Mario Bava’s career was largely symptomatic of, and shaped by, the Italian film industry. During the post-war years, studio emphasis was extremely commercially focused; the industry wasn’t interested in producing or promoting critically acclaimed work and instead capitalised on the fact that audience members were starved of genre content during the Second World War.
Italian genre films were produced at a steady rate, and the focus on selling as many tickets as possible led to Anglicised names and heavy dubbing to appeal to the foreign market, the use of freelance crewmembers to turn films around as quickly as possible,
and the reworking or retelling of popular international genre films – particularly horror, science-fiction and fantasy. Many were censored under the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini such as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X The Unknown (1956), and The Blob (1958).
Bava began his career as a freelance cinematographer and developed a varied skillset that allowed him to ease into directorial roles. This was because he worked quickly, delivered to studio specifications across several genres, and allegedly didn’t ask questions when he undertook uncredited roles across several productions. Unofficially, this included co-director roles on genre staples such as I Vampiri (The Vampires, 1957), La morte viene dallo spazio (Death Comes from Space/The Day the Sky Exploded, 1958), both of which are regarded as the first Italian horror and science-fiction film respectively, and L’ultimo dei Vikinghi (The Last of the Vikings, 1961).
The latter film is a French-Italian mythological/historical film (French title: Le Dernier des Vikings) officially directed by Giacomo Gentilomo. It is classified as part of a sub-genre of Italian cinema known as the peplum, though the term can be used to describe films in other national cinemas. Hugely popular in Italy between 1958 and 1965, before they were overshadowed by Spaghetti Westerns, Eurospy, and Poliziotteschi films, these ‘sword-and-sandal’ costume dramas or historical epics, so named for the garments often worn by characters within the films, were largely concerned with Biblical, Roman and Greek stories. L’ultimo dei Vikinghi was one of several pepla Bava directed in 1961. It was the first of two Barbarian or Viking peplas he worked on during that year, the other being Erik the Conqueror (Gli Invasori/The Invaders, 1961), a loose Italian remake of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958).
The film stars George Ardisson and Cameron Mitchell as Viking brothers separated during an English invasion. While Eron is rescued and returns home to Scandinavia, Erik is left behind and raised by the Queen (Françoise Christophe). Years later, fate draws the brothers together again during further conflicts (they even fall in love with twin vestal virgins played by Alice and Ellen Kessler) in a tale of violence, treachery, and redemption. Unlike its American counterpart, the film is infused with Bava’s stylistic flair, only enhanced by the 2K restoration from the original camera negative in Arrow Film’s special edition release. The use of coloured lighting lends the film an ethereal glow that works beautifully with the mythological elements. Landscape or scenery shots are breathtaking and, when combined with the richly coloured costumes and elaborate set design, truly invoke the spiritual themes of the tale. The immersive experience is only heightened by the glorious score from frequent Bava collaborator Roberto Nicolosi. However, the film has been criticised from a narrative perspective, with critics arguing that the dramatic tension of Fleischer’s film has been lost in favour of the stunning visuals.
The tension between the industry control upon the film, the commercial choice to rework a successful international narrative, and Bava’s personal creative approach is fascinating and explored in depth in the documentary Gli imitatori. Here, the producer of the new release, Michael McKenzie, discusses comparisons between the film and The Vikings as an unacknowledged source text. McKenzie takes into account the differences between the two films, arguing that the Gothic and Catholic imagery and symbology within Erik the Conqueror sets it apart as a distinctive Bava film, instead of it simply being a close retelling of Fleischer’s work.
Further analysis can be found in a newly recorded audio commentary from Tim Lucas, author of the masterful Mario Bava: All the Colours of the Dark (2007). Lucas is one of the most knowledgeable sources on Bava’s career, and his insight covers all aspects of the production of Erik the Conqueror, from dramatic elements, to Bava’s signature iconography, and the clever use of stock footage instead of costly special effects. This is very much complimented by author and critic Kat Ellinger’s essay for the collector’s booklet. For those lucky enough to obtain a copy, it positions the film within Bava’s wider filmography, noting how his works within the horror genre largely informed the aesthetic and style of Erik the Conqueror.
The myriad of special features continues. The newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys is stunning, as usual, and is presented in a reversible sleeve. As well as the original Italian and English mono audio, which is lossless on the Blu-ray disc, this edition features newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack, and optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing on the English soundtrack. Overall, another success from Arrow Films; aside from the beautiful print, this edition will introduce horror fans not too familiar with Bava’s other genre work to the peplum film, and its rich history and place in Italian cinema. The special features ensure that it is simultaneously a truly interesting exploration of the post war years in the Italian film industry, and Bava’s role within it.