Medieval Movie Review: Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising

Released in 2009
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

“The Boy says he was from Hell…maybe that’s where we’re going.”

Starring Mads Mikkkelson (Casino Royale, Clash of the Titans) as One-Eye, the slave warrior who breaks free of his captors and exacts his revenge. Beautifully filmed in Scotland, this 2009 festival entry tells a spectacular story.

It’s the year 1000 A.D. and One Eye escapes his captors with the boy who cared for him in captivity. Along the way home they meet a group of Crusaders en route to the Holy Land and they ask One Eye to join them.


Their voyage is fraught with difficulties and when they land, their situation goes from bad to worse. Unsure of what to do, the plot of the film revolves around their horrific predicament once they arrive.

The movie is broken down into segments: Part I – Wrath, Part II – Silent Warrior, Part III – Men of God, Part IV – The Holy Land, Part V – Hell, Part VI – The Sacrifice. The segmentation is curious and feels like you’re watching a chapter from a book; it sets the pace nicely. This movie, for the most part, isn’t like typical action movies, I’d call it a dark action-drama if such a category existed. It’s rather slow going except for the violent scenes and even some of those moments are slowed down by creative camera work.


It’s difficult and delightful to watch at the same time. If you’re not really paying attention, you’ll miss something important to the plot. There are moments where you want to hit rewind just to catch what was said or understand what you think is going on. Instead of being annoying, I enjoyed the frustrating moments and they kept me glued to the screen.

“He’s driven by hate, so he survives.”

Valhalla Rising is VIOLENT. It’s got some of that 300 slow-mo-gore-blood-spraying-everywhere imagery. It can be a bit stomach churning for those who are squeamish but I didn’t mind it because the violence had its place in telling the story. It’s not over the top or gratuitous like most Hollywood action movies. There is a lot of onscreen tension and build up to danger and bloodshed in this film. When violence makes an appearance, it fits in place and makes sense.

Mikkelson does an extraordinary job as “One Eye”. He keeps you riveted and engaged in the way he “tells” his story. His movement, his glances, his silence, just mesmerize you. One of the amazing parts of this film is that it holds your attention with very little dialogue. The acting carries the day and is strong enough to pull it off. Too much talking would’ve ruined this movie.

The young man who plays “The Boy”, Maarten Stevenson (Blessed), does a fantastic job of delicately building their strange and endearing relationship. He manages to evoke a sense of caring for the harsh, stoic warrior. The Boy and One Eye understand each other perfectly when no one else does. I loved the way their relationship unfolded during the film.


The Crusaders, played by Jamie Sives (Game of Thrones, Clash of the Titans), Gary Lewis (Gangs of New York, Shiner) and Ewan Stewart (Ecstasy, Titanic), are all formidable Scottish actors who did justice to their roles.

Director and writer, Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Drive) did an incredible job with this movie. It’s intelligent, interesting and beautiful to watch even at it’s bloodiest. If you’re looking for action beyond the usual hack-n’-slash Hollywood film, this quiet little movie will do the trick. I am not normally an action fan but this movie grabbed me and kept my interest the entire way through. – Sandra

Peter’s Take: For the most part I need to agree with Sandra on this review – this is a dark and strong film, that gives us both violence and thoughtful perspectives. The characters are very well done, and the lack of dialogue shows you that more can be done with less. I really enjoyed how they approached the theme of religion here – its set in a society which is transitioning from Norse paganism to Christianity, and we see diverse reactions among the characters. For example, one of them explains his disgust with the Christians by saying “they drink the blood and eat the corpse of their god.” Meanwhile, the priest character is able to convey what Christianity is in the simplest of terms, while the Crusade leader develops a rather megalomaniac view of his task of retaking the ‘Holy Land’.


My only drawbacks to the film is that in a couple of sections the movie’s pace becomes very slow – perhaps a couple minutes of people walking around landscapes could have been omitted. Also, the lack of dialogue makes it difficult to understand what is happening in certain scenes – we have characters who leave and then reappear and it left me confused on what happened to them.

Aside from those minor problems, Valhalla Rising is a very good film, worth watching for its 90+ minutes.

Historical Accuracy: The film is set in the year 1000, which is an appropriate period to focus on the struggle between the Old Norse religion and the emergence of Christianity. But the film also a group of Vikings who are going off to retake the Holy Land, a clear reference to the Crusades, which wont be happening for almost another hundred years. One would guess that the filmmakers decided to blend together the two periods.

The ship the Crusaders are on was destined to go to the Holy Land, and even with fog it would have to be very poor seamanship for them to become so lost. They eventually emerge on the northeast coast of North America, and this is entirely plausible. Viking ships did get lost travelling across the Atlantic, and some saga accounts relate them reaching new places that they named Vinland and Helluland.