With the recent premieres of Ender’s Game and Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, we are finding ourselves awash in hyper-fantasy. Perhaps some hyper-reality would provide some perspective or balance, if not an antidote – and to that end, one can view The Viking (1931). This ‘Viking’ is not a flamboyantly costumed and muscle-bound Chris Hemsworth, nor even a follower of such. It is merely a vessel, carrying desperate and real-life mortals into jaw-droppingly dangerous ice floes off the coast of Labrador to support their livelihood, gathering seal pelts.
The first Canadian production to include sound, The Viking is also historically notable due to the deaths of producer and co-director Varick Frissell, cinematographer Arthur Penrod and 26 other members of the film and ship’s crews when they were attempting to film additional sealing and sea footage. This resulted in the use of more on-set footage than was intended, although these sequences were shot by top-notch professional George Melford, whose credits included the Spanish-language version of Dracula (shot in tandem with Tod Browning’s English version) and Rudolph Valentino’s star vehicle The Sheik. That these set pieces (and the rather cheesy plot of the film, which involves a love triangle including a ‘jinker’ — a Newfoundland term for human jinx, much like Noah — something contemporary Canadian director Guy Maddin would love) pale in comparison to the footage shot by Frissell is a testament to the incredible nature of that footage.
Frissell was a wealthy Yale graduate and was mentored by the pioneering documentarian Robert J. Flaherty, who directed films such as Nanook of the North and Man of Aran. Flaherty’s influence is obvious in the shots of life aboard The Viking, the ship’s battles to escape the ice and the seal hunting (in perhaps an early nod to political correctness, the baby seals whose ermine fur was so highly prized were all shown escaping from harm). A real-life celebrity also played a role as the The Viking’s commander: Arctic explorer Captain Bob Bartlett, who had accompanied Robert Peary on all his expeditions as well as countless others. He comes across here as a bizarre combination of a white Idris Elba with the voice of Elisha Cook, Jr.
The true star of this film is the cinematography. The shots of the seal hunters on the undulating floes and among the icebergs are some of the most incredible I have seen, all the more so for the fact that CGI wouldn’t come along for another 50 years. The risks these men were taking are not lost on the filmmakers, who don’t fail to note that “Not one man in one hundred could swim.” Of course, what would soon happen to many of these men merely stresses further why this is film the likes of which may not be created again.