Tarkan vs. the Vikings / Tarkan and the Blood of the Vikings / Tarkan Viking Kanı* (1971) -***½
I feel confident in predicting that no Western filmmaker is going to come out with a movie in which the hero is a Hun anytime soon, let alone build a five-picture series around such a character. As a culture, it seems like we just never quite got over that whole “invading the Roman Empire” thing. The Turks, however, have a rather more favorable opinion of Attila and his people. For one thing, invading the Roman Empire (or at any rate, its successor state, the Byzantine Empire) is literally the thing that put Turkey on the map, so that practice has very different associations over there. But that isn’t the only sense in which the Turks identify with the Huns. In the West, the precise ethnic, linguistic, and cultural affiliations of the Huns are a matter of much scholarly debate. The Huns left no writing, so their history, to the extent that it was recorded at all, was set down by the sedentary peoples whom they made their living plundering. Their language is known almost exclusively from the personal names of their leaders, which have inevitably been distorted by transposition into foreign tongues. Their movements around Eurasia can be tracked only via the indirect evidence of archeology, cross-referenced with mentions of Hunnish-sounding barbarians in ancient chronicles and inscriptions— and even then there are significant uncertainties. We can be reasonably sure for a variety of reasons that the “Hunni” of the Latin sources are the same people as the “Chounoi” in their Greek contemporaries, but the case is less than watertight for the “Huṇa” of the Sanskrit sources or the “Xiongnu” of the Chinese. About as much as Western historians are universally prepared to agree on is that the Huns were probably a confederation of Turko-Mongol tribes, and that they spoke an Altaic language akin perhaps to Chuvash and Avar. Turkish writers, on the other hand, are having none of that ambiguity. With the “close enough for irredentism” attitude that seems to characterize nearly everybody who ever ruled a significant portion of the Balkan peninsula, they assert that the Huns were Turks not merely in the broad sense that would encompass every people from the early Medieval Bulgars and Khazars to the modern Uyghurs and Kazakhs, but also in a narrow sense that would make them lineal ancestors to the inhabitants of today’s Turkey. So when the Turks got it into their heads to start making sword-and-sandal fantasy adventure films in the mid-1960’s, of course their stand-in for Hercules and Maciste was a Hun.
Obviously the complete extinction of the Hunnish language and the traditions associated with it were something of a problem for that enterprise. Whatever legendary heroes the Huns might have had were a thousand years forgotten, so would-be makers of Turkish para-peplums had to seek their source material elsewhere. They found it in another popular art form that was taking flight in 1960’s Turkey, the comic strip— specifically in the Tarkan comics of Sezgin Burak. Burak had been cartooning professionally since 1953; by 1967, when the first Tarkan story began serialized publication in Hürriyet Magazine, he was living in Milan, where he came under the influence of the same artistic scene that produced Guido Crepax. That made Burak’s work a good fit for the movies, for reasons above and beyond its tremendous popularity, because Turkey’s newly ascendant commercial film industry (in contradistinction to the “serious” cinema favored by both the critical establishment and the Kemalist government) was also strongly influenced by Italy. Turkish filmmakers were copying everything from Eurospy movies to gialli, even mounting unauthorized adaptations of Italian supervillain comics. The earliest Tarkan movies were just as unauthorized (evidently Turkish copyright law in those days was every bit as lax with regard to homegrown properties as it was toward international imports), but starting in 1969, Arzu Film undertook to bring Tarkan to the screen legitimately (whatever that meant in the context of Turkey’s anarchic intellectual property regime). Tarkan vs. the Vikings was the third Arzu Tarkan film, and to the best of my knowledge, the only one currently available in English-language release.
Tarkan vs. the Vikings is going to make vastly more sense if I tell you up front that Tarkan, having been orphaned as a baby when a party of Alan raiders destroyed his village, was rescued and brought up by a pack of wolves. That origin story was revealed in the comic serial, The Silver Saddle, and presumably figured in the film adaptation of the latter from 1970. One of Tarkan’s “brothers” from the pack— which he has imaginatively named “Kurt” (the Turkish word for “wolf”)— has been his constant companion ever since, and is frankly the brains of this operation. Sometime between the end of last movie and the beginning of this one, Kurt sired a son— which Tarkan, even more imaginatively, has also dubbed “Kurt”— and both wolves (just pretend the two nondescript, brownish mutts look something like wolves, okay?) have followed Tarkan into the service of the internationally notorious Attila.
Anyway, the specific service which Tarkan (Kartal Tibet, who starred concurrently in another series of period adventure epics beginning with 1965’s Karaoğlan: The Hero Came from Altai) and the two wolves are rendering to Attila right now is to escort his daughter, Yonca (Fatma Belgen, from The Martyr of Genghis Khan), to a fortress well behind the border in the westward reaches of his domain. That turns out to be not one of the brighter decisions Attila ever made. Not that Tarkan isn’t worth a small army all by himself, but this particular outpost has been stripped of most of its garrison to facilitate new conquests elsewhere, leaving it staffed mainly by the soldiers’ admittedly fierce and warlike wives. Beyond that, the havoc wreaked by the Hunnish hordes has left nothing but lawless no-man’s-land on the far sides of Attila’s frontiers— no-man’s-land which offers an irresistible temptation to other barbarians. Foremost among the latter are the Vikings, and even as Yonca and her escort take up residence in the fort, a powerful Norse raiding party is sailing into attack position. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, frankly. Leaving aside the point that Attila had been dead for some 330 years before the Vikings began making trouble for anybody but each other, the westward reaches of Attila’s empire were located in what we now think of as Austria and Slovakia, and the body of water on which Toro (Bilal İnci, of Tarkan and the Silver Saddle and Kilink: Strip and Kill) and his warriors are sailing looks much too wide to be the Oder or the Vistula. Be that as it may, Toro’s men quickly breach the Huns’ main gate and overwhelm the skeleton garrison. Tarkan catches two arrows in the upper back early in the fighting; Kurt the Elder gets run through with Toro’s own spear; the few remaining Hunnish men are slaughtered; and those of the women who allow themselves to be subdued— Yonca included— are led away into captivity.
The capture of Yonca, indeed, was the entire point of the raid. Although Toro is subordinate in theory to Gero (Atıf Kaptan, from The Armless Hero and The Golden Prince in the Land of the Giants), lord of all the Norsemen, he has been intriguing on his own with Lotus (Seher Şeniz, who manages to be less convincingly Chinese than Christopher Lee was in all those European Fu Manchu movies), daughter of the Chinese emperor, Lienpu. Lienpu wants Yonca as his concubine (and perhaps also as a hostage against Hunnish incursions into his own territory), and so Lotus has hired Toro’s clan as mercenaries to bring about the acquisition. Gero knows nothing of this, and he is incensed when Toro comes back to Oslo or wherever with his ship’s hold full of Hunnish honeys— what, is the stupid fucker trying to provoke a war with Attila or something?! No… but Toro is trying to score badass points in the eyes of Gero’s followers, so that a critical mass of them will support him in a coup for the throne of the Northlands. Apparently massacring the Huns and stealing their women is just as big a crowd-pleaser as the wannabe usurper had hoped, because the next thing Gero knows, he’s being shackled to a wooden frame on the shore of the bay overlooked by his castle, and Toro is wearing his royal helmet. What’s with the waterfront confinement, you ask? Well, Toro doesn’t figure on the old king being out there very long. The bay is home to a giant octopus, and the Vikings have it trained to recognize the presence of a prisoner on that scaffold as equivalent to the ring of a dinner bell. So long, Gero.
Nor is that the end of Toro’s palace revolution. If you take a quick look around the castle, you’ll notice that the only women in evidence are the ones Toro brought with him as captives. That’s because Viking women are fighters like their men (indeed, they’re rather better fighters, if the rest of this movie is any indication), and Gero’s daughter, Ursula (Eva Bender, from Thirsty for Love, Sex, and Murder, who would return to the Tarkan series as a different character in Tarkan and the Gold Medallion), currently has them all out raiding and pillaging. When her ship comes in, Toro tries to parley the change of regime into an engagement between him and the princess, but evidently not even Viking women are that barbarous. Ursula winds up on the octopus rack herself, only this time Toro’s plan to consolidate his power hits a snag. Octopus-wrangling duties are entrusted to Orso (Karamurat’s Hüseyin Alp), a giant, mute halfwit who is almost strong enough to stand up to the monster in a one-on-one grapple. Orso has always liked Ursula, and he rebels at the idea of her becoming reverse calamari. No sooner does the octopus surface to collect Ursula than Orso clouts it between the eyes with a boulder and cuts the princess free. Gratefully taking Orso with her, Ursula rounds up her crew and makes a strategic withdrawal across the bay, from which position she will lay her plans for reclaiming her father’s kingdom.
Tarkan, meanwhile, has been recovering from his injuries. I know, I know— two for-fuck’s-sake arrows! You’re forgetting, though: Tarkan is a Hun. That means he’s also a Turk, and that means he’s tougher than death. The first thing Tarkan does when he’s sufficiently his old self to stand up and dig a hole is to give Kurt Sr. the closest thing to a hero’s funeral that can be had with only two mourners. (Can dogs actually weep? Like, with tears and everything? Serious question— I’m a cat person, and I honestly don’t know.) And as soon as he’s completely healed, he swears himself (and Kurt Jr. of course) to vengeance on the wolf’s behalf, not just against Kurt Sr.’s killer specifically, but against Vikings in general. Let us pause here to be perfectly clear on this point. Getting Yonca back for Attila will indeed be a factor in the ensuing anti-Viking quest, but the real reason Tarkan declares personal war on an entire nation is because some son of a bitch killed his dog!
So that’s two enemies Toro has gunning for him. There’s a third, too, but in Lotus’s case, the enmity is nothing personal. In fact, she rather likes Toro. It’s just that her father considers it beneath him to pay mere barbarians to supply him with concubines, even when he’s agreed to do exactly that. The passage of time in this movie is somewhat contorted, so it’s hard to say exactly how long Lotus waits before making her move, but the night does eventually come when she drugs her host into a stupor, and has her retainers spring Yonca from Toro’s dungeon. That, conveniently enough, is the same night that Tarkan begins pursuing his vendetta in earnest, and he coincidentally passes by the inn where the Chinese have stopped after the first leg of their eastward journey. Tarkan sees the stolen Viking longship on the beach outside the inn, and making the obvious assumption, charges inside with sword drawn. The innkeeper (who I gather is supposed to embody unflattering Turkish stereotypes about Jews) assures Tarkan that there are no Norsemen on the premises, although he can offer no explanation for why the Chinese should be traveling aboard a vessel built in the Viking manner. Nevertheless, Tarkan will soon get the fight he desires, for Toro has sent two separate forces out to overtake Lotus and recapture Yonca. The first of these arrives just as the guests at the inn are all sitting down to dinner (well, all the guests save Yonca, who is tied up in Lotus’s room), and it goes almost comically badly for them. The second, led by Toro’s right-hand man, Erik (Tarık Şimşek), catches up to the Chinese at the end of a chain of events that basically establishes the pattern for the whole rest of the film.
Let’s take it from the top, then, since it is so important: 1. Lotus cozies up to Tarkan in the hope of figuring out what makes a man wander the Earth picking fights with Vikings ten and fifteen at a time, and discovers via the ensuing conversation the connection between him and her captive; Yonca, meanwhile, sees them together through a ventilation grate or some such thing, but is too securely bound and gagged to get Tarkan’s attention. 2. Lotus slips Tarkan a mickey just like she did Toro, with the aim of sneaking away from the inn before he can discover that she is, in a sense, just as much his enemy as the Vikings. 3. Yonca frees herself and starts raising hell just as the drugs are starting to take effect, so that Tarkan ends up having to hack his way through Lotus’s men even though he’s too looped to stand up without listing heavily to starboard. 4. Lotus brings Yonca back under control, and orders her last surviving lieutenant not to slay Tarkan even after he succumbs to the drugs, on the grounds that so long as he’s following them, they won’t have to worry about being followed by any Vikings. 5. The Chinese fall into Erik’s clutches the very instant they regain the upper hand, laying the groundwork for the next set piece. 6. Throughout the aforesaid action, Kurt Jr. keeps trying to save Tarkan’s ass, but the big, dumb lug simply will not cooperate. Again, Tarkan vs. the Vikings will riff on that sequence about every five to fifteen minutes for the remainder of the running time, so that somebody— be it Yonca, Ursula, Lotus, Orso, or indeed Tarkan himself— is perpetually in need of rescue from enemies who are first defeated, then de-defeated, then re-defeated by somebody else, usually with the result that a different character starts off the following episode tied to the figurative railroad tracks (which more often than not means being tied to the literal octopus scaffold). And each time, we’re left with the impression that if Kurt Jr. could just get his paws on a pair of opposable thumbs, he could cut that fool Hun loose, and go into business as a hero in his own right.
The thing I find most fascinating about Tarkan vs. the Vikings is that it is almost completely without formal story structure. The action doesn’t really build toward a single distinct climax, the way one generally sees in Western drama or literature. Rather, stuff happens. Then more stuff happens. Then even more stuff happens, until eventually screenwriter Sadik Şendil apparently just runs out of stuff. Very likely this stems from Şendil following the meanderings of the comics in much finer detail than would most Hollywood writers; I’m in no position to say for certain, as I’ve never actually seen the comics, but I’d bet that someone who had read Blood of the Vikings would recognize most if not all of the original chapter breaks in the film version. Either way, all those reverses and counter-reverses make Tarkan vs. the Vikings one of the busiest movies I’ve ever seen, in both good ways and bad. On the downside, it does get tiring after a while, because the formlessness of the story makes it difficult to gauge its progress, or to situate yourself within the flow of the narrative. But on the upside, it’s impossible to get bored by this movie. Something is always going on, generally something involving lots and lots of inept but enthusiastic sword-fighting— or alternately, something involving either Lotus or Ursula peeling off her clothes and bounding into bed with Tarkan. The latter happens with considerable frequency, and it’s rather startling to see so much sex and nudity (the latter glimpsed but briefly in any given scene, to be sure) in a film from a majority-Muslim country. Granted, 20th-century Turkey was hardly today’s Iran or Saudi Arabia (Mustafa Kemal and his successors were often downright brutal in their drive to transform the postwar rump of the Ottoman Empire into a secular, European-style nation-state), but this is still lightyears removed from the traditional Islamic emphasis on feminine modesty. That being so, it may be significant that Yonca never joins the party, as it were. Ursula and Lotus, as a Viking and a Chinese respectively, are foreigners, whereas the Hunnish Yonca is, for the purposes of the filmmakers and their audience, a Turk. Nevermind that the Huns were never Muslims— hell, nevermind that there would be no Islam until nearly two centuries after the disintegration Attila’s empire! I can’t help but think it significant that the one major female character who even approaches conventional notions of proper Islamic womanhood is the one who is defined within the context of this story as Turkish.
I suspect, however, that none of the foregoing will be on the average Western viewer’s mind while they watch Tarkan vs. the Vikings. No, I imagine most such viewers will be far too busy marveling over the myriad ways in which this movie resembles an army of overgrown kids playing a madly inventive game of dress-up make-believe. Let’s start with the Vikings’ costumes, which appear to have been made from colorful shag bath-mats and toilet skirts. I’m sure we’re supposed to interpret the Norsemen’s clothes as primitive contrivances of hide and fur, but I ask you: what animal on Earth grows pelts in those shades of purple, pink, and periwinkle?!?! And the wigs! By the Prophet’s beard, those wigs! A couple of Toro’s men look like they’re wearing Raggedy Anne and Andy’s scalps under their helmets, and what’s more, they’ve got moustaches to match. Now consider the octopus. In a weird way, it’s truer to life than some other, better-funded movie cephalopods I could name, because its limp tentacles and inflatable sack trunk reproduce the physics of a boneless molluscan body much more accurately than a more technically sophisticated approach might. The fact nonetheless remains: this ostensible man-eating sea monster is an inflatable rubber sack with a pair of googling eyes appliquéd to the front. Even the soundtrack is something a resourceful child could devise, consisting as it does of cues raided from the scores to The Lion in Winter, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Patton, all of them readily available via soundtrack albums in 1971. Indeed, there are a couple of points where what sounds like vinyl surface noise suggests that the filmmakers may have employed exactly that expedient to access the pilfered music! I find the naivety of it all enchanting, and I dearly hope some bilingual movie geek is out there right now preparing fan-subs for a bootleg edition of all the other Tarkan films.
*The Turkish version of the Latin alphabet includes a few letters that ours doesn't, and it assigns very different values to some of the letters that English-speakers will recognize. That being the case, I thought it wise to include a rough pronunciation guide: