You get strapping Alpha Males dressed in cool helmets. You get swordfights and looting and names like Ragnar and Rollo and Enid. Occasionally, there’s a blonde Norse-babe and, if you are lucky, even a falcon or fiery funeral at sea or two.
The current mini-series Vikings, which has been airing on the History Channel, has just been renewed for a second season. Created by Michael Hirst (who gave us Camelot and The Tudors) and filmed in picturesque Ireland, Vikings is an appropriately rugged macho adventure saga. The series centers on the heroic Ragnar Lothbrook (Travis Fimmel), a Norse warrior with expertise at pillaging Western lands, in the company of a crew that includes a sidekick, his son, a monk and his tough-as-nails wife (Kathryn Winnick). Standing in their way is a vicious Viking leader (hey, it’s Irishman Gabriel Byrne) who doesn’t want Ragnar to go on his expeditions. From the first episode on, the series doesn’t shy away from elaborate violent altercations, and may remind audiences of the Spartacus series on Starz, minus the nudity and extensive gore.
But Vikings isn’t the only offering these days getting into the Norse latitudes. November will see Thor: The Dark World, the sequel to the hit 2011 Marvel Comics adaptation ($181 million in the U.S.), coming to theaters, with Chris Hemsworth returning as the hammer-wielding hero. No doubt there will be a few direct-to-DVD wannabes in the mix, too. Also in the pipeline for the summer is Hammer of the Gods, described as “a bloody action epic set in an ancient world of ruthless violence in which a dying Viking king sends his son on a quest to seek out his older brother-the clan’s only hope for defeating an approaching enemy horde.” The British film—also the name of a book about Led Zeppelin–stars Twilight alumnus Charlie Bewley, Vikings co-star Clive Standen and Game of Thrones actor James Cosmo. Can the Hagar the Horrible film be far behind?
As a kid growing up in the 1960s, I had affection for all things Viking. I always wanted to go to Norway. I recall that one of the coolest TV commercials of the era was for Erik Filter Tipped Cigars. A Viking ship sails on a foggy river with a big city in the background. A blonde dude in a black turtleneck pulls a cigar out of the carton and lights up. He takes a puff and a blonde woman walks over. The commercial narrator says “Erik—still the most interesting idea from Scandinavia…since the blonde.” The woman snuggles up to the guy. “Erik—natural, menthol, cherry,” intoned the narrator.
No, I didn’t wind up smoking Erik Cigars, but I wanted to. Not only to get the blonde, but to look like that male model with the turtleneck.
Making an even bigger impact on me was The Vikings, the 1958 film starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, and a soon-to-be diced-and-sliced-in-the-shower Janet Leigh as the uber-blonde. Since I was one year old at the time of its release, I must have seen it on TV, probably on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies.” My father had a way of steering me towards guy movies, and this sure has his thumbprints all over it.
But aside from that current show Vikings, the 1958 effort and a few others, the subject of Vikings hasn’t necessarily had an easy voyage in theaters. Maybe that’s because the subject straddles different genres and calls for different approaches. You have action, of course. You have some history. And you have a fantasy element, especially when Odin, the Viking god and ruler of Asgard, comes into it. So which way does a filmmaker go? And will the audience respond favorably to a film that is likely to cost some major dollars?
It seems that potential Viking-related projects appear and disappear quicker than a horn of mead and a plate of skause in front of a pack of hungry Norsemen. There’s a long-in-the-works Mel Gibson picture that—for guess what reason?—will probably never come to fruition. There have been others bandied about, and perhaps they will get the go-ahead, since the TV series has performed well.
We’ve managed to come up with a list of Viking-oriented titles that are worth your attention. So, in the name of Odin, read on.
Prince Valiant (1954): The popular comic strip which debuted in 1937 became a colorful spectacle helmed by Henry Hathaway (True Grit), and starring Robert Wagner (in his first lead role) as the page-boy-headed hero. He’s the son of a deposed Viking king and queen who goes to England, where he trains as a knight for King Arthur. He plans to go back one day to help his family regain their power, but first he must defeat the Black Knight (James Mason) who is in cahoots with Sligon (boxer Primo Carnera), the evil leader who took the throne away from his family in the first place. Swordfights, jousts and bad haircuts. Who could ask for anything more?
The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957): Roger Corman directed this ultra-low-budget adventure in the exploitation trade. A group of hot Viking gals (led by Abby Dalton) go on a trip to find their missing men, but soon get into trouble encountering a huge sea creature and an evil tribe holding their men captive. Chintzy special effects! Stilted dialogue! “The Dance of Desire!” Stock footage! Tacky rear screen projection! In the name of Odin…
The Vikings (1958): This one has it all: battles, sibling rivalry, long ships, falcons, hawks plucking an eye out (ewwww), triumphant music, a blonde Welsh princess (Janet Leigh) and a macho, macho cast. Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) helms the mayhem that ensues when Viking half-siblings–warrior Elnar (Kirk Douglas, who also produced) and former slave Eric (Tony Curtis)—vie for the love of the princess. Enemies at first, and unaware they are brothers, the two eventually unite to battle the English king slated to marry the princess. It’s complicated but also comic book-y, with Douglas and Ernest Borgnine, as father to Kirk and Tony, chewing the glorious Norway location scenery.
Erik the Conqueror (1961) and Knives of the Avenger (1966): Speaking of Italian genre experts, Mario Bava (Danger: Diabolik, Baron Blood) helmed these two Italian Viking-oriented outings with American Cameron Mitchell in the leads. Erik the Conquerer is an unofficial remake of 1958’s The Vikings, with Mitchell abandoned as a child, along with brother Giorgio Ardisson. They later find themselves battling each other, with Mitchell as a Viking warrior and Ardisson as a British monarch. Made between Bava’s hits Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, Erik is an example of style over substance and budgetary restrictions, boasting impressive camerawork and exciting action sequences. Knives of the Avenger is a real mish-mash that stirs peplum, Norsemen, the supernatural and pirates into a saga that uses the story of Shane (!?) and the trappings of a spaghetti western. Mitchell is Rurik, a Viking loner who comes to help a woman and her son when an evil regent tries to threaten her.
The Long Ships (1964): Eight years after the box-office success of The Vikings, that film’s ace cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, took to the directing chair for this enjoyable tale that many people describe as “the movie with the big bell.” The “big bell” is, in fact, a huge golden bell dubbed “The Mother of All Voices,” and sought by both a Viking warrior (Richard Widmark) and a Moorish sheik (Sidney Poitier). Reportedly, the actors weren’t thrilled with the script; but the movie, though goofy in spots, manages to be entertaining and easy to watch, thanks in part to the Yugoslavian scenery and an opening sequence designed by Maurice Binder of the James Bond titles fame.
The Viking Queen (1967): Hammer Studios was behind this loony tale of Vikings and Druids and barely clad female characters…oh my! The title character is played by model Carita, whose mother was a Viking queen and whose late father was the king of the tribal Britons. Upon his death, Carita gets involved in a forbidden romance with a Roman official (Don Murray), and leads her people to revolt against the occupying Romans. Lovely Carita, Viking maiden, shines more with the sword, the chariot, and with glitzy armor than in the acting department.
The Norseman (1978): The box-office failure of this one put a dent in Viking movie production for a while. Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors sports a disco mustache and well-coiffed hair as Thorvald, a Viking prince from Greenland, who sets out to the New Land to rescue his father, King Eurich (Mel Ferrer), from the Native Americans that captured him. An aged Cornel Wilde, Christopher Connelly, Jack Elam, gridiron stars Fred Biletnikoff and Deacon Jones, and one-time Tarzan Denny Miller add to the macho level of this testosterone-fueled adventure.
Erik the Viking: The Director Son’s Cut (1989): The Vikings seem like a surefire target for spoofing, but despite the talented folks in front of and behind the camera, this one left audiences cold. Tim Robbins plays the title character, who has tired of looting and pillaging. He gets a calling to journey to a remote land, and find a magical horn that will end the bloodshed and misery. This was once a Monty Python project that went through a change after member Graham Chapman got ill. Director Terry Jones (Life of Brian) managed to recruit John Cleese to play Robbins’ nemesis as well as Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt and Imogen Stubbs. Oh, yes. This version is actually shorter than the already truncated theatrical version, as it was edited by Jones’ son, for whom the original story was written.
The Viking Sagas (1995): Michael Chapman, best known as a cinematographer for such films as Raging Bull and The Fugitive, helmed this violence-strewn epic with Ralph Moeller (TV’s syndicated “Conan,” Gladiator) as Kjartan, who battles evil Vikings out to snatch his father’s land and his gal. Kjartan gets help in his quest from a veteran warrior (Sven-Ole Thorsen, also of Gladiator). The action sequences are furiously gory, and Moeller is quite a presence, even without showing off his pecs.
The 13th Warrior (1999): This movie had all sorts of problems, including extensive reshooting, a title change (it was once called “Eaters of the Dead”), several delays in its release date and, eventually, its dumping by its distributor (Disney) when it was finally issued in theaters. Was it worthy of the problems? Based on a book by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and directed by John McTiernan (Die Hard), the picture stars Antonio Banderas as an exiled Arab ambassador during the 10th century who, along with his servant (Omar Sharif), joins a group of barbaric Vikings on a mission to stop demonic creatures wreaking havoc on the populace. The film was extremely cut down from its original two hour-plus running time to 103 minutes. We’d love to see the film restored, with its full sequences added to the thunderous Jerry Goldsmith score and excessive blood.
Pathfinder (2007): Karl Urban (Dredd, RED) plays a man of Viking heritage who was left in the New World and raised by Native-Americans. When a Viking pillaging party arrives, Urban must defend his adopted people from the marauding warriors. Likened to “the cover of a heavy metal album coming to life,” Pathfinder—a remake of a 1997 film—is light on depth but heavy on atmosphere (fog, backlighting, nasty weaponry), under the guidance of German director Marcus Nispel (the 2011 Conan, the 2003 Texas Chain Saw Massacre).
Outlander (2008): Another mish-mash of Viking lore and science fiction, this time with Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) as a futuristic time traveler who lands his ship smack dab in the middle of the 8th Century on Norwegian Viking turf. The problem is that he brings a beast called a Moorwen (a cross between the creature from Alien and a saber-toothed tiger) with him. Once the critter starts enjoying a smorgasbord of the area residents, Caviezel sets out to stop it. John Hurt is a king, Sophia Myles his sexy daughter, and Ron Perlman a Viking rival with lousy etiquette in this one-of-a-kind whatchamacallit. Who says you can’t bring a laser gun to a swordfight?
Valhalla Rising (2009): Anyone familiar with the films of Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson) should not be surprised by the level of violence in this unusual, blood-splattering spectacle. Mads Mikkelsen, the TV series “Hannibal” and the villain in Casino Royale, plays a mute slave who, upon his release into captivity, joins a slave boy and a crew of Christian Vikings on a mission. They are off to the Holy Land, but a navigation error because of heavy fog lands them in the New World, where they encounter new dangers. An unsettling—sometimes off-putting—mix of an Aquire: Wrath of God-like quest film, blood-soaked exploitation, and environmental fantasia, Valhalla Rising plays like The Vikings co-directed by Terrence Malick and Italian gore specialist Umberto Lenzi.