Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Tarkan Versus the Vikings (1971)

Even though Conan the Barbarian had been around since his first appearance in 1932 in the pages of Weird Tales magazine, it was a little more than thirty years before the most iconic depiction of him appeared in art form.  In 1966, Lancer Books got the rights to reprint Robert E. Howard’s original tales (edited, revised, and/or completed with the assistance of L. Sprague de Camp), and the painted covers were handled by the late, great Frank Frazetta.  Frazetta’s visuals solidified the Cimmerian’s look for all the years to come, and they encapsulated perfectly what the character was all about, being as beautiful as they are savage.  It can be argued that all barbaric characters created after have followed in Conan’s image, both as written and as drawn.  Now, I can’t say I know all that much about Turkish comic books (okay, I know nothing at all), but I believe that I can state confidently that Sezgin Burak’s Tarkan character is likely one that does.  If nothing else, Mehmet Aslan’s Tarkan Versus the Vikings (aka Tarkan Viking Kani aka Tarkan and the Blood of the Vikings) does a solid job of capturing the flavor of barbaric adventure stories and adorns it with enough garish, comic book accoutrements to make for a singular viewing experience.

Bloodthirsty (and I mean BLOODTHIRSTY; they gleefully slaughter infants) Vikings led by the bathroom-mat-wrapped Toro (Bilal Inci) attack a Hun Turk fortress and kidnap Yonca (Fatma Belgen), the daughter of Khan Attila (who is never seen) and her squadron of female warriors.  During the assault, loyal friend and loner Tarkan (Kartal Tibet) is wounded, and his “wolf” Kurt is slain.  Together with Kurt’s son (also named Kurt, apparently), Tarkan sets off to exact bloody revenge, more for the murder of his pet than to get Yonca and the other Turks out of captivity.

Tarkan Versus the Vikings is about as wild a film as you’re likely to see.  The emphasis is on energy, though it’s not something I would call competent, per se, and combined, they form the wealth of the film’s charm (from what I’ve been able to glean, this is the entire modus operandi of Turkish pop cinema).  This movie looks like it was edited in a blender, but here this is a strength not a detriment.  The lightning fast, almost nonsensical cuts form a montage akin to the layout of a comic book page (the key difference being that, in a comic book, the reader paces the story in tune with the artist/writer; with this film, the viewer is thrown in and left to his own defenses).  It jams as much as it possibly can into every minute (nay, second), then tries to pack it all down to stuff some more in.  There’s more action and convoluted plotting in this film’s initial thirty minutes than in the entirety of the last three Fast and Furious films combined.  

Additionally, the movie is as hyper-stylized and scintillating as any four-color comic book (or comic book movie, for that matter).  The Kraken-esque octopus that the Vikings sacrifice their captives to is as ridiculous as the titular beastie from The Giant Claw (also, I couldn’t help thinking that Robert Altman saw this film before making his adaptation of Popeye back in 1980).  The Vikings’ hair almost universally consists of poorly attached, vibrant wigs (one of which flies off an extra’s head when Tarkan gives him the business).  Those whose hair was merely dyed for the production are even more unnatural than those wearing hairpieces (they’re not blonde, they’re yellow).  Their shields are dotted with radiant puffs of fur.  The female Vikings are decked out like the flag for the Rainbow Coalition.  To wit, Viking King Gero’s (Atif Kaptan) daughter Ursula (Eva Bender) is togged in lustrous pink fur, and so on.  This whole review could simply be a list of every gaudy, slapdash bit of costuming, scenery, etcetera, but I’m comfortable with stopping at these.  Suffice it to say, this film isn’t merely a comic book projected on screen; it’s a cartoon in live action (ironically enough, the polar opposite of every blockbuster action film made today).

The film takes an odd perspective on women.  They are generally regarded as strong and strong-willed.  Yonca’s platoon of female furies that guard the fortress are described as worth ten men each.  Ursula and her shipload of female Vikings bear as much responsibility for plundering as any other boat full of seamen.  The Chinese villainess Lotus (the breathtaking Seher Seniz) commands her minions with ice cold practicality.  She also uses her sexuality prominently.  She beds down with men she either respects for their masculinity and/or wants to put in a vulnerable position to drug (something she loves doing).  Her death strip/dance in the film’s back third is equal parts tense, bizarre, and titillating.  Since these women are posited as equals to the men in the film, there are zero qualms about killing them in the same brutal fashion as a man would be.  Needless to say, many a hatchet is planted in a woman’s cranium throughout the picture.  By that same token, women are also very much sex objects to be used and abused.  Women are hung by their hair for hatchet-tossing practice (sometimes over a pit of vipers, sometimes not).  On the Vikings’ big festival day, the Hun Turk women are brought in to be raped and killed at will (and often at the same time, as women are stabbed and then groped and kissed as they writhe in their death throes).  Women are whipped often (but, in fairness, so are men).  Despite what power they are allowed to wield, the women in this film still cater to the prurient interest of both the male characters and the audience.  It’s an uneasy balance (if a balance is even struck).

If you thought that the motivation for revenge in John Wick was a bit farfetched, you’d best strap yourself in for Tarkan Versus the Vikings.  His wolves, Kurt and Kurt, are, in Tarkan’s mind, true Turks, as worthy of respect and loyalty as any human.  The elder Kurt teaches the younger how to be a good Turk, training him on table manners (and these dogs…sorry, wolves…eat up at the table the same as any person would).  Kurt’s son helps Tarkan heal (I assume by finding herbs and shit around the area).  The wolves are so equivocated to man, there’s a sequence where Tarkan and the younger Kurt attack a group of Vikings, and the viewer is treated to an entire sequence vacillating between Tarkan lopping off men’s heads and Kurt ripping out their throats.  It feels a bit like a fight scene from the 1966 Batman television show sans the hard Dutch angles and onomatopoeic effects overlays.  

For all its disjointedness and ludicrously po-faced absurdisms, Tarkan Versus the Vikings is a damned good time.  Obviously, it will never make a hall of fame for technical prowess, but every moment of its runtime is dynamic.  It’s a constantly moving predator, like the myth about how sharks can never stop swimming.  I was just a bit reluctant to dive into this film, but having come out the other end of it a different man, I feel the need to indulge in as much Turkish pop cinema as I possibly can.  Will it be as entertaining and worthwhile as this little gem?  Absolutely not, but the first step in finding gold is to just start digging.

MVT:  The energy of the film is infectious.  It sweeps you along like some half-crazed, drunk idiot friend who wants to hit every bar in a ten-mile radius.  And somehow manages to do so.

Make or Break:  The attack on the Hun Turk fortress.   It fully illustrates where the film’s bloody heart lies, veins and all.

Score:  7/10 

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