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Nordic Rowing Goes Hollywood

By Göran R Buckhorn © 2004

This article, in Swedish, first appeared in the Swedish Rowing Federation's centennial publication Roddmagazinet in March 2004. The writer is an amateur rowing historian who in the 1970s had Tore Persson as a coach at Malmö Roddklubb. During a couple of years in the 1990s, he was the president for the club. Göran now resides in Mystic CT.


One of the replicas of a Viking ship in Kirk Douglas's movie The Vikings
shot in Norway in 1957

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 marvelously 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 literally 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 basted on Bengtsson’s Viking. Unfortunately, with the death of Frans G. Bengtsson in December that year, a copyright problem arise.

It is not known if the American movie star Kirk Douglas 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 in the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Fleischer immediately agreed to direct Douglas’ new film which was basted 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. (So 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 USA to put together the film crew and the cast. Douglas himself was going to play Einar, the hot-blooded son of the Viking chief Ragnar, played by Ernest Borgnine, who actually was two years 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’ wife by 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, of course, falls in love with her, but she is rescued by Eric, whom was taken as a slave when he was a young boy. None of the two men have knowledge that Eric actually 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.

The film’s indoor scenes were going to be shot in a studio outside of Munich, some out-door scenes in France where the Vikings were going to storm a castle, and in Norway where a Viking village was build by a fjord. Two replicas of a Viking ship were also under construction 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 Kirk Douglas’ 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 have to be at least 180 centimeter tall, have a large beard, and be a skilled oarsman. Erik 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 to 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 multitudinous Swedish rowing champion and had many 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 more a handsome moustache a la Errol Flynn.


A break before yet another take, Tore Persson on the right


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

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

When the film rehearsals began at the Sogne fjord, outside of Bergen, in mid-May 1957, one hundred twenty-five top Nordic oarsmen were gathered: sixty Norwegians, sixty-four Danes, and one Swede.

"None of us rowers had any experience acting in front of a film camera," Tore Persson says on a good 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 sighs 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 says, "the sails were made of light nylon, not the heavy cloth the Vikings used." He continues, "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 set or hauled down. A cordial task with a nylon sail."

Persson laughs when more recollections pop 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 says contentedly.

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 high bridge and with the help of a gigantic airplane propeller smoke was blown over the ships which would give the image of thick fog," Tore Persson says light-heartedly. He continues, "We rowed and rowed, back and forth, take after take. Finally, the film crew said ‘Great, thank you!’ We all breathe freely." Persson laughs, "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 memoirs The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas reviles other problems that emerged during the production in Norway. The weather was the worse ever, it rained and rained. The time for the shooting of the film in Norway was set to be a month for Douglas, Tony Curtis, and the other stars. The rain extended the time there with a month which cost Douglas’ production company an extra million dollars.

In an interview a couple of years ago, the director Richard Fleischer especially recalls one classic scene from The Vikings. Through laborious research about the Vikings, Fleischer had found a Viking game that probably had not be done in 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 is 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 to do 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.

"When I had been in Norway for five weeks, the stars Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh, arrived to the film set," Tore Persson recalls. "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." Persson goes on to say, "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 continues, "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."

After six weeks filming Tore Persson and most of the rowers went home. "Some of the sharpest characters, that is, 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 says.

In The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas tells the story how 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’ writes in his autobiography, "the entire Norwegian crew went on strike. They wanted more money." Douglas was shocked. How could they do that 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.

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

How was the pay? "Very good," Tore Persson says. "I received 500 Danish kronor a week, free board and lodging, and the trip to Norway back and forth paid. I had to bring my wife with me to Copenhagen to collect my salary," Persson says and laugh. "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."

So did Tore Persson get the taste for acting? Did he ever consider a film career? Laconically he answers, "No, to much waiting and to many re-takes."

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

Before the interview has come to an end, I am able to comfort Tore Persson in a way, by saying that there are de facto worse films about the Vikings than the one Kirk Douglas’ produced. Persson seems relived when I tell him that the film basted on Frans G. Bengtsson’s The Long Ships, with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, that was released in 1964, received very poor reviews. In a January 2000 letter to me, the book’s English translator Michael Meyer writes that "The film, of course, was one of the worst that ever came out of Hollywood."

One more memory does Tore Persson have, he never shaved off his Viking beard.

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