Thursday, 16 February 2006

Vikings on Film

Those who know me know that I quite naturally have a love of Germanic mythology and the history of the Germanic peoples (for those who are wondering who the Germanic peoples are, they are those peoples who speak any of the Germanic family of languages--the English, Germans, Dutch, Danish, and so on). It is then natural that I would love films based on Germanic mythology and events or situations from the history of the Germanic peoples. Unfortunately, there have been very, very few movies that have dealt with Germanic myth or history.

I rather suspect that much of the reason there have been so few films based on Germanic mythology is simply that in the mid-Twentieth Century Nazism misused many of the symbols and even many of the myths of the Germanic peoples. The image of anything Germanic was then tarnished for many, perhaps to the point that both Hollywood and European film makers shied away from anything dealing with the Germanic peoples. Indeed, it seems that only Iceland has done much in the way of movies based upon Norse myths and various sagas. Other than various films out of Iceland, it seems as if the majority of films dealing with Germanic peoples of any sort fall into the genre of "Viking movies," a genre not known for its quality.

Perhaps the greatest film based on Germanic myth came early in the history of movies, during the Silent Era. And as might be expected, it did not emerge from Hollywood either. 1924 saw the release of Die Niebelungen, a film directed by Fritz Lang . Here in the United States it was released in two parts, Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge. Contrary to popular belief, Die Niebelungen was not based on Wagner's famous operas nor was it based on The Volsunga Saga. Instead, the film's script was based on Die Niebelungenlied and would draw largely on Friedrich Hebbel's play Die Nibelungen (also based on the German poem). The sets and costumes of Die Niebelungen are not particularly authentic (it is more or less what the average person might picture when thinking "Middle Ages") and it is fairly expressionistic. But Die Niebelungen is also fairly faithful to the The Niebelungenlied. As might be expected, its strengths lie in its script, its direction, and its black and white photography. It is quite simply a masterpiece of silent film. Anyone who has not seen Die Niebelungen should by all means do so. Unfortunately, after Die Niebelungen, Lang would never again make a movie based on Germanic mythos, perhaps because Nazism (probably the most vile, evil, and reprehensible ideology of the twentieth century) had tarnished its image.

That is not to say that Die Niebelungen is the only great film based on a Germanic myth. Danish filmmaker Gabriel Axel went to the myth of Amled (Shakespeare's Hamlet) from Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum (roughly "A History of the Danes" in modern English) as the source of inspiration for Amled, prinsen af Jylland, better known here in the United States as Royal Deceit. Royal Deceit was made on the cheap and it clearly shows. Yet the movie is not only faithful to the tale as told in Saxo's Gesta Danorum, but the costumes and sets are fairly authentic. The movie also has an intelligent script and some fine performances, particularly Gabriel Byrne as Feng. Anyone expecting Shakespeare's Hamlet will be pleasantly surprised. While Royal Deceit has much in common with Shakespeare's play, it is also a very different story with many surprises for those familiar with the Bard's work.

Royal Deceit was not the first time Axel looked to Gesta Danorum for the inspiration for a movie. He also did so for Den Røde kappe, based on the Hagbard and Signe tale from the 7th book of Gesta Danorum. I've never gotten to see this film, but I understand it is quite good and also quite loyal to the source material!

I'm sure that there probably are other fine movies based on Germanic material, but right now I cannot think of any off the top of my head. I have never had the opportunity to see any of the movies made in Iceland, although I have heard that some of them are quite good. As I stated above, it seems to me that most movies based on Germanic material or Germanic culture are "Viking films." There are two somewhat good Viking films out there (most of you might well know which two I am talking about), but the rest are sorely lacking in quality. One of my fond childhood movies as a child was a film called The Long Ships. The movie was about a struggle between Vikings and Moors. I enjoyed it as a child. I can't say that I have enoyed it as an adult. The film is truly horrible. It is poorly written, poorly directed, and incredibly inaccurate when it comes to its portrayal of the Vikings and the Moors. Indeed, I would say it is downright racist in its portrayal of both!

One film that is not one of my cherished childhood memories is The Norsemen, starring Lee Majors. The movie is about the Vinland expeditions. This could make interesting fodder for a film, but The Norsemen is inaccurate, badly written, badly acted, and badly directed. Even as a kid I disliked this film enormously. I can't picture even the most forgiving fan of Viking movies liking this picture.

Of course, the most famous "Viking movie" of all time is The Vikings. It is also one of two that is actually somewhat good. The Vikings is hardly an accurate reflection of Viking life. To a large degree the costumes, weapons, and architecture of the Vikings is somewhat accurate. Unfortunately, it does stray with regards to Viking culture (adulterous women would not have had axes thrown at them...). And while the costumes that the English wear are somewhat accurate, it must be pointed out that they did not live in Norman castles at this time (their housing wouldn't have looked too different from that of the Vikings)! The Vikings is very loosely based on Ragnars saga lodhbrokar, a fact that somewhat irritates me. Knowing the saga, I can't help but think they could have done a better job of the movie.

That is not to say that I dislike The Vikings. The Vikings is one of the great popcorn movies of the Fifties. It is fun in the way that other costume epics of the era are fun, regardless of the fact that they may well butcher history or the source material upon which they are based. The Vikings features some excellent photography, insidious villains, a beautiful damsel in distress (Janet Leigh at her finest), some fine looking costumes, and some fine looking sets. While I might wish that The Vikings had been a bit more authentic with regards to history and culture, it is still a very fun movie.

The same may be said of what could be the second most famous Viking movie of all time, The 13th Warrior. Based on Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, The 13th Warrior is loosely inspired by Beowulf, combined with the Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan's account of life among the Rus (Vikings who settled in what would become Russia). In many respects The 13th Warrior offers a more accurate portrayal of Viking culture than The Vikings, although it is also inauthentic in many ways as well. It is doubtful that the Rus were nearly as superstitious as they are portrayed in the film (in none of the sagas or history do they worry about "demons in the mist..."). Similarly, the Rus would have certainly been familiar with written language (after all, they did have the runes). That having been said, The 13th Warrior's greatest weakness is the inauthenticity of many of the weapons, armour, and clothes in the movie. Indeed, this seems to be the most common complaint about the movie!

Like The Vikings, I do like The 13th Warrior a good deal, regardless of how it might depart from the historical record. Despite the occasional inaccuracy, The 13th Warrior does present a somewhat accurate portrayal of the Rus. And while the costumes and armaments may not be accurate, the architecture is fairly authentic. Ultimately, however, The 13th Warrior is simply a great action movie. For any fan of sword play and medieval combat, there is gong to be plenty of excitement in this movie.

While there have only been a few good films based on Germanic culture in the past, I suspect this could change in times to come. At this moment it seems that we have seen the return of the epic film. There can be little doubt that The Lord of the Rings started this cycle. The Alamo, Troy, and The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe have continued it. I suspect that among the epics that might come out in the coming years there may be some which draw upon Germanic myth and history. Indeed, rather recently there have been two low budget films that have drawn upon Germnanic myth--a Canadian Icelandic production of Beowulf (Beowulf and Grendel) and a new version of The Niebelungenlied (titled Ring of the Nibelungs. It may then be possible that we could see films based on events from Germanic history and tales from Germanic literature. As to whether these films will be accurate or actually good, that is a different matter entirely...

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