Five Films and Four Different Takes on Your Favorite Violent Nomads in ‘The Middle Ages on Film: Vikings!’


Five films, four flavors of the ol’ pillaging-in-leathers routine. Twilight-of-the-studio-era extravaganzas Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958) and Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1964) are delicious concoctions, grand and dopey and full of mead-hall brawling so spirited it’s touched with musical theater—Seven Brides for Seven Erics could break out. Both also struggle to make sense of Viking immorality in movies that had to please the state board of review—The Long Ships‘ human sacrifice is a surprise, but The Vikings‘ love story, sadly, isn’t. (The Vikings does have a pit of wolves and classic rooftop duel between Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas.)

The violence in those sprightly epics isn’t a patch on Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 Valhalla Rising, a meditative bloodletting committed to bespattered men and miserable coasts rather than the jaunty sets of the Technicolor days. It’s a revenge tale, and Refn’s grisly stylishness is every bit as brilliant and gorgeous or ponderous and shallow as it would prove to be in hits Drive and Only God Forgives.

If you’re curious in the least, you should see it. Best of all is Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s When the Raven Flies (1984), another revenge story, also somewhat bloody, and thrillingly committed to the evocation of an ancient, muddy world unknowable to us today, where the most powerful men in Iceland live in huts so dark and cramped you can almost smell the sweat. For all its commitment to silence and mystery, Gunnlaugsson’s is also a tense, terse ’80s action picture, as Irish Gest avenges himself on the rovers who killed his parents.

Too rarely seen, When the Raven Flies stands as one of cinema’s most effective works of badass versus the bad guys. Finally, Terry Jones’s scattershot comedy Erik the Viking (1989) remains, I’m sorry to say, exactly the size, shape, and length of a migraine.