Reel Streaming: The Bad Boys of Viking Cinema are Back!
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 78
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good Viking film—well over a decade, by my estimate—and have instead subsisted on the occasional installment of the History Channel’s Vikings series. But there’s a rousing one coming to U.S. theaters on April 22 in the form of The Northman, the third movie from the American filmmaker Robert Eggers, whose previous two efforts were the lauded horror entries The Lighthouse (2019) and his 2015 directorial debut The Witch.
With The Northman, writer/director Eggers graduates from the smaller, modestly budgeted cinematic worlds he previously created to Hollywood filmmaking on a much grander scale. Eggers’s third feature, initially budgeted at $65 million but pushed to closer to $90 million with Covid-related delays and pricey safety protocols, is, as it’s described on its official website, “an action-filled epic.” It boasts a major cast that includes Alexander Skarsgård, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang and Willem Dafoe.
Written by Eggers and acclaimed Icelandic author Sjón, The Northman was reportedly inspired by the medieval Norse legend of Amleth—a figure who served as the direct inspiration for the character of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s dramatic tragedy by the same name.
The story follows a young Viking prince (Skarsgård) who sets out on a quest to avenge the death of his father (Hawke), who has been murdered by his uncle (Bang), and to save his mother (Kidman) in the process. Hmmm…it sure sounds like Hamlet to me, which elevates it from “action-filled epic” to the “revenge thriller” category.
The film was shot from August through December, 2020 on the Inishowen Peninsula in the Republic of Ireland, in Torr Head and Ballygally in Northern Ireland, and on the Svínafellsjökull glacier in Iceland. This lengthy schedule followed a five-month delay due to the pandemic.
By all accounts, the shoot was as difficult it sounds and required filming many scenes in the wilderness. In early March, star Skarsgård told Total Film Magazine, “the days were really long and hard, and we were out in the mud and up on these mountaintops in the wind and the cold. It was definitely a waking-up moment and a humbling experience.”
The Northman had its world premiere in London on last week on April 5, and though official reviews are still under embargo, the word is that film is a good one—brutal, violent, epic and audacious. That’s something you could possibly say about any good Viking movie out of Hollywood or Europe, even as most throw historical accuracy to the kind of winds that powered the real-life Northmen’s longships.
As an appetizer for Eggers’s much buzzed about film, here’s a roundup of seven very watchable earlier Viking epics spanning nearly as many decades. The majority of them are violent, a couple of them are funny and one is downright sweet. But all capture the physicality and spirited nature of that frequently savage group of Scandinavian seafarers who raided, pillaged and conquered their way across the Middle Ages.
The titles are available on major streaming platforms and waiting for you to take the plunge. So, slip on your forged iron helmet, grab yourself a drinking horn of mead, and show no mercy!
The Vikings (1958)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Kirk Douglas is a Viking prince, Tony Curtis is a slave and his half-brother, and Janet Leigh is a distressed Welsh damsel in the granddaddy of Hollywood Viking epics. Shot in glorious widescreen Technicolor by the legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, The Vikings is big, brawny, barbaric—and a whole lot of fun. And after all the sword-and-battle-axe-driven raiding, looting and violence, there’s a fiery Viking funeral at sea to wrap things up.
Erik the Conqueror (1961)
Directed by Mario Bava
A loose remake of The Vikings, this Italian-French epic stars Cameron Mitchell and George Ardisson as long-lost brothers—Mitchell is a Scandinavian Viking, Ardisson an English general—whose peoples wage all-out war against each other on the English countryside. Italian genre veteran Bava, best known for his atmospheric horror offerings, also handled screenwriting, cinematography and special effects chores for this one and it shows in the film’s vivid and violent battle sequences.
The Long Ships (1964)
Directed by Jack Cardiff
Based on Swedish author Frans Bengtsson’s seminal 1943 Viking adventure novel of the same name, The Long Ships retains very little from its source material as it capitalizes on the success of the Viking films that came before it. The story centers on the search for a giant golden bell by both a Moorish king and a shipwrecked Viking, portrayed by Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark, respectively. The performers are game and director Cardiff mounts some lively battle scenes, which are undoubtedly informed by his earlier gig as the director of photography of The Vikings.
Erik the Viking (1989)
Directed by Terry Jones
Writer-director Terry Jones of the Monty Python troupe tapped his own 1983 children’s book The Saga of Erik the Viking for this British comedy-fantasy. Tim Robbins starts as the titular young Viking who realizes that he isn’t as interested in raping and pillaging as much as he is in traveling to Asgard to petition the Norse gods to delay the end of the world. A cult favorite of Python and Norse mythology lovers, Erik’s oddball cast also includes Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt, Imogen Stubbs, Python’s John Cleese and Jones, himself.
Directed by Howard McCain
This 2008 science fiction-historical epic mash-up stars Jim Caviezel as a humanoid alien whose spaceship crash lands in Viking-era Norway, bringing with him a ferocious intergalactic predator who raises hell across the land. After settling in with the locals, Caviezel’s Kainan goes native, hooks up with a princess, forges a bunch of swords and axes out of alien steel and joins his fellow Vikings in hunting down the nasty extraterrestrial.
Valhalla Rising (2009)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
The always-compelling Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen stars as One-Eye, an enslaved Norse warrior in the Scottish Highlands who escapes his captors with a boy and joins a group of Christian Crusaders in sailing off on a quest for the Holy Land. According to writer-director Refn, this most violent and merciless film of the bunch derived its title from combining of the names of underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s rough-and-tumble short films Scorpio Rising (1963) and Lucifer Rising (1973) with a Viking theme.
How To Train Your Dragon (2010)
Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
This DreamWorks Animation hit focuses on good-natured teenage Viking Hiccup (the voice of Jay Baruchel), son of the village chieftain, who dreams of hunting dragons—until he becomes the improbably friend of a young dragon himself. This computer-animated fantasy adventure also features the familiar voices of Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill and Kristin Wiig and not as much blood, mud, fire and fierceness as its brethren.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.