Review: The island at the top of the world

Apparently, Vikings can be fittedThe island at the top of the world 30th anniversary dvd into any kind of story. Time-travel or aliens could solve some of the logical problems. In the adventure-fantasy The island at the top of the world ice and fog is the solution.

Produced by the Walt Disney Company, The island at the top of the world is a Jules Verne-esque adventure-fantasy-actioner, set in 1907, in which a British  aristocrat more or less kidnaps an American scientist in order to look for his lost son, a whale hunter. Two years ago, the young man went into the icy areas of the Arctic, but a storm troubled his expedition and only his Eskimo guide returned. He is now the only person who can find the missing whale catcher. A rescue mission is launched, using a motorized airship to find the lost son. Except, they find themselves in trouble in stead when they discover a green valley hidden among mountains and icebergs. The valley is populated by Vikings who, trapped inside the ice and fog for a millennia without contact with the rest of the world, has preserved their culture, traditions and language as it was in the real Viking age.

The comparison to Jules Verne is not only triggered by the late Victorian / early Edwardian time setting, a balloon flight and some adventure, but also similarities to Verne’s 1864 classic Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which a professor travels with his nephew and a guide to Iceland and from there through a volcano to the centre of the earth, crossing paths with beasts on the way. In The island at the top of the world our three “heroes” also encounter wild beasts (Vikings), volcanoes and weather phenomena, just like in Verne’s story. However, this Disney film is not supposed to be an adaption of the Verne novel; it was actually based on the novel The Lost Ones, written by Ian Cameron in 1961. Wether Cameron in turn was inspired by Verne we cannot say for sure, although who isn’t? Nevertheless, the story rip-off aside, The island at the top of the world offers enough entertainment for anyone, as there is much to look at in every frame. Wether it is the French airship Hyperion, amazing matte paintings, thrilling action or classic fantasy Vikings that captivate you, the film is a visual feast from start to finish, especially if you enjoy old-school physical special effects. Looking and feeling more like a 1950s technicolor fantasy, this action-driven film is a fun ride for the whole family.

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Fun indeed, but unfortunately the plot is also dominated by coincidences and accidents, something you’d expect in Disney cartoons but not in a relatively serious live-action adventure like this. There are no major plot holes, but that is only because there is plenty of exposition whenever a potential hole surfaces. Script-writer John Whedon, grandfather of Firefly creator Joss Whedon, probably identified his own plot weaknesses and introduced extra dialogue to avoid a more expensive production. It does not stop there though; the characters are paper thin, one-dimensional and stereotyped. The Frenchman is silly, the Englishman is arrogant and rude, the local native is scared and naive, the Vikings are mostly hostile, and the American is calm, sensible, smart and heroic. You can tell this is an American film just by looking at how nice the only American character is. The sole woman in the film, a pretty blonde (who is of course the daughter of the Viking chief), is only present as the son’s love interest, and as assistant to the rescue mission trio. There is actually no reason for viewers to root for the “heroes”; at no point do they generate any sympathy, not even when they are attacked by the Vikings, who only tries to keep themselves safe from the world around them. Adding insult to injury, none of the actors, including the Norwegian ones, do a great job. They’re OK, but the director’s lack of interest in performances aside, there is not much in the script to work with in terms of character depth and personal descriptions. Action movies don’t call for all characters to be deep and developed, but here no characters at all are worth remembering.

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The Vikings are of course stereotyped to a large extent, but here the writer seems to grab himself by his hair and pull himself up. Big beards are mandatory, it seems, but the Vikings are not always brutal warriors. They can be reasoned with, and fair deals can be struck. Their agression lies in protecting themselves and their land from outsiders. It’s interesting to note that the supposed antagonists are the best written characters in a silly adventure flick where it is expected that the heroes are the good guys.

This review was posted on May 8th to coincide with International Viking Day.

The concept of vikings having survived on a completely uncharted island in the Arctic is of course pure fantasy, but lost civilizations is a recurring theme in fantasy, and done fairly well here. The Vikings look more like barbaric Huns, but it’s futile to use that against the movie; obviously, even Vikings evolve over time and the fashion of their clothes, weapons, hats and beards should not be compared to 10th century Vikings. What is impressive though, is that all the Viking speaking parts are performed by Norwegians, with two exceptions, and those two were Swedish, so they count as Viking! In fact, several well known Norwegian actors took part in the film; Sverre Anker Ousdal, Rolf Søder and Lasse Kolstad, for example. Is this perhaps the non-Nordic Viking movie with most Scandinavian actors in it? Even if they speak a mix of (a dialect called) New Norwegian, regular Norwegian and Swedish, they consequently speak understandable Scandinavian, not some garbled fake Swedish Chef-type constructed Norse. What is more, their dialogue is not subtitled or dubbed, so some authenticity is present.

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The island at the top of the world – starring Donald Sinden, David Hartman, Jacques Marin, Mako, and Agneta Eckemyr – is an exciting popcorn fantasy with few dull moments that blends steampunk, adventure and Viking action in a type of mash-up we don’t see too often. The wafer thin characters are easily forgiven!

Rated 7 of 10.

Directed by Robert Stevenson.

USA, 1974.

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Review: The Vikings

A viking action-fantasy movie from the 50s, with Kirk Douglas? Sounds cheesy and historically incorrect enough! 

Non-Scandinavian thevikings1958dvdartmovies about the Vikings tend to dream up certain things that are not historically true, even if the movies do not intend to go all fantasy on us. The image many have of the Vikings comes from these incorrect (but still “realistic” movies), but there is no doubt that the movies are often more enjoyable because of these incorrectnesses.

The Vikings‘ plot is as follows: A princess from one of the many small English kingdoms is abducted during a Viking raid, and is destined to become the wife of Einar (Kirk Douglas), a son of a Viking chief (Ernest Borgnine). However, a slave (Tony Curtis) also falls in love with the princess, a slave whose past is so special that it entangles the relationship with both the princess and the chief’s son. Especially since the slave himself is not aware of his own past. The slave frees the princess from her viking capture and takes her to England, but Einar will have nothing of that and takes his men to England to get the princess back. With brute force the English castle holding the princess is taken over.

The plot is surprisingly intricate for an adventure movie of the 50s, in the sense that you have the superficial action and love story on one hand and the sub plot about the relationship between Einar and Erik the slave on the other hand. This brings a depth to the movie which is slowly unfolded and making it almost three dimensional, because you’ll realize that the action is not only there for its eye candy appeal, but because it means something more.

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For its time, the stunts are good, the fights spectacular, and the pseudo-realistic costumes and stage designs makes it all almost believable. I found the music to be not very Viking-ish though, and almost distracting in some places, but one clever thing I noticed was the use of short extracts of familiar music by Grieg at one point; a good way to illustrate the Norwegian-ness of the movie.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie; swashbuckling rugged heroes fighting over a woman in the exotic Viking era is a concept many will love.

Rated 8 of 10.

Directed by Richard Fleischer.

USA, 1958.