Some of the acting is hammy, and some of the dialogue deliberately corny, but The Long Ships is the type of adventure film you see as a kid and never forget. If, like me, you bother to hunt it down in video after all these years, you’ll find it still has scenes which pack a powerful punch.

The entire film revolves around the search for “The Mother of Voices,” a legendary bell forged of solid gold and “as tall as three tall men.” Suffice it to say that the people searching for it aren’t interested in its musical value. Richard Widmark is the roguish son of a Viking thane, who seeks the bell to rescue his father from financial ruin. While caught in a maelstrom which eventually claimed his ship and crew, Widmark had heard the bell tolling off in the distance. As such, he’s the only person alive who knows the bell really exists, and who has an idea of its whereabouts. By scrounging up a crew of believers and stealing his king’s funeral ship under the cover of darkness, he sets out in pursuit of it once more.

Complicating matters is Sydney Poitier, king of the Moors in Africa. He too, has heard the legend of a giant bell of solid gold, and lusts after it with an obsession. When Widmark’s ship gets wrecked on the African coast, the Vikings are taken captive by Poitier’s soldiers. In exchange for their freedom, Widmark and his men agree to bring Poitier the bell.

Some of the scenes which make this film memorable:

  1. When the Vikings wash ashore on the African coast, they are soon attacked by the Moorish army on horseback. Like true Norsemen, they hold their ground stubbornly, and the Moors beat a hasty retreat. But the retreat is only temporary, and when the second wave of the attack comes, we’re treated to an awe-inspiring sight. The entire horizon is filled with Moorish soldiers on horseback rapidly advancing from the distance, the sun flashing off their shields up and down the line as they furiously charge forward. Widmark and his men wisely choose to surrender.
  2. While the Vikings are in captivity, they’re treated to a demonstration of the “Mare of Steel” in the city’s public square. Picture a three-story playground slide, only with a razor sharp steel blade jutting up where the sliding surface should be. For overkill, there’s a pad of steel spikes at the bottom. The victim is escorted to the top and forced to slide down on his stomach head-first. Do these Moors know how to have fun, or what? But the most interesting part occurs when it comes time for the demonstration. To prove to Widmark the courage of a Moorish soldier, Poitier has his wife select one of his own soldiers to ride the Mare of Steel. She walks along the line, then stops and looks one directly in the eye. “Do you believe in Allah?” she inquires. When the soldier nods in the affirmative, she says sternly, “Then go.” His eyes widen momentarily, but then he does as he’s told. If you’re like me, you probably would have balked at sacrificing your life in such a meaningless manner. But the more you consider it, the more you realize the soldier had very little choice.
  3. Reaching the source of the tolling bell, Poitier and Widmark find a decrepit building overlooking a cliff. Poitier eagerly rushes inside, then emerges moments later with the look of a man who put all his money in the stockmarket the day before the crash. Widmark sees this and runs into the building with an air of foreboding. He finds an empty room, with a small golden bell dangling from a chain in the center. At first he gently swings it back and forth in bewilderment, but then gives it a frustrated heave which sends it crashing into the wall. Suddenly, a deafening ring reverberates through the air. Beneath the adobe (or whatever it is), the entire dome of the building is the bell!
  4. As the crew attempts to carefully haul the bell down the mountainside, the chains break loose. The bell goes tumbling down the slope, rolling over men and trees while bellowing one resounding peal after another. Finally, it topples over the cliff and plunges into the ocean. This relatively short sequence stuck indelibly in my mind for years since I saw it as a kid, and even today the special effects hold up extremely well.

Much of the credit for the effectiveness of this film has to be given to director Jack Cardiff and the rousing musical score written by Charles Albertine. For Cardiff’s part, he goes out of his way to provide stunning visuals which convey an unusually rich feeling of time and place. For example, when the crew first spots the building on the clifftop, instead of cutting back and forth between the building and the men, Cardiff gives us a single shot which includes both. Then, as the men rig the bell to bring it down the mountain, the shot is composed so we also see the Viking ship resting on the ocean far below. The result is the feeling that everything we’re witnessing on screen is actually happening as it’s being filmed, rather than being an artificial construction assembled in the editing room.

I discussed this movie with a friend many years ago, and he recalled a similar film where the legendary object being hunted was an ornate cannon. If this rings a bell with anyone (no pun intended), please drop me an e-mail.

ADDENDUM (3/08/01): Mark G. wrote in to say that the movie with the cannon is The Pride and the Passion. Made in 1957, it starred Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Sophia Loren, and was set in 19th century Spain. Cool.