Total Recall

Total Recall: Mighty Viking Movies

With Thor hitting theaters, we run down some of cinema's most memorable Norsemen.

by | May 6, 2011 | Comments



From the pantheon of ancient deities to the pages of Marvel Comics and finally to the silver screen, Thor has had quite the journey — and judging from its robust Tomatometer, the hammer-wielding Asgardian is none the worse for wear. Arriving this weekend at theater near you (and on suitably massive IMAX 3D screens), Kenneth Branagh’s action epic blends timeless mythology with cutting-edge special effects and a marquee-ready cast — and in the process, it continues Hollywood’s long love affair with all things Viking-related. Naturally, we decided to get in the spirit of things by smoking some cod, pouring a big cup of mead, and looking back at some of the more noteworthy examples of the genre. Hop into our longship, won’t you?



Historically speaking, Beowulf doesn’t really belong on this list, because, well, Beowulf wasn’t a Viking. For Hollywood’s purposes, though, any tale taking place in ancient Scandinavia — and containing characters with names like Hrothgar and Unferth — can swim in the same goblet of mead as the rest of our list. Coating the Old English classic poem in a layer of shiny new mo-cap gloss (courtesy of director Robert Zemeckis), the 2007 edition of Beowulf follows the titular warrior (Ray Winstone) as he destroys the dreaded Grendel (Crispin Glover) and goes up against the monster’s mother (Angelina Jolie). It took plenty of liberties with the source material, but most critics didn’t mind; as Richard Corliss observed for TIME, “You want to read Beowulf? Get the book, I’m not stopping you. You want bloody adventure with a brain, see the movie.”

Erik the Viking


This 1989 comedy began life as a children’s book that director Terry Jones wrote for his son — and according to most critics, it should have stayed on the printed page. A critical flop and box office disaster, Erik the Viking reunited Jones with his fellow Monty Python vet John Cleese for the tale of an earnest young warrior (Tim Robbins) whose reluctance to rape and/or pillage leads him on a mystical quest to Asgard, with plenty of Norse mythology — and historical references — along the way. Sadly, it lacked enough Python-style laughs to earn a place alongside Holy Grail and Life of Brian, although it did earn praise from the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, who called it “a Wagnerian slapstick fantasy” and said it “has the feel of a grown-up bedtime comedy, a gross, sillier Princess Bride.”

How to Train Your Dragon


Blending the Hollywood tradition of cartoons about finding the strength to be true to your heart with the timeless legends of mighty Norsemen fighting mythical beasts, this $494 million DreamWorks Animation hit follows the adventures of a young Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who discovers that the long-standing war his people have waged against dragons might not be everything it’s cracked up to be. And okay, so How to Train Your Dragon isn’t really about Vikings — it takes place in another world — but they’re close enough to count for the purposes of our list; and anyway, with a 98 percent Tomatometer rating under its horned helmet, this is one of the best entries in the genre. As an appreciative A.O. Scott wrote for the New York Times, “Tenderness, beauty and exhilaration are the movie’s great strengths.”

The Long Ships


The same year he won an Academy Award for his work in Lilies of the Field, Sidney Poitier toiled his way through this loose adaptation of the Frans G. Bengtsson novel The Long Ships, which pits a greedy Moorish king (Poitier) against an intrepid Norseman (Richard Widmark) in a quest to obtain a giant golden bell nicknamed the Mother of Voices. As far as quite a few critics were concerned, these Ships weren’t exactly seaworthy — Time Out’s Trevor Johnston dismissed it as “awful” and Variety derided its “hodge-podge of a storyline” — but others placed it squarely in the “so bad it’s good” camp, including Film4’s reviewer, who chuckled, “This is pure rubbish, but thoroughly enjoyable rubbish.”



Here’s one you can just hear coming together in the pitch meeting: “Vikings are awesome. Aliens are awesome. If we mix ’em together…double awesome!” Sadly, things didn’t quite turn out that way for Outlander, which stars James Caviezel as an interstellar soldier who crash-lands in eighth-century Norway — and is taken prisoner by King Rothgar (John Hurt), thus allowing his deadly alien cargo to scuttle off and start slaying Vikings. With a premise that daffy, this should have been a lot of fun, but most critics were let down — with the notable exception of a few scribes like Richard Edwards of SFX, who called it “about as subtle as being punched in the face by an angry Norwegian,” and said, “It delivers everything you could possibly want from a movie about Vikings and alien monsters.”




Most historians agree that Norse explorer Leif Ericson was the first European to lead an expedition to America. But what if another group of Vikings beat them to it by 500 years, only to be slaughtered, leaving a pale blond orphan to be raised among the Wampanoag — and ultimately fight for them against a new wave of Viking invaders? That’s the interesting question raised by director Marcus Nispel’s 2007 would-be epic — unfortunately, the answers the movie came up with were often of the unintentionally humorous variety. (As Xan Brooks of the Guardian put it, “Imagine a heavy metal album cover come suddenly to life and you pretty much have the measure of Pathfinder.”) Still, among all the critical wreckage, there were a few voices of praise, including Chris Hewitt of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who wrote, “Pathfinder makes sure its carnage is bloody, awful and pointless. But pretty.”

The 13th Warrior


You’ve got to give author Michael Crichton credit for tenacity — he wanted to see this adaptation of his novel Eaters of the Dead brought to the screen so badly that he hung on through years of bumpy production and ultimately took over for director John McTiernan — but considering The 13th Warrior‘s anemic $61 million gross and 33 percent Tomatometer rating, all that effort might have been better spent on another novel. Though the novel drew its inspiration from the fascinating tales of 10th-century Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas) — and took them one step further, imagining a Viking adventure between Fadlan and Beowulf — the movie failed to measure up to those classic texts. Still, even if it missed the mark, Warrior found supporters in critics like Gary Dauphin of the Village Voice, who called it “a well-marbled, albeit derivative, slab of action-movie man meat.”

Valhalla Rising


The films of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn have always demonstrated an affinity for — and a deep-rooted fascination with — violence, and those qualities were distilled into pure bloody mayhem for 2009’s Valhalla Rising. Slow and lumbering, with a mute, murderous protagonist known only as One-Eye (played by Mads Mikkelsen), Valhalla dispenses with niceties like exposition, hope, or even much in the way of dialogue, and trades them all for a brutally violent, beautifully filmed trip to the Holy Land for our mute Viking hero and a group of Christian Crusaders. Its grinding pace and copious amounts of mud and blood obviously aren’t for everyone, but as Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum noted, “When it comes to crazy, violent, semidelirious, testosterone-laden, proto-Viking tales about a mute visionary one-eyed warrior who breaks skulls, Valhalla Rising is pretty great.”

The Vikings


We couldn’t very well publish a list of Viking movies without including The Vikings, could we? This 1958 epic, which ended up being the final collaboration between director Richard Fleischer and star/producer Kirk Douglas, is overblown in the very best sense of the word, from its stentorian narration (provided by Orson Welles) to its larger-than-life Technicolor vistas and eyebrow-raising, mostly bushy-bearded cast (including Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, and a clean-shaven Janet Leigh). Some critics chortled at its soapy blend of melodrama and castle-storming action, but most found it too spectacular to resist, including Time Out’s Nigel Floyd, who described it as “Plenty of pillaging, axe-throwing, hearty quaffing of ale, storming of castles, heroic jumping into wolf pits, and manly talk about the glories of entering Valhalla with sword in hand.”

The War Lord

An admirable mid-1960s attempt to de-romanticize feudal life — while still retaining all the Hollywood sweep and grandeur audiences demanded — The War Lord stars Charlton Heston as Chrysagon de la Cruex, a lusty Norman knight whose efforts to defend his village against the invading Viking hordes are complicated when he decides to poach the bride of one of his subjects. More of a romantic drama than most of the films on this list, it earned praise from most critics; even the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who good-naturedly mocked “that histrionic hair shirt that Charlton Heston dons when he plays any role,” applauded its plentiful “bow-and-arrow shooting and throwing spears and pouring boiling oil and battering-ramming the great oak doorway and assaulting the fortress with a scaling-tower.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Thor.

Finally, here’s a musical tribute to Norsemen from the mighty Led Zeppelin:

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