As you doubtless know already, screen legend Kirk Douglas died on Wednesday, 103 years old.
Born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York to Jewish immigrant parents, he turned a difficult, impoverished childhood into fuel for a red-hot film career. Whether he played good guys or bad guys, his characters always burned with an inner rage. It was impossible to be bored with a Douglas portrayal.
He played two Norwegian roles in his career (that I’m aware of) The Heroes of Telemark, and The Vikings, and I’m grateful for them. We sometimes make jokes about the Jewish Vikings in 1958’s The Vikings, but in one sense I’d say he was the best movie Viking ever. The film itself, in spite of some minimal efforts at authenticity within the limits of the scholarship of the day, is fairly cartoonish, though undeniably rousing. But Douglas himself (even beardless) caught the spirit of the Viking perfectly. It would be very hard for any actor today to match the swagger, the sheer, strutting male display that Douglas brought to the role.
In the clip above, he and some extras do a trick that’s recorded in the Saga of Olaf Trygvesson — running along the ship’s sides on the oars. Douglas insisted on doing the stunt himself, and was a good enough sport to leave his falls in.
Here’s a famous scene from the 1958 film The Vikings, where Kirk Douglas runs on top of the oars along the side of his ship.
I wonder how many people know that this scene was pulled directly from a passage in Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla. Snorri writes of King Olaf Trygvesson:
King Olaf was in all bodily accomplishments the foremost of all the men in Norway of whom we are told. He was stronger and more agile than anyone else…. One of these is that he climbed the Smalsarhorn and fastened his shield on the top of the mountain; and another that he helped down one of his followers who had before him climbed the mountain, and now could get neither up nor down…. King Olaf could walk along the oars outside the Serpent [his ship] while his men rowed. He could juggle with three daggers, with one always up in the air, and he always caught them by the hilt. He wielded his sword equally well with either hand, and hurled two spears at the same time.
You may have noted that Kirk Douglas did not quite match Snorri’s account of Olaf, as he had the men hold the oars horizontal and rigid while he ran, while Olaf (reportedly) did it while they were rowing. I’m pretty sure that latter thing is impossible, though, and what we see in the movie seems more likely.
Kirk Douglas turned 102 years old last December. Whenever I see
a picture of him today, I think of this scene, in which he seems the epitome of
physicality and masculine vigor.