “trainspotters” and their activities were revealed in the documentary Trainspotting.

Let’s just say the song “Love Shack” is not about him.

The movie starts out by introducing us to Ernest Borgnine, known as “Shack” in the movie. His train is leaving the station and he finds a hobo on it, so he beats him with a club until he falls between two cars, gets jumbled up like a sack of sausages in the laundry, and cut in half by the train. In full detail. This is to let you know that the movie is all about two men beating the shit out of each other, and to go sneak in to The Aristocats one theater over, before you’re sick to your stomach, you pansy.

Ernest Borgnine cuts a man in half.

Shack is one mean sonofabitch, but he gets outsmarted by two other ‘Bos on the train. One is Lee Marvin, known only as “A #1” because he’s Lee Marvin, goddammit, and King of the Hobos. The other one is Keith Carradine, who plays a brash kid so annoying that you wish the two tough guys would stop fighting for a moment and nail his tongue to a tree with a railroad spike. According to the director, he’s supposed to represent The Youth of Today. He and #1 tussle over a train car they both hop into, and Shack locks them in. It’s a cow car, so when they herd the steers in, they’ll be trampled to death. A#1 outsmarts them by … setting the car on fire, and forcing them to stop the train.

Putting axle grease on a burn, like a real man.

They both brag about riding Shack’s train- A#1 to his fellow hobos, and the Kid, called “Cigaret,” to the rail men who caught him- raising Shack’s fury. He practically strangles the kid. When the hobos find out about the Kid’s boast, it shakes A#1’s reputation… so he has to win it back. He says he’ll ride Shack’s train all the way to Portland, and Cigaret claims he’ll do it too. The rail men hear about it, bets are made, and the battle is on. The film’s title comes from the hobo jargon of calling the greatest of hobos “the Emperor of the North Pole,” or king of nothing, aka King Shit.

Probably the best “train porn” in the movie is when Shack hot-rods it out of the station so no one can hop on and freeload. Now trains have schedules for good reasons, because sometimes they share track. And by jumping ahead of schedule he screws things up. Another train is take a side track and they just barely miss its caboose as the brakes screech. It’s actually pretty exciting, but there are no big train crashes in the movie.

America runs on Dunkin’ Deacons

There’s a few funny scenes where they steal clothes from a bunch of evangelicals praying in the river; when he gets unexpectedly dunked, A#1 shouts “Jesus Christ!” and the preacher thinks he’s praying. Later they steal a turkey, and a cop chases them into a hobo camp, only to get pranks played on him. Overall the movie is bit on the long side, and the most memorable parts involve Hobo vs. Conductor and the cruel ways they try to defeat each other. Shack’s favorite trick for hobos riding underneath a rail car is to tie a lead weight to a rope, and feed it under the train, so it bludgeons them as it flails around. This makes A#1 find a way to lock the brakes, which sends the fireman into the coal oven, and bashes another worker’s head in.

If I had a hammer, I’d hammer on some hobos…

This goads him into the final battle, and he stalks along the top of the train with a mini sledgehammer to do them in. Eventually they end up on a flat car, duking it out with slabs of lumber, chains, fireman’s axes, and their formidable brawn. It’s brutal and ugly, despite the bright red paint blood they used in the 70’s. It’s definitely worth slogging through the rather slow movie to see two Hollywood tough guys fight it out.

Don’t bring a chain to an axe fight.

Ernest Borgnine just has an evil look to him when he wants to- whether he’s trying to beat up Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity, or as a murderous member of The Wild Bunch, or even when he played alongside Marvin in The Dirty Dozen. Marvin needs no bad-ass introduction. He got shot in the ass in WW2 and played tough guys ever since he was a motorcycle thug in The Wild One opposite Brando. He may have been awarded the Purple Heart, but the most bad-ass thing I ever heard about Lee Marvin was from a rehearsal with John Vernon (aka Dean Wormer from Animal House) when he hit Vernon so hard that the man began to cry.
He and Borgnine were in a few other movies together, like the classic Bad Day at Black Rock, and a Dirty Dozen sequel. He didn’t make it to the third sequel, Dirty Baker’s Dozen, where they are all in a nursing home and plot to escape and go to Dunkin’ Donuts. Instead, it is recalled that his character choked fatally on a cruller from the cafeteria, and it will not go unavenged.

The Final Battle

The film’s theme song, “A Man and a Train,” is a marvel of 70’s country-folk insipidity, and I urge you to listen to it for a time capsule of the early 70’s, if you can stand it. Marty Robbins, I salute you for writing and singing this amazing song. Whenever I run out of steam, I will try to keep running on a dream.

A man and a train, a train and a man
They both tried to run as far
And as fast as they can
But a man’s not a train and a train’s not a man
A man can do things that a train never can

Goin’ up a mountain even half way to the top
The minute that a train runs out of steam it’s gotta stop
But it’s a different story when a man runs out of steam
He still can go a long, long way
On nothin’ but a dream

Goin’ cross the country when a train runs out of track
It has to stop and turn around and then start headin’ back
But many miles from nowhere out where all the tracks are gone
A man who’s got himself a dream
Can still keep goin’ on

So don’t try to stop me
Don’t try to stop me cause nobody can
I’ve got a dream, a beautiful dream and that makes me a man
No don’t try to stop me
Don’t try to stop me cause nobody can
I’ve got a dream, a beautiful dream and that makes me
Makes me a man