What is it about vikings, that it is a subject of which it seems to be impossible to make a decent movie about? I have seen several, but none I actually liked, or which was even remotely plausible in terms of authenticity. One would think that of this subject there is an abundance of information and many magnificent original stories like the ones in the Sagas. The truth about vikings is much more spectacular than the popular image. Yet, all movies go to support the silly popular image. Why is this?

The good, the bad and the ugly of viking movies: The best viking movies I have ever seen were the Icelandic/Norvegian production “The White Viking” and the Polish movie “Stara Basn”. The former had a good story that related remotely to historical knowledge of how christianity was spread to Norway and Iceland. But it was ambient movie, where costumes, weapons, ships and buildings, looked very primitive in comparrison to what is known from archeology. Maybe it was a result of film budget and not a choise by the film makers. For some reason it is often the case that this subject seems to draw the makers to present a dirty and ragged, or downright primitive appearance of the people of the viking age. The Polish film, was not bad as such. It told the story of how the slavs had to fight cruel opression by the vikings. We have solid information, that this is how the Scandinavians behaved in many countries they moved to like Ireland, England, Prussia and vast forests and steppe of Russia. The fight scenes are lacking and some turns of events are a bit clumsy. However, this is the one movie that actually comes close to being a good movie about vikings. It has the best props and most plausible story. It seems odd, when you think that the Polish film makers could achieve something where the big budgets of Hollywood and Scandinavians whose ancestors the vikings actually are have almost totally failed.

 The worst viking movies have been made by big Hollywood productions. The Vikings was a major production featuring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, made in an era, when many such semi-historical movies were launched. It presented the classical barbarian image of vikings, though they had enough of presence of mind not to include the horned helmets (not that I can remember, at least). When the vikings in this movie attack England they did not only cross the sea, but also travelled through time. The English defending the large stone castle (an actual historical castle ruin far too modern for the vikings to attack) are dressed and equipped not like the Anglies and Saxons, but something like knights from the late 13th century. 

While The Vikings was at least trying to have  some resemblance to our knowledge of the vikings, later Hollywood productions have failed this completely. The 13th warrior starts out by a splendid story based on an actual historical source. Antonio Banderas plays the lead role of the actual historical figure of the arab explorer Ahmad Ibn fadlan, who actually made a trip up the river Volga and met Scandinavians there. However, the movie has so many historical errors in how these are depicted that this blog post would not stretch to unbearably long just to list them up, but a couple I simply can not get by whithout a mention are, that the makers thought that vikings had horses bigger than the arabs, plate armour and that the their ships had entire dragons sculpted to their prow. Finally the intriguing story of the actual historical character is not told at all and the action around the movie runs around an imaginary stone age people fighting a war against the vikings. It could have been a decent fantasy movie, but as such it exploits a historical source and gives totally misleading picture of an era.

One of the new Hollywood spectacle movies is the Pathfinder, where a viking raised by native americans defends them against the invading vikings. The vikings depicted in this movie are truly demonic. Propably it was the idea of the film makers to represent them in such a way that it would not leave any questions open for the audience about who are the bad guys in this movie, but also to present them from the perspective of the natives, not as men, but as demons or such. The inhuman appearance of these vikings is achieved by horned helmets, chains hanging from their black leather clothes and black furs. They look like truly tormented individuals. The whole story, even the name of the film has been taken from an older Norvegian film. There is a difference though. The original film tells the story of a saami boy leading finnish agressors who have come to kill, enslave and rob his people to a natural trap by offering himself as a guide. Is it such a difficult thing for the white american male audience to percieve themselves as native americans, that the hero could not be one of the native americans? That the hero had to be a white man and therefore one of the vikings? Or is there a nother reason the hero was not a native american?

The Valhalla Rising is one of the most boring films I have ever seen. All that happens could have been shown in so much less time. There are some beautifull landscapes, but that is about all the film has to offer. Once again the vikings are represented as dirty, ragged barbarians. Maybe the director wanted to achieve a sort of artistic impression, but while the actors propably used a lot of time to rehearse the action scenes, it seems they did none for rowing.

Why is it that when trying to entertain the audience, film makers try to affirm the classical expectations of the audience? Or are they simply trying to affirm their own preassumptions? No doubt that, when men have spent several days in an open tarred boat, they are dirty. For this I can wouch for from personal experience. On the other hand, it is a fact that historical and archeological sources tell that the vikings were in fact rather precise of their personal hygiene and many of them were quite dandy. We know that they used make up for their eyes and grew long hair and this was disapproved of by contemporaries as fashionable fancy. This would be quite astonishing to any film audience. Would it not? I suppose it does not fit in the traditional barbarian image, that vikings actually used brightly coloured wool clothes and not the dark leather and furs usually depicted in movies.

The old Norse sagas are an abundant source of exiting and inspiring stories. Why has no movie been made from those? It seems rather that all movies are made whith the same clues (or no clues at all as whith the Valhalla Rising) which are fitted into any movies wether the subject is vikings or whatever…