The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages/Filming the Middle Ages

By Aberth, John | Film & History, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages/Filming the Middle Ages


Aberth, John, Film & History


Kevin J. H arty, ed., The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. Illustrated viii + 228 pp. ISBN 978-0786460441

Bettina Bildauer, Filming the Middle Ages. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2011. Illustrated 264 pp. ISBN 978-1861898081

The Viking Age, when the denizens of Scandinavia raided throughout Europe and beyond from roughly 800 to 1100, has not been well served by the movies. It has yet to receive the definitive or canonical treatment, for example, that has been accorded to other popular medieval film subjects such as King Arthur, the Crusades, Robin Hood, the Black Death, or Joan of Arc. Therefore, an essay collection devoted exclusively to cinematic portrayals of the Vikings is perhaps a welcome addition to the scholarly canon on medieval film, since it re-focuses attention on what can be considered a neglected child or orphan of the film industry, even though it can be questioned whether the current representatives of this genre really justify all this attention being paid to them.

To this day, Viking films are overshadowed by a 1958 production, called simply The Vikings (based on the Edison Marshall novel), directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis as the Viking half-brothers, Einar and Eric; it also featured a Mario Nascimbene score that is still used in Ricola cough-drop ads. Inevitably, this perpetuated a "Hagar the Horrible" stereotype of the Vikings that persists in the popular mindset, but which is now badly outdated according to most recent scholarship about the Vikings, which has drawn attention to their other, more peaceful and positive contributions, such as trading and exploration. Two former members of the Monty Python troupe (Terry Jones and John Cleese) attempted a send-up of The Vikings and all it represents in the 1989 film, Erik the Viking, which actually provides the most thoughtful commentary to date on Viking culture by smashing clichés about Viking mythology (the gods are here portrayed as children), berserk warrior culture, and even rower seating arrangements (!). Yet it failed to achieve the cult, iconic status that Monty Python and the Holy Grail did within the Arthurian genre. Most recently, films have appeared based loosely on the poem, Beowulf, and on imagined encounters between the Vikings and Native Americans in North America (for example, Pathfinder and Valhalla Rising from 2007 and 2009), but these are only peripherally concerned with Viking culture and do not get at the heart of how medieval Vikings should be remembered. Rumors are that MeI Gibson is planning a new Viking film (using Old Norse language and a script co-written with Randall Wallace, his collaborator from Braveheart) that attempts a sympathetic portrayal going beyond rape and pillage, since according to him "there's never been a good Viking film," but the genre still awaits its champion.13

Out of the fifteen essays in Kevin J. Harty's Vikings on Film, only one is by an historian, Christopher Snyder, who reviews Clive Donner's Alfred the Great (1969). Even though Vikings figure large as the bad guys of the film, Snyder's review focuses mainly on the film's portrayal of Alfred's reluctance to be king of Wessex, one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England at the time of the Viking invasions in the ninth century. Other essay topic choices in a collection that is supposed to be focused on the Vikings are also questionable and frankly puzzling, since Vikings seem to be peripheral to other themes or interests of the authors. Thus, there are two essays on the Prince Valiant films (1954 and 1997), based on Hal Foster's comic strip, which seem to belong more in the Arthurian genre; one essay on Hrafn Gunnlaugsson's The Shadow of the Raven (1988), a re-telling of the Tristan and Isolde story, which again belongs more in the Arthurian tradition; one essay on the Pathfinder films (1987 and 2007), which owe their inspiration to a legend of the Sami people, an indigenous tribe in the far north of Norway and Sweden; and two essays respectively on The 13th Warrior (1999) and Outlander (2008), both re-tellings of the Beowulf epic, which, although set in Scandinavia, is written in Old English and thus reflects an almost inseparable mix of Anglo-Saxon and Viking culture. …

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