Why is cinema so obsessed with Vikings?

Feature Craig Lines 3 Mar 2014 - 06:57

From epic sagas to superhero movies, Vikings have been around since the dawn of cinema. Why are we so obsessed with them?

Between 792 and 890 AD, the Vikings invaded pretty much everywhere they could; apparently raping, pillaging, murdering and doing all that brutal malarkey you've seen in the movies. They've been labelled the global terrorists of their day by some historians. Yet now, in 2014 AD, you can't walk into a supermarket without seeing at least a couple of Viking movies in the Top 40 DVDs. We just can't get enough of these guys.

So why? Arguably, the easiest response is that the Vikings represent lawlessness, rebellion, an anti-authoritarianism that will always hold some romantic allure. They built a bunch of bad-ass looking boats, sailed to distant lands and successfully fought the Christian menace who oppressed them and their old ways (and, by happy coincidence, held significant amounts of land and gold). It's a win whichever way you look at it - they were sticking it to The Man, getting rich quick and looking cool while they did it. They integrated themselves into the myriad countries they invaded, to the point where pretty much anyone can lay claim to SOME kind of Viking heritage nowadays - and, if you can't validate it with facts, there's enough myth out there surrounding them that you could just make it up!

Between the 10th Century and 18th Century, however, we heard little about Vikings in the history books. Assimilated into so many cultures, they lost their fascination and became just another unsavoury footnote in the gradual economic, social and cultural development of the western world. Until... Along came the Victorians! I do love the Victorians and their childlike sense of historical wonder. As an anxious, existential type myself I can relate to them as a culture. They were lost in a rapidly changing world. Significant developments from the Industrial Revolution to Evolutionary Science had the poor Victorians in a spin so they clung to a rose-tinted past.

These are the same Victorians who, if they liked it, put a Byzantine dome on it. Same Victorians who'd visit the burial sites of long-dead kings and chip bits of the stone noses off the tombs to take home as souvenirs. They were obsessed with where they came from because they couldn't face where they were... and they LOVED Vikings. Of course, being Victorians, romanticism took precedence over historical accuracy so they took natty horned Bronze Age helmets and transposed them onto their conquering Norse heroes, thus creating the modern image of the Viking.

It's easy to understand what the attraction was. There were few things Victorians liked more than a good spectacle and the Vikings inarguably would've given one of those. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 792 AD, wrote this wonderfully evocative description of the Viking sacking of Lindisfarne: "Foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky." Marvelous. I can't imagine a Victorian whose whiskers wouldn't be set a'quivering by fiery dragons. Of course, this last bit hints at the other side of the Vikings' appeal. In addition to the reality of slaughter, booty plunderin' and miscellaneous badassery, the Norse myths and legends were beautiful, outlandish, endlessly fascinating. I mean, Christianity has its merits but do they have a specific God of war and battle? Or a hammer-wielding super-sexy one devoted to thunder and lightning? I think you'll find they do not.

It's no surprise then that Vikings found their way onto film soon after its invention. Their first appearance is acknowledged to be The Viking Bride (1907), a silent short about a warrior who rescues his bride from a rival tribe of Norsemen, but this is only one of many similar efforts of its age (many of which no longer exist). Fun fact: the very first feature to be shot in Technicolor with a full soundtrack was The Viking (1928), a account of Leif Ericson and his discovery of North America. They got the technology to use colour and sound and what was the first thing they wanted to do with it? Vikings, of course! Sadly, the film wasn't a huge success. Ten years later, producer Herbert T. Kalmus speculated that the problem may have been the facial hair: "the Viking hero true to character had a long curling mustache, whereas American audiences prefer their lovers smooth-shaven."

Despite this hairy blip, the Vikings remained a go-to group for action and adventure throughout much of the 20th Century and, unlike most historical factions, Vikings have almost always been exclusively a genre proposition. You won't find a Merchant-Ivory drama about Vikings or much in the way of worthiness but they've stamped their mark on action/adventure, fantasy, horror and even sci-fi throughout the decades. The Vikings (1958) is arguably the pinnacle of the genre in terms of recognisable quality; a big-budget epic full of A-Listers like Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis which kinda recycles the plot of The Viking Bride - two brothers fighting over a princess - but provides high-quality thrills on a dazzlingly grandiose scale. Mario Bava would remake it as Erik The Conqueror (1961) in a more flamboyant comic book style and with the German blonde Kessler twins adding substantial levels of glam to the proceedings.

But of course, Roger Corman had realised even earlier than Bava that you didn't need millions of dollars or indeed any grasp of historical accuracy to hook an audience's interest. Viking Women And The Sea Serpent (1957) pits a bunch of scantily-clad B-girls in a rickety home-made "longboat" against a dodgy toy snake. There's even one scene where viewers can see a viking woman wearing sunglasses, but it all has the ramshackle charm of early Corman and was a big hit with the Drive-In crowds. Here, the main appeal of using the Vikings was that they didn't wear a lot of clothes. Hammer took this reasoning yet further in its steamy Viking Queen (1967) which didn't actually feature any Vikings in the strict Norse sense of the term but had plenty of dudes without clothes running rampage through the old English countryside and the frequent sight of stunning Finnish fashion model Carita Järvinen in skimpy armour ensured viewers didn't ask too many questions...

Throughout the 70s and 80s, the trend to explicitly put Vikings in the movies dwindled. One significant attempt to revive the genre was The Norseman (1978), which pitted Lee Majors (majorly miscast as a Viking leader) against Native Americans in a historically ludicrous mess which flopped and has since appeared on many "Worst Films Ever" lists. The public, primed by all the earlier rewriting of history, were quite happy with total fantasy now and Sword & Sorcery films set in faux-mediaeval made-up worlds replaced the need for actual historical romps (interestingly, one of the most popular of these - Conan The Destroyer (1984) - was directed by Richard Fleischer who, all those years before, had shot The Vikings with Kirk Douglas).

Vikings got relegated to the B-Bucket, appearing only in films like Berserker (1987). Although hardly of significance, I single this one out because, despite the daftness, it's one of my favourite films to feature Vikings. A gory, underrated 80s slasher in which a bunch of modern-day teens go camping in the woods and get picked off by a berserker; one of the (possibly fictional) Viking warriors who took hallucinogenics and wore the skins of animals into battle. It's actually one of the more fun and imaginative entries from the late 80s slasher boom and shows that sometimes a well-placed Viking can spice up even the stalest of ideas. The 80s ended with Terry Jones's Erik The Viking: A Middle Ages Crisis (1989) in which the titular character hates being a Viking. He finds raping and pillaging all very upsetting and this, while hilarious as an idea for a comedy, also perhaps takes the temperature of cinema audiences at the time. No one wanted to play at Vikings any more.

Post-millennium however, Vikings have come back with a vengeance. Perhaps it goes back to the same feeling the Victorians had - of change happening too fast for society to handle. We're in a worrying, transitional time now, hurtling into the digital age at a rate of knots. Everything from how we consume our media to how we socially interact to how we conduct business is changing and the complexity causes anxiety (not to mention the global economic crisis). Cue the resurgence of a yearning for simpler times; when all a man had to do was sharpen up his sword and jump on a longboat and the world was his oyster.

The New Wave of Viking Cinema is split two ways. On one side, gritty and realistic; on the other, new extremes of quasi-mystical fantasy. At the most 'realistic' end of the scale must surely be Severed Ways (2007), a micro-budget feature that eschews any attempt at plot in favour of documentary-style footage of two Viking settlers and their survival in the forest, all set to a haunting black metal soundtrack. That said, the filmmakers perhaps took realism too far. While the idea of a matter-of-fact mumblecore film about Vikings is admirable, I'm not sure I needed to see a guy commit "unsimulated defecation" (as the BBFC politely put it) on camera.

Current darling Nicolas Winding Refn's Viking effort, Valhalla Rising (2009) also strives for grittiness and realism (although there's a ironically complete lack of historical accuracy). In typical Refn fashion, the near-wordless muscle-bound protagonist is drawn into a loose-fitting narrative that builds to a dizzying orgy of excessive violence. All very manly. A similarly bleak style was employed in Viking: The Darkest Day (2012), a grim, violent story of a monk protecting the Lindisfarne Gospel from Vikings (and Celtic Pagans to boot), amidst a backdrop of the eerie British winter. These low-key films all share one thing in common; a desire to put the viewer right into the unpleasantry; the violence and filth of the Viking Age brought vividly to life rather than the Technicolor fantasies we saw in the 50s/60s.

On the other side of the spectrum are the movies that either base themselves on Norse myth or just pit Vikings against any old fantasy monsters of choice. Hell's Warrior (2004), for example, features Craig Sheffer as a time travelling Viking who commands an army of vampires. The film ends with him fighting his father, the King, in a Swedish disco (no, really). More conventionally, there have been many takes on Beowulf - the most famous of Norse legends - in the last decade. At one end, the mega-budget Neil Gaiman-penned Beowulf 3D in 2007 (which featured Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother, complete with CGI feet mutated to look like stiletto heels!). At the other, a SyFy movie from the same year (called simply Grendel) featuring an embarrassed-looking Marina Sirtis and a host of the forbidden horned helmets.

Thor is, of course, the elephant in the room of this article. The comic books have endured throughout the majority of the time covered in this piece and now the movies are smashing box office records left, right and centre. It's total fantasy but is perhaps a hint at the Viking movie's future. Historically, these films have been very much the domain of male viewers - violent macho fantasies about honour and power. Thor is far more universal, as evidenced by its popularity amongst a more diverse demographic; adults, kids, men, women. Everyone loves a cosmic dude with a hammer, right? (Although perhaps the one-star reviews all over the internet of plucky little Thor-lite film Vikingdom (2014) suggest that your cosmic dude with a hammer may fare better if he looks more like Chris Hemsworth...)

The future definitely looks fantasy-driven though and it's kind of exciting to browse through the wild high-concept stuff heading our way soon. SyFy are working on an entire Beowulf TV series set in space (yes, IN SPACE). There's an adaptation in the works of Image Comics' Cowboy Ninja Viking (yeah, you wish you'd come up with that, right?) and, most intriguingly, an upcoming UK film The Berserkers that promises to be an all-action, gore-soaked Viking Hunger Games. In this one, Vikings force the kidnapped youth of their enemies to to take part in a barbaric ritual where they're set loose in the wild, given a psychoactive compound that turns them feral, Beserker-stylee, and forced to fight to the death, their hearts being an offering to the War God Odin. Sounds ace, huh?

So perhaps it's our universal fear of urban entropy or perhaps it's just that everyone loves some muscles, some magic and cool looking boats. Either way, the Vikings have invaded the movie market once more and it looks like they're here to stay for at least a few more years. Crank up the Wagner. It's well and truly hammer time.

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