R.I.P. Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier and Italian actress Rosanna Schiaffino in the “rowing” movie The Long Ships, which was released in 1964.

10 January 2022

By Göran R Buckhorn

The brilliant Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier KBE, who was also a film director, activist and ambassador, died on 6 January, aged 94. Poitier was born on 20 February 1927 in Miami, Florida, when his parents were on a weekend-visit from The Bahamas.

He was the first black man to win an Oscar for best actor, for Lilies of the Field in 1963, which also rendered him the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor that year. Throughout his career, he received several awards for his acting and other accomplishments. Queen Elizabeth II granted Poitier a knighthood in 1974 and President Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Poitier was ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan between 1997 and 2007 and ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO from 2002 to 2007.

Some of Poitier’s famous films are from the 1960s: A Patch of Blue (1965) and To Sir, with LoveIn the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (all three 1967). During that decade, he made 16 films, including The Long Ships (1964), which is (extremely) loosely based on the Viking novel with the same name by the Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954).

As it happens, Frans G. Bengtsson is my favourite Swedish author which I have mentioned in a few articles on HTBS. Bengtsson was a poet, essayist, critic, biographer and one-title novelist; he was a true man of letters. Nowadays, Bengtsson is best remembered for his novel about the Viking Röde Orm (Röde Orm, two volumes published in Sweden in 1941 and 1945), which was given the title The Long Ships when it came out in one volume in an English edition in 1954, the same year Bengtsson died.

However, already during the Second World War, an English translation of the first volume came out in America, Red Orm (1943), translated by Barrows Mussey and published by Scribner. For some unknown reason, the second volume was never even considered to be published by Scribner – their loss!

Nevertheless, the translation called The Long Ships published in Britain by Collins in 1954 is superb. It was translated by Michael Meyer (1921-2000), an Oxford scholar, poet and, also he, a one-title novelist, The End of the Corridor (1951), a hard-to-come-by book these days (and if you find it, it is not cheap).

In a May 2009 HTBS article, I wrote:

Many other English translators had refused to translate it [Bengtsson’s novel], as, Meyer writes in his witty essay “Frans G. Bengtsson to his translator”, the “money offered was so pitifully low, ten shillings […] a page.” But Meyer decided to have a go at it, and the Swedish author, who had a degree in English, promised to check Meyer’s translation. The result is luminous. If you decide to only read one Swedish novel in your lifetime, The Long Ships has to be it!

In 1958, movie star Kirk Douglas released the film The Vikings based on Edison Mashall’s novel The Viking [sic!], which became a success at least in the U.S. To capitalise on Douglas’s movie and El Cid (1961), directed by Anthony Mann, which grossed “$26.6 million during its initial theatrical run”, according to the Wikipedia entry about the film, Jack Cardiff came out with the Anglo-Yugoslav adventure film The Long Ships in 1964.

It is said to be based on Frans G. Bengtsson’s novel and stars Richard Widmark (as Rolfe), Sidney Poitier (as the Moorish King Aly Mansuh), Russ Tamblyn (as Orm) and Rosanna Schiaffino (as Queen Aminah). Read the film plot here.

Here a 3,5-minute trailer of The Long Ships (with one short rowing scene):

Let it be said here and now – the film has almost nothing to do with Bengtsson’s novel, more than the title.

Although, it is several years ago I last saw the movie – I have it on an old VCR tape somewhere – I can still remember that I thought it was a disaster. Of course, against better judgement and although I know the background of both the book and the film, I cannot help to compare the two. I am glad that Bengtsson never got the chance to see how his masterpiece was butchered on the big screen. The film critics gave it poor reviews when it was released in 1964.

When the movie was released in Sweden it was given the title Röde Orm och de långa skeppen (“Red Orm and the Long Ships”) to try to utilize the popularity of Bengtsson’s novel.

After Michael Meyer had translated Bengtsson’s novel, he translated plays by Strindberg and Ibsen and also wrote highly praised biographies about the two Scandinavian playwrights. The Swedish Academy awarded him, as the first Englishman, the academy’s Gold Medal in 1964. He was appointed a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1971 in London and a Knight Commander of the Polar Star in Sweden in 1977.

Meyer also wrote plays himself. If you are interested in Meyer and the London theatre life in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, I highly recommended his entertaining autobiography Not Prince Hamlet – Literary and Theatrical Memoirs (1989).

I had the great pleasure to meet Michael Meyer in September 1995 when he gave a lecture at a dinner party given by the Frans G. Bengtsson Society in Lund, Sweden. It was the most funny and enjoyable lecture and dinner party I have ever attended. Meyer was kind enough to sign my copy of The Long Ships after the dinner. We struck up correspondence for a while afterwards, he from his flat in Montagu Square in London and me from my small flat in Malmö.

In a letter from spring 2000, Meyer summed up what many readers of The Long Ships thought of the screen version. Meyer wrote: “The film, of course, was one of the worst that ever came out of Hollywood.”

Not even the splendid actor Sidney Poitier could save that movie.

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