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    Sword play

    “The Vikings.”
    United Artists/File
    “The Vikings.”

    War was really hell back in the days when you had to hack your enemy to death, but vicariously experienced on the big screen it can be very entertaining. The sequel “300: Rise of an Empire” is the most recent addition to a genre that is the cinema substitute for the gladiatorial contests of old. Here are five deserving of two thumbs up.

    The Vikings (1958)

    The History Channel series about marauding Norsemen has nothing on Richard Fleischer’s rip-snorting spectacle. Unbeknownst to all, a slave (Tony Curtis, pictured) and a ruthless warrior (Kirk Douglas) are both sons of the Viking chief (Ernest Borgnine). Their relationship does not end well. The raids on English settlements and the drunken orgies are beautifully shot, but it’s the haunting theme music that will play in your head forever.

    Universal Pictures

    Spartacus (1960)

    Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis are together again in Stanley Kubrick’s monumental depiction of the slave revolt that almost destroyed Rome. Douglas plays the title gladiator leader; Curtis is a juggling jester. “The best of the spectacles,” writes Scott Bryson. “And kudos to Douglas for staying with blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in spite of pressure from the right wing.”

    Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

    “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

    Not big on spectacle (Arthur and his knights ride imaginary horses with clopping coconuts for hoof beats), this parody of the legend has spawned more bad imitations of good jokes than any other movie. The knights who say “ni,” the limbless Black Knight, the Holy Hand Grenade . . . You know them all, but they’re still funny.

    Caligula (1979)

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    Never before have so many great actors appeared in a film reviled by so many critics. Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell (in the title role), John Gielgud, and Helen Mirren all starred in this X-rated extravaganza about the psychopathic Roman emperor. “One has to wonder if the stars were aware of the sexual hijinks behind the scenes with director Bob Guccione,” writes reader Russell Bastoni. Could they have been any worse than the depravity on screen?

    Excalibur (1981)

    The movie that made Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” background music for everyone’s fantasies about chivalric carnage, John Boorman’s take on the Arthurian legend revels in its visual beauty, lethal heroics, and clamorous battles between knights. The return to battle of a gimpy Lancelot is especially rousing.

    COMING UP: March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day and Irish eyes will be watching movies about the Ould Sod. Which will leave them smiling? And for March 23, the Academy snubbing of Ulysses from “Inside Llewyn Davis” demonstrates the need for a best feline performance Oscar. Which great movie cats would be deserving of one? Cast your votes at

    Peter Keough can be reached at