Erik the Conqueror

| September 12, 2017

The Blu-ray era has been very kind to the legacy of legendary Italian director Mario Bava. Even in earlier home video formats, Bava’s incredible eye for striking compositions and color palettes has been obvious. But Blu-ray has led to some major restorations of some of his best work, including Arrow Video’s releases of The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace and Kino Lorber’s releases of The Whip and the Body and The House of Exorcism among others. Until now, however, none of Bava’s peplum films have made the jump to HD. Arrow’s new release of Erik the Conqueror (1961) makes a solid case for bringing the master’s other “sword and sandal” epics to Blu-ray as soon as possible.

The film opens with the English army led by treacherous Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi) massacring a village of peaceful Vikings in hopes of expelling them from the island forever. In the confusion of the battle, the sons of the Viking king are separated: one is returned to the land of the Vikings, the other adopted by Queen Alice of England (Fran├žoise Christophe) to be raised as her own son. Twenty years later, Eron (Cameron Mitchell) is a high-ranking Viking warrior and next in line to be king himself–so long as he can keep secret his affair with Daya (Ellen Kessler), one of the kingdom’s vestal virgins. Erik (George Ardisson) is named Duke of Helford and sets off with all the ships of England to conquer the Vikings. But Rutford still has his eye on the throne, and sends a spy to sabotage Erik’s mission. The paths of the brothers cross again and again, but will they learn the truth in time to avoid a tragedy? Or have Rutford’s machinations already insured his victory?

Erik the Conqueror was “inspired” by Richard Fleischer’s 1958 film The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis as Viking brothers–Curtis’s character is even named “Eric.” But while The Vikings was an American studio film distributed by United Artists, Erik the Conqueror was produced on a much more modest scale in Italy. Bava makes up for the lack of the kind of sweeping location shooting that helped make The Vikings a success by turning the land of the Vikings into a surreal underworld. It is introduced during a ceremony in which the vestal virgins dance before the execution of one of their number who broke her vow of chastity: she and her lover are strung up on a raised platform adorned with skulls while the virgins dance before a massive tree bathed in lurid purple light. While there are no overtly magical elements in the film, Bava’s approach here is very much like his work on Hercules in the Haunted World. He uses imaginative and outrageous lighting and staging to mask the film’s comparatively meager production values, and does so to great effect.

The film itself is highly entertaining, with Cameron Mitchell giving a fiery and compelling performance as Eron. Despite the title of the film, Eron feels like the principal character here. Erik is much less interesting, although how much of that is weaker writing and how much may be Ardisson’s blandly handsome presence is up for debate. There is quite a bit of action, including opening and closing battles on a surprisingly large scale. Anyone looking for historical accuracy will obviously want to look elsewhere, but for a rousing action epic with top-shelf cinematography and direction Erik the Conqueror is an excellent film on its own merits. Arrow Video has restored the film in 2K from the 35mm camera negative, and as with their previous work on Bava’s films it looks spectacular. Here’s hoping Hercules in the Haunted World and Knives of the Avenger are next in line for Bava on Blu-ray!

Arrow Video released Erik the Conqueror in a Blu-ray/DVD combo set on 29 August 2017. Special features include a new audio commentary by Tim Lucas (author of All the Colors of the Dark, the definitive book on Mario Bava), a 1989 audio interview with Cameron Mitchell conducted by Lucas running over an hour, a 12-minute featurette comparing Erik the Conqueror with The Vikings, and the film’s lost original ending shot sourced from a very rough-looking VHS tape. The first printing of the release also includes a collector’s booklet with writing on the film by critic Kat Ellinger of Diabolique magazine and the podcast Daughters of Darkness.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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