Reviewed by T.S. Morangles
As you know by now, I am All Things Saxonsidered a true Dark Ages aficionada, down to looking for the proverbial rough diamond of stupendous water and the mercifully soon to be forgotten plonk movies of yore.
Today, me hearties: The Viking 1928, silent but in colour. Courtesy of YouTube and our Russian friends who love Oldies but Goldies … and Weirdies. In which this review will show that one can bite quite a few juicy bits out of … well, let’s start:
Our story starts by a castle (Bamburgh must have inspired our Californian director) and the young Christian Earl of Northumbria. So far, so good. California sun is also invited at the party as not only the Saxons are bare-armed but the Vikings are bare-chested looking no doubt to get some of the famous suntan one can achieve near the Cheviot Hills.
This is just when your lips start to quiver as our Norsemen are about all sporting lovely horned helmets but they also would break the heart of PETA members and all are dressed with fur skirts. Which gives the audience the sudden concern of an alternate reality. Wait a minute: I paid a ticket/DVD rental for Scandinavian pirates not Iron Age/Bronze Age sword-happy monk-killing-crazy wild persons.
Monks? OK, Vikings says the audience. Alwin loses the battle, his mom and his freedom as he becomes a thrall somewhere in Vikingland where Norse maids wear rather short skirts and cute winged metal helmets.
At this point the audience has started the game of Let’s count how many historical inaccuracies this movie is going to give us. The winner will get my everlasting thanks as the very stony castle looks ever so slightly Gothic down to the doors. Which is not wrong in an ironic way as Gothic comes from Goth which is turn is originating from Geat (Beowulf, guys!) and Geats certainly were living in Scandinavia.
With the subtitles, we are told our spirited Valkyrie-dressed damsel-cum-equestrian is the ward of Leif Erickson. Who does not prevent the movie prop department to play with more helmets: this time Gaul ones. Sigurd, her BFF tried to mend a sprained wrist without any anaesthetics before they go shopping for slaves. Guess what: she buys the indignant Alwin!
Later we are introduced to Leif Erickson camp and his merry men who have taken singing classes at Munich Oktober Fest. (shhh! It is a Silent movie but this version includes music, songs and a minimalistic approach as to the sound one can expect of a battle scene) while we are given more helmets to ponder at. One supposes that ‘after many months at sea’ the horns must have dissolved while the one which has not, has grown barnacles looking like a lamp bulb. No, this writer is not making things up). Now why do I make such a fuss from helmets? Let’s not forget that the Sutton Hoo, the CopperGate of York helmets have not been discovered in 1928. The jowl protections of the Staffordshire Hoard have yet to be metal detected. So let’s try and be fair. And ‘Carry on’ with a Monty Pythonesque spirit. Armoury wise, the movie offers a melting pot of different eras. Shields suffer the same fate than helmets down to a sword scene where the main characters use what look to my unforgiving eyes like bin covers. The famous shield wall is not impressive in this movie. One the plus side the freedom Viking women enjoyed is rather well underlined though some wooden halls look more like…. Californian summer sheds.
Count yourself lucky I shall spare you the cheesy love story classical triangle and move to some ‘quite interesting’ developments from a historical point of view. Because we are doing movie reviews in the sense of looking for the gold nugget of proper historically accurate and fairly reasonable reconstruction of turning points in our history.
The scene shifts to the Royal Hall of Olaf Tryggvason, Norway’s first Christian king and suddenly you could very well be witnessing Real not Hollywood Northumbrian King Edwin listening at Paulinus speech about a swallow and the destiny of a soul. Suddenly, this scene gets you right at the centre of Bede famous anecdote. Edwin is hesitating still to convert; around him his Deiran and Bernician thegns are even less sure about Christianity. And it becomes clear that the solid stern faith and stubbornness of the first missionaries must have impressed the seasoned warriors. It is a brief moment but it is worth it. Just like the following scene which takes us to another moment this time set in Heorot when Beowulf uncle was entertaining its guests before Grendel stroke fear in his Great Hall.
Grendel belongs to the non-Christian geographical realm of the Dark Ages. Olaf maybe Christian, Iceland is not. Erik the Red was not; as we meet the redoubtable father of Leif, we meet – what I suppose is – a statue of Thor whilst the bard/skald is busy writing down a judgement (in runes?). If I can see Aethelfrith of Bernicia with Penda of Mercia raising their horns to an Anglo-Saxon Woden, one can be safe in suspecting this Hollywood styled Thunor would have surprised them.
In any movie, one can follow the apparent plot. Here, a noble youth unjustly sold into servitude gets back his freedom and the girl. And they will discover America while probably every Viking will become Christian by switching sword blade to whittling as the world’s proto folding cabinet maker. A four letter household name springs to mind.
Then comes the subplot. Conversion.
Why, how, Why forsake Gods who were good to your folk and ancestors. Why leave a boisterous pantheon akin to one’s tolerant if noisy family for one and one only intolerant jealous God? Did the world end and water fell down from the Sea as dragons would eat you alive? We smile because we live in a world which did not end when Neil Armstrong walked his momentous step. We send a Viking probe to the silent void which bathes new born suns and never yet seen galaxies. Just like Vikings we look for a final frontier; unlike them we know Space has no end for us to meet.
This is where this silent movie of 1928 is still relevant. For its corny helmet and scantily clad damsels in distress with matching horns or wings, it asks the right question humanity has been asking from the beginning. In the times of uncertainty of the Dark Ages and certainly in the days following the failed Crusades: what’s next? What shall we do if the East is closed to us? Go West?
Mercifully, our synopsis takes us to Greenland where numerous cows must wander hornless if we are to believe our helmet-watch. A few cheesy scenes later while a Zeus like thunderbolts wielding Thor statue weeps silently in the distance watching the undignified brawl between a Heathen and his converted son. I hope for the sake of my readers that our own ancestors whose fathers had worshipped Odin, Teutates, Jove or Amon-Ra suffered less abuse from their families. Yes another question this little 1928 gem is raising. Beside the appalling clumsy sword fights as these sword scenes should get their director to be pilloried!
By now, we are now sailing to the edges of Earth or Vinland Anse aux Meadows depending on your beliefs/facts. Our Norse miss who has more horned hats than what the average salary/monastery plunder can bring to an honest hard-pillaging Northman is on board with her three swains: Leif Erickson the historical character (the movie Real hero/America discoverer & Christian), Aldwin of Northumbria Earl/slave/Leif best mate(we are on a ship, guys. What were you thinking?) and Christian and a guy known as Egil the Black : the light bulb/Prussian Army/early Hell’s Angel helmet warrior. The betting book on which character dies at the end is now open. Just like the book on how many eye injuries these darn helmets will have caused!
Helga dreams of Aldwin, has sisterly affection for Leif and is ‘just friend’ with Egil proving that indeed Scandinavian ladies were ahead in the Women’s lib front. As nowadays, our boys realize while two is company, three is a crowd and four is certainly Tokyo metro at rush hour.
Our director lost in his philosophical lecture on the phenomenon of conversion has missed what Helga left at her own endeavours has come up to. At this stage, his movie is a Viking harem! An unruly harem as our guys naturally vie for the consort slot.
I hear you, me maties. Aren’t we supposed to be reviewing from an historical medieval point of view this movie? Aren’t the characters supposed to be suffering the inner turmoil of souls adrift contemplating monotheism and discovering America and popcorn for future cinema theatres on the plus side?
Maid Helga is getting married in a wedding dress looking more like a Roman Vestal than a Valkyrie. Who cares? We are sailing a ship since weeks but our hero does not grow a beard or needs to shave. The very fine combs used to remove nits are not needed in our Viking world. The captain/chieftain room is large enough to fit a library or about; we are not going to be beholden to the laws of Historical facts and their ilk. Enters the Wedding scene… Blessed be the Gods as we were running out of adjectives to describe the characters angst as regarding their ‘feels’.
The director saves the day by introducing during the ceremony an attempt on the groom life. Now, imagine how weddings would be entertaining if suddenly the best man instead of handing the ring to the groom was trying to kill him – slowly, I grant you – while a fair part of the congregation –let’s say the bride’s party was aiming at shortening the days of the groom guests, This would be quite … enlivening (not sure if this is the right adjective). To cut a story short (not sure if this is the appropriate verb) Helga loses a boyfriend while Egil loses his life, nobly. Aldwin debates whether to die nobly and guess what Leif is tortured – nobly- by jealousy.
All is well that ends well. Overcome by joy at having discovered America before Columbus, Leif allows our two very boring lovebirds to marry.
Now comes the curious historical challenge of the last few minutes.
In 1928, L’Anse aux Meadows had yet to be dug up. At the time, academics seriously believed Leif Erickson had reached Rhode Island if not New York. Beside watching with quite hallucinating eyes a Viking motley crew in a scene inspired of the usual Spanish conquistadores, cross and flying flags included on a beach, we are told that Leif Erickson in few words was the founder of the Watch Tower of Newport in Rhode Island (I’ll skip the last scene which re-enacts an anticipatory Thanksgiving scene down to participative Native Americans. One can see that in 1928, some people were starting to feel some un-ease about some future events) as the Native are noble. By the way, if native they are, one suspects some people discovered America earlier than our dear Leif via the Bering Strait…
Leif Erickson in Newport? Is this feebly humoristic essay going to revolutionize History time line via a silent movie? The watch tower was built between 1635 and 1698 says Radio-Carbon dating. Thus, why this insistence on an inaccurate movie?
In 1928, Sutton Hoo, Carbon Dating and Newfoundland archaeology had not been added to History facts. Do not sneer at our Viking; he can only give you what 1928 could give. Historians can only say a fact is a fact when they have in their hands a PROVEN fact. Real historians write about undisputed facts and not about legends.
You can follow T.S. Morangles on Twitter @Moranlges. If she has enticed you to watch this film, you can see it below: