Nordic Rowing Goes Hollywood

Movie poster for the film “The Vikings”.

19 April 2019

By Göran R Buckhorn

In mid-May 1957, 125 elite Scandinavian oarsmen gathered at the Sogne Fjord in Norway to play ‘rowing Vikings’ in Kirk Douglas’s movie The Vikings. In 2004, Göran R Buckhorn interviewed the only Swedish extra in the film, Göran’s own rowing coach, Tore Persson.

In the mid-1950s, there was an awakening interest in the Vikings in Great Britain and the USA. One of the reasons was probably that the Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson’s novel about Röde Orm was translated into English. Bengtsson’s highly acclaimed Viking two-volume novel, published in 1941 and 1945 in Sweden, was marvellously translated into English by the English scholar Michael Meyer, who later became well-known for translations of works by Strindberg and Ibsen. The novel about Röde Orm, published under the title The Long Ships, would hit the British and American booksellers in 1954. As a tremendous success on both sides of the pond, there was an immediate interest from Hollywood to make a movie based on Bengtsson’s Viking. Unfortunately, with the death of Frans G. Bengtsson in December that year a copyright problem arose.

Edison Marshall’s novel “The Viking”. Observe the dreadful horns on the helmet.

It is not known if the American movie star Kirk Douglas had read or had an interest in Röde Orm, but around 1956 he began thinking about making a movie about the Norsemen, a ‘western set in the days of the Vikings’, as he later would say. He contacted Richard Fleischer, whom he had worked with on the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Fleischer immediately agreed to direct Douglas’s new film, which was based on Edison Marshall’s novel The Viking. Douglas slightly altered the title of the film to be in plural, The Vikings.

Both Douglas and Fleischer decided that it should, as far as possible, be an accurate film about the Vikings. (For example, there are no horns on the helmets the Vikings are wearing in the film.) While Fleischer flew to Oslo to do some research at the Viking museums there and later continued his research in London, Douglas stayed in the USA to put together the film crew and cast. Douglas himself was going to play Einar, the hot-blooded son of the Viking chieftain Ragnar, played by Ernest Borgnine, who was six weeks Douglas junior! When Charlton Heston turned down the role as the Viking slave Eric, the offer went to Tony Curtis who accepted the part. Curtis’s wife at this time, Janet Leigh, was picked to play the ravishing Welsh Princess Morgana.

In the film, Einar sails to the British Islands where he kidnaps Morgana to be able to claim a huge ransom for her. He falls in love with her, but she is rescued by Eric, a slave who was taken by the Vikings when he was a young boy. Neither of the two men have knowledge that Eric is Einar’s half-brother and the heir to the English throne. At the end of the film, they fight each other to win the hand of Morgana.

Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine), Morgana (Janet Leigh) and Einar (Kirk Douglas).

Here is a trailer for the movie:

The film’s indoor scenes were going to be shot in a studio outside of Munich, some outdoor scenes in France, where the Vikings were going to storm a castle, and in Norway where a Viking village was built by a fjord. Two reconstructed Viking ships were also under creation at a Norwegian ship yard. A lot of extras were needed to play the people in the Viking village. But where on earth was Douglas going to find the people who would be able to row the two Viking ships?

In 1949, the Dane Erik Kiersgaard, who in his capacity of chieftain of the Viking ship Hugin, had sailed and rowed with a Danish crew to England. For The Vikings Douglas’s company Bryna Production contacted Kiersgaard to ask him if he could round up his old crew and maybe some other good men, who could act on the Viking ships. The production company had three demands of the crew: they had to be at least 180 centimetres tall, have a large beard, and be a skilled oarsman. Kiersgaard, who was an old rower, got in touch with his friends at the rowing club Danske Studenters Roklub in Copenhagen. He also put in ads in major Danish newspapers, looking for capable rowers.

The news likewise found its way to the papers in the town of Malmö, in the south of Sweden. Being just across the strait from Copenhagen, the local rowing club, Malmö Roddklubb, had had several crews racing at Danish regattas through the years. The club’s ‘star’ in the 1950s, Tore Persson, was a many times-over Swedish rowing champion and had several friends among the Danish rowers. He saw the articles and contacted some friends at Danske Studenters Roklub. ‘Sure,’ they said, ‘come over to the audition. You will be just fine.’ At this time, Persson did not have a beard; he had a handsome moustache a la Errol Flynn.

For the audition at the rowing club in Copenhagen, around 700 bearded and unshaved men had assembled – all showing great eagerness to be candidates for a rowing seat in a Hollywood movie. After some tests, 65 oarsmen were picked out, among them Persson. When they signed the film contract, the rowers promised to continue to be ‘rowing fit’, grow a real Viking beard and get a tan.

When the film rehearsals began at the Sogne Fjord – the ‘King of the Fjords’ – in western Norway, in mid-May 1957, 125 top Nordic oarsmen were gathered: 60 Norwegians, 64 Danes and one Swede.

‘None of us rowers had any experience acting in front of a film camera,’ Tore Persson said on a telephone line from his home in Malmö. ‘We rowed up and down the 140-kilometre long fjord day after day. At the end of the first week, after being filmed endlessly, the film crew told us that they now had two minutes of film that they could use.’ Persson sighed deeply in the phone, ‘It was take after take, again and again. “Very good you Scandinavian boys, but we will take it again”.’

The oarsmen sat on small benches and rowed. Everything was a perfect replica of a Viking ship. ‘Well, except for some things,’ Persson said, ‘the sails were made of light nylon, not the heavy cloth the Vikings used.’ He continued, ‘This actually made my work much easier. One of my tasks was to lash one of the halliards for the sail round a cleat when the sail was either to be set or hauled down. A cordial task with a nylon sail.’

Persson laughed when more recollections popped up in his mind. ‘Yes, then they had installed inboard engines on the ships. The engines were used if we quickly had to move from one location to another. And we rowed a lot, of course. Our boat with the Danish crew was superior to the Norwegians,’ he said contentedly.

Tore Persson (on the right) taking a break between takes.

After a couple of days of filming, the rolls of film were sent to London to be developed. When this was done, they were sent back to Norway with courier. ‘I particularly remember some shots that we did. A camera was placed up on a bridge, and with the help of a gigantic airplane propeller smoke was blown over the ships which would give the image of thick fog,’ Persson said. He continued, ‘We rowed and rowed, back and forth, take after take. Finally, the film crew said “Great, thank you!” We all breathed freely.’ Persson laughed, ‘When the film came back from being developed in London, you could clearly see how a cigarette packet and some other rubbish were floating by our boat – “Let’s take that all over again”.’

In his memoir, The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas reveals other problems that emerged during the production in Norway. The weather was the worst ever, it rained and rained. The time for shooting the film in Norway was set to be a month for Douglas, Tony Curtis and the other stars. The rain extended the time there by a month, which cost Douglas’s production company an extra million dollars.

In an interview a couple of years ago, the director Richard Fleischer especially recalled one classic scene from The Vikings. Through laborious research about the Vikings, Fleischer had found a Viking game that probably had not been done in a thousand years, ‘Run the Oars’. He hired a couple of stunt men to perform this hazardous act. The rowers were to hold their oars straight out from the boat. Kirk Douglas’ character Einar was to climb out on an oar and then walk or jump from one oar to another, without falling into the ice-cold water. When Douglas saw the stunt men exercising this, he immediately insisted upon doing it himself to the horror of Fleischer. Douglas performed it impeccably. ‘You needed to get a rhythm going, keep the momentum from oar to oar. If you slowed down, you had time to lose your balance,’ Douglas writes in his autobiography.

Run the Oars – do not try this at home or at your rowing club!

‘When I had been in Norway for five weeks, the stars Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh, arrived at the film set,’ Persson recalled. ‘Both Curtis and Douglas were in a good physical trim, and they would do a lot of different “stunts” like jumping over some of the horses that were used in the film. We who rowed had very little to do with the stars. When they arrived, they walked around looking at the properties and the Viking ships.’

He continued, ‘The actors and parts of the film crew lodged aboard the luxurious ship Flying Clipper, while we extras stayed aboard Soma, a run-down, old ferry. Although, the vessels were docked side by side, we never dealt with each other.’

Tony Curtis, as the Viking slave Eric.

After six weeks of filming, Persson and most of the rowers went home. ‘Some of the sharpest characters, the tallest oarsmen with the largest beards, went with the film crew to France to shoot the storming of a castle. Some of them also went to Munich to shoot some indoor scenes,’ Persson said.

In The Ragman’s Son, Douglas tells the story how of he organised a big party for the film crew and the Norwegian extras with a lot of food and drink. He and Tony Curtis entertained them and did some juggling. The audience went crazy and wanted more. What Douglas and Curtis did not know was that Janet Leigh was behind them doing a striptease act.

‘The next morning,’ Douglas’s writes in his autobiography, ‘the entire Norwegian crew went on strike. They wanted more money.’ Douglas was shocked. How could they do this after such a wonderful party the night before? Furious, Douglas called for a meeting of his film team. They went through the shots that remained to be taken in Norway. Can we do this scene on stage? And this one? It seemed that everything left could be done in Munich. Douglas decided, ‘It’s a wrap! Get everything together. We’re leaving.’

The Norwegians were startled and immediately change their minds and were willing to work for their original salaries. But Douglas felt betrayed. ‘I was angry and hurt,’ he writes. So, the film crew left for Munich.

Good-bye, Norway!

When I ask Persson about the party and the strike, he said, that this must have happened after the oarsmen had gone home. ‘While we were there, some representatives for the Norwegian extras told us that we ought to have a higher salary, but we were satisfied with what we got, and we had already signed our contracts,’ he said.

How was the pay? ‘Very good,’ Persson said. ‘I received 500 Danish kronor a week, free board and lodging and the trip to Norway back and forth paid. I brought my wife with me to Copenhagen to collect my salary. We smuggled the money into Sweden,’ Persson said and laughed. ‘For the money, 3,000 kronor, which was a lot of money at the time, we paid the down payment for a house in Malmö.’

Did Tore Persson get the taste for acting? Did he ever consider a film career? Laconically he answered, ‘No, too much waiting and too many re-takes.’

Kirk Douglas writes in his memoirs that The Vikings was a tremendous success when it went up in the American movie theaters on 9 May 1958. ‘Does he really write that?’ Persson said astonished. ‘When the film came to Malmö and Sweden, it was a total flop.’ He continued, ‘The Swedish film critics gave it unfavourable reviews. Of course, it is still a memory for life to have been in the movie.’

Before the interview came to an end, I comforted Persson by saying that there are de facto worse films about the Vikings than the one Kirk Douglas’s produced. Persson seems relieved when I told him that the film based on Frans G. Bengtsson’s The Long Ships, with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, which was released in 1964, received very poor reviews. In a January 2000 letter to me, the book’s English translator, Michael Meyer, wrote that ‘The film, of course, was one of the worst that ever came out of Hollywood.’

Tore Persson back home at the rowing club in Malmö after his short film career – still wearing his Viking beard.

One more memory Tore Persson still had, he never shaved off his Viking beard.

This article, in Swedish, first appeared in the Swedish Rowing Association centennial publication Roddmagazinet in March 2004 and then appeared the same year on Bill Miller’s website, Rowinghistory.net. Tore Persson was the article writer’s coach at Malmö Roddklubb, Sweden. Persson passed away in July 2014 at the age of 84. Read more here. The above version has been slightly polished, and some spelling and factual mistakes have been corrected.

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