The Long Wigs
This weekend, I tried to watch The Long Ships. The film is an adaptation of one of the best books I have ever read, and while I certainly didn’t expect it to exactly live up to Bengtsson’s novel, neither did I realize it would be a disaster. How bad could a movie with Sidney Poitier be, right?
Well, turns out Poitier has said of the film that, “To say it was disastrous is a compliment.” (And how weird a piece of advertising copy is “Sidney Poitier in his first non-Negro role!” anyhow?) But I didn’t know this at the time, I went in expecting a movie that wouldn’t be great, but would at least be a fun swashbuckler with Poitier as a civilized Moor who would, I don’t know, turn up his nose at the Vikings before they all became buddies at the end. This was not what I found. There were a lot of glaring problems with this supremely dumb movie, but for awhile I barely noticed the myriad accents, the rapey characters, and the lazy extras due to one, simple thing.
Sidney Poitier’s Fucking Hair. I don’t know in what world they decided this was a good idea. One of the greatest actors of his generation, with one of the most iconic looks, becomes a third-rate R&B singer in every scene that he’s not wearing a helmet. The idea, I think, is that he’s supposed to be Middle Eastern, but Poitier in a wig looks about as Middle Eastern as… well, as when they cast random white people as Middle Easterners. I guess in 1964 it was OK to have a black man married to a white woman in a movie (see top image), so long as they were both playing a different race entirely.
Goddamn. I mean, there’s a lot to say about the film’s other problems. We finally stopped watching it entirely – no longer able to be drawn along even by the joy that that wig brought us — when a scene of a bunch of Vikings breaking into a harem, clearly intent on raping everybody was played for laughs. Also, everyone really does just do whatever fucking accent they feel like: our “hero” (who’s just the weird older brother in the book? why?) looks and sounds like he just stepped out of a western, and his father sounds like a Borscht Belt comedian, or Worf’s dad. Everything that made the book interesting is gone. This can sometimes work in a movie, but it isn’t replaced with anything even halfway intriguing or compelling. The book’s nuanced, but also darkly witty, look at cultural differences and entrenched amorality becomes “Go white people!” to the extent that a handful of shipwrecked Vikings are able to defeat a fucking Moorish cavalry from… well, whatever century this movie’s set in. Oh, and did I mention that there’s rape everywhere? Not in a “we know this is wrong but we’re joking about it” way either, it’s all, “It’s the 60s! Sex is fun! We deserve this!” And, on top of it all, the action isn’t even exciting!
And yet, I could’ve put up with almost all of that, if we’d gotten a few more scenes of Sidney Poitier chewing the fuck outta some scenery while wearing the most ill-advised wig ever, while extras flail about weakly in the background. Watching him sneer while sweating profusely under a fake perm is the definition of Movie Magic.
Too bad it’s a terrible, terrible fucking movie.