Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Fury of the Norsemen
The Viking (USA, 1928)
Considering there were only about a dozen-and-a-half movies about Vikings released in the first hundred years of filmmaking, they had a cultural impact far exceeding their number, establishing a clear and consistent archetype of the Viking warrior that holds true even today. All the tropes and visual hallmarks of that archetype were in place in the first full feature, 1928’s The Viking, and didn’t really change much over the subsequent 80 years. Interest peaked in the early ‘60s with a spate of films from both Hollywood and Italy, represented here by Mario Bava’s Knives of the Avenger, and didn’t get much of a rethink until Terry Jones’ Erik the Viking (1989), with its attempt to turn the genre on its head and simultaneously explore its mythic roots.
The last ten years have seen another upswing in interest in Vikings onscreen, starting with video game Skyrim in 2011 and the Vikings TV series in 2013, and there’s no sign of it slacking off, so it seems a timely moment for a quick survey of the genre’s beginnings. I hope you enjoy it.
Origin: USA, 1928
Director: Roy William Neill
Source: YouTube streaming video
As Leif Ericsson sails west from Greenland in search of the New World, on the deck of his longship are three men in love with his ward, the shield maiden Helga: his sailing master Egil the Black, Alwin the noble slave from England, and Leif himself. But the crew is more concerned about the likelihood of sailing off the edge of the world.
This was produced at the end of the silent era, made by the Technicolor corporation to show off their new full color process, and it was mated with a nearly-synced-up music track with accompanying sound effects, so it looks and sounds as good as a movie can that lacks only human speech. It’s based on a 1902 novel by Ottilie Liljencrantz, though Wagner’s Ring operas seem a bigger influence, given the extravagantly horned helms of the Vikings and the fact that Helga’s musical theme is adapted from “The Ride of the Valkyries.” This film incorporates every popular Norse Raider trope from the 19th century: bare-chested and fur-clad Vikings descending on the English coast to pillage, slaughter, and take slaves, drunken revelry in the mead hall, and manly duels of honor to settle even the slightest disagreements. It’s all set against a largely ahistorical fight to the death between barbaric pagan Thor-worshipers and those noble Nordics who have accepted the Cross.
They all keep slaves, however, and that’s a historical fact the film faces directly. Alwin (LeRoy Mason), a Northumbrian noble, is captured in a raid and taken back to Norway, where Helga (Pauline Starke) sees him looking at her insolently and buys him to teach him a lesson. Or does she have a hidden agenda? Black Egil (Harry Lewis Woods) certainly thinks so, and he abuses the new slave until the generous and Christianized Leif Ericsson (Donald Crisp) steps in and makes him fight fair. Alwin’s noble behavior, and good right arm, impress Ericsson, who decides to take him along on his voyage of discovery.
There are more fights in Greenland when Leif’s brutal father, Eric the Red, learns that his son has become one of the hated Christians — all stage combat, unconvincing but mighty enthusiastic. Leif and his crew make a fighting retreat to their longship, and then they’re off to the West, with Helga aboard as a stowaway so the boys will have someone to fight over. It must be said, Pauline Starke looks great in her operatic Viking armor, and as an actor she commands more nuance than her three suitors combined. Starke’s Helga is far and away the best reason to seek out this old chestnut.
Knives of the Avenger
Origin: Italy, 1966
Director: Mario Bava
Source: Starz DVD
This taut little Viking melodrama was directed by Mario Bava in six days after he took over from a previous, faltering director. It’s a small production on a modest budget, and besides some killer lighting work Bava isn’t able to include many of his trademark stylistic flourishes, but the scene composition is excellent and the action is tense.
The setup is Shakespearean: in a Norse village, Prince Arald (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is marrying his bride Karin (Elissa Pichelli) when raiders headed by the brutal Hagen (Fausto Tozzi) burst in with his wedding presents: the heads of the wife and child of Rurik, neighboring chief and longtime enemy. However, Arald’s village had just made an alliance with Rurik, so Hagen and company are angrily banished — but too late to prevent the vengeance of Rurik, who comes to the village that night with his carls on a mission of blood and fire. Rurik, in a face-concealing helm, wounds Arald and then goes in and rapes Karin (offscreen). When he comes out, one of his carls asks if Arald should be killed, but Rurik replies, “He’s already been punished.”
Twelve years later: Arald has been gone for three years, lost and presumed dead when his longship wrecked on the English coast, and Karin, still waiting for Arald, rules the village in his stead with their son, Moki. Then Hagen and his raiders return from piratical exile, the leader intent on marrying Karin and ruling the village with an iron fist. Fortunately, a nameless stranger (Cameron Mitchell) rides into town on a white horse, equally determined to protect Karin and Moki and repay Hagen for the evil he’s done. This stranger is as deadly with his big throwing knives as a sharpshooter, and like a video game hero, he seems to have unlimited ammo in his black leather jerkin — which he’ll need, as Hagen has plenty of goons.
There are no surprises here, just solid visual storytelling supported by a lively Morricone-esque score by Marcello Giombini. There are swords as well as those flying knives, and the final confrontation ends in a moody dungeon crawl that wraps up the story with admirable economy. Plus, it was a winning double-header at the drive-in with Gamera the Invincible. Rawr!
Erik the Viking
Origin: UK/Sweden, 1989
Director: Terry Jones
Source: Vitrafilm DVD
File this one under Interesting Failure. Written and directed by Terry Jones of the Monty Python troupe, this Viking comedy seems on the face of it to be just another historical farce like Jabberwocky or Yellowbeard, recycling jokes from Holy Grail — ha ha, weren’t the Middle Ages filthy and casually brutal? But Jones, one of the more thoughtful Pythons, has something else in mind besides an action fantasy, couching the story as a study of belief and how it changes reality, at least for believers. So, though the humor, familiar and derivative, is unfortunately not very funny, the philosophy — well, that doesn’t really land either.
Which is a shame, because the story has plenty of interesting ideas, even if they don’t pan out. Midgard has fallen into the eternal winter that precedes Ragnarok, the sun has disappeared from the sky, and life is nothing but pain and strife. Erik (Tim Robbins) finds he has no taste for rape and slaughter, and after he accidentally kills a woman he was trying to save, he decides that somehow, things must change. He consults with Freya the wise woman (Eartha Kitt, in a marvelous and spooky cameo), who tells him that he must sail west beyond the Viking world to the lost island of Hy-Brasil, where he will find the Horn Resounding: blowing it will bring him to Asgard, where a second sounding will awaken the sleeping gods who have abandoned Midgard to its fate.
Quest time! Erik assembles a crew of Norse misfits to sail off the edge of the world, but first he must evade the dragon ship of Halfdan the Black (John Cleese), who wants to prevent the return of peace as it will put raiders and pillagers like him out of business. Next the crew must get past the Dragon of the North Sea, an imaginative and impressive giant puppet monster, and then persuade the goofy people of Hy-Brasil to give them the Horn before Halfdan catches up.
Robbins is good as the anachronistic hero, a well-meaning American stuck in a time where he doesn’t belong, and Cleese is fine as his opposite number, an incongruously modern villain. Imogen Stubbs plays a spirited princess of Hy-Brasil and Tim McInnerny does a fine comic turn as a Funny Berserker, but best of all is Mickey Rooney as Erik’s grandfather, in a bonkers performance recalling Ernest Borgnine in The Vikings but far more deranged. This is a good-looking film, even when it lapses into Pythonesque cartoonery, thanks in part to concept art from Alan Lee, famous for his Tolkien paintings. However, scenes are often too dark for clarity, and during the action the dialogue is mixed so low it’s often unintelligible. Worth a gander if you’re a Python fan or must see every movie about Vikings, but otherwise it’s far from essential.
Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.
Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:
More o’ Zorro
Laugh, Samurai, Laugh
Boarding Party Bingo
They Might Be Giants
Barbarian Boom Part 6
Valiant Avenging Chivalry
For the Horde!
The Princess Bride Redeems the 80s
Samurai Stocking Stuffers
Moonraker! (No, Not That One)
Cinema of Swords Book Announcement!
LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the sixth volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the seventh, Devil’s Dance, is being published in weekly installments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!
Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s a Narrative Design Expert for Larian Studios, writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Baldur’s Gate 3.
Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? Vaenn! (Old Norse: beautiful, wonderful)
I’ve seen Erik the Viking a number of times, and I know about (but have not seen) the 1928 The Viking but I’ve never even heard of that Knives of the Avenger flick. For a minute there, I actually thought that there was Gamera film with a viking played by Cameron Mitchell in it. That could work.
Thanks for the post and thanks again for finding these film gems for us.
The Viking movie I remember from my childhood is The Long Ships, which might not be great, but certainly has some memorable moments.
I loved that flick! Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier and the Mare of Steel? How could you go wrong?
Yeah, the Mare of Steel was what stuck with me for years, even though I didn’t remember much else about the movie it was from.
Disappointed that you didn’t mention any of the other Viking movies that have been made. Not only the Longships, but others such as The Vikings or Prince Valiant.