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What Is The Best Viking Movie Ever?

It's a frequently asked question and the answer is always going to be an opinion.  Typically, that opinion is based on the relative importance we each place on the elements that make up a film.  Further, we each rate films differently based on those elements.  So ... there's really no objective method of making the choice.  However, Bjornstad has developed a list of the elements we think should be considered when making the decision.  The categories are listed below, and the movie that wins in each category - in my opinion.  The choices are informed, supported - and frequently countered - by lots of input from the contributors listed at the bottom of the page.

Comments about any of the choices?  Let me know: garrett@pacbell.net

Click here to see The Vikings of Bjornstad's complete Viking Movie List.


The Best Viking Movie



Image from imdb.com
More than any other movie, The Vikings tells a Viking story, set in Viking times, in Viking settings, displaying a wide array of Norse cultural elements with recognizably Viking characters.  This is the winner for many reasons, some of which are indicated - with a little supporting commentary - in the "award" categories that follow. 

Other "Viking" movies incorporate a few semi-Norse costumes, a ship, a nod to a saga if we're lucky and the rest of the movie is so generic it could be set anywhere at any time in history.  And, much of the time, the ship is either a model or a computer generated image.  Not so with The Vikings.

The movie is filmed on location and puts on the screen the considerable research done to portray Viking life accurately.  A few of its story elements are based on the sagas, including the character Ragnar Lodbrok, the English king Aella and Ragnar's death at his hands.  The costumes could be improved considerably, the castle is several hundred years out of period and some elements, like the use of a magnetic artifact for navigation, are pure invention.  But at the end of the movie, you come away with a surprisingly comprehensive view of the life of a Viking - not the Norse who tilled fields outside Birka or traded soapstone in Kaupang, but the kind of fearsome raider who terrorized Europe for three hundred years.

And it's a fun ride all the way.

The most authentic Viking character

The Vikings (1958)


Einar, played by Kirk Douglas, captains a ship, runs the oars, captures a merchant ship, kidnaps a princess for ransom, drinks heavily, rides a fjord horse, chases village girls, demonstrates skill in feasting games, invades England, fights with sword and axe, hunts with falcons and is given a burning ship funeral.  What more could we ask of a Viking?



Screen captures from The Vikings (1958)

Also worth noting: Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich) and Herger the Joyous (Dennis Storhøi), both from The 13th Warrior (1999), Guthrum (Michael York) from Alfred The Great (1969), Gisli from Útlaginn, AKA Outlaw, the Saga of Gisli (1981)

And while we're here, the best Beowulf: Gerard Butler from Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

The most authentic Viking costumes

Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

Filmed in Iceland, Beowulf and Grendel does an admirable job of minimizing filmmakers' usual urges to glamorize (i.e., make less authentic) a movie's costumes.  There are still things to criticize, including the lengths of belts and the height of the men's boots, but so much is done well this film deserves to  be recognized for the accuracy of its costumes.

 
Beowulf promising to rid Hrothgar of the monster Grendel.  This is the best depiction of a Norse long hall - and its inhabitants - on film.



Images from www.beowulfandgrendel.com

The best depiction of Viking village and home life

The Vikings (1958)

The Norse village from which the Vikings set forth to raid England was built on the Maurangerfjord, southeast of Bergen.  It was well-researched and constructed on a Norwegian fjord.  Hard to top.


Screen capture photomosaic from The Vikings (1958)

Also suggested: Ofelas, AKA Pathfinder (1987) (Sami, not truly from Viking lands, but worth seeing.)


The best depiction of Viking culture and traditions

The Vikings (1958)


No film better captures more aspects of Norse life than does The Vikings.  It portrays the unsurprising feasting, drinking, raiding and ships, but also includes slavery, navigation limitations, siegecraft, massed archery, Scandinavian overcrowding as a driver for the Viking age and plot-affecting references to Norse mythology.  Some of these elements can be found in no other movie.  Not to mention an educational title sequence employing art from the Bayeux Tapestry and Orson Welles as a narrator.


Falconry

Ship-to-ship piracy


Riding fjord horses and boat building
Construction of a faering - accurately!

The best depiction of Viking ships

The Vikings (1958)


The scenes shown here were filmed in Sognefjord, Norway.  Three boats in the movie are sailed, rowed, docked and/or beached in authentic locations without CGI support.  It doesn't get any more authentic.



Screen captures from The Vikings (1958)

And: The construction and testing of a longship figure importantly in The Long Ships (1964).  Filmed in Yugoslavia.


Screen captures from The Long Ships (1964)

Also: A longship among Iceland's ice floes, from Beowulf and Grendel (2005).

Screen captures from Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

The best Viking movie music

The 13th Warrior (1999)


The 13th Warrior has a powerful score by Jerry Goldsmith that is one of the best in the movies.  It serves the movie well in every scene.  One of my favorite CDs.  If you have your volume level where you want it, here's a sample action sequence audio clip. Click on the 'Play' button on the still image below.

 Herger and Ahmed have a bad feeling about this ...
Image from imdb.com

Also worth noting: The Long Ships (1964) and The Vikings (1958)


The most entertaining Viking movie (authenticity aside)

The 13th Warrior (1999)


The 13th Warrior
has a great cast, led by Antonia Banderas.  It has a budget sufficient to tell a good story.  It has great music.  It has some great action.  It has humor and well-written dialogue.  The characters are well-defined and interesting and it's worth the time getting to know them.  British Columbia stands in well for the forests of Northern Europe.  But ... the costuming is marginal, the armor anachronistic, many scenes are dark and it just lacks a compelling plot.



Screen captures from The 13th Warrior(1999)

Also suggested: The Vikings (1958), The Long Ships (1964), Outlander (2008) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

The best Norman era movie

1066: The Battle for Middle Earth (2009)


This limited-release British mini-series does a nice job of telling the story of the Norman Conquest and looks right due to its use of historical re-enactors.  It does make some poor choices in terms of its characters and counter-productive references to Tolkien's universe.  There are surprisingly few movies set in the 11th century, so the choices are limited.  If this category included the Plantagenet era of Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son, Richard the Lionheart, there would be more films to consider.

Screen captures from 1066: The Battle for Middle Earth (2009)

A better movie in some respects and a close second: The War Lord (1965).  Set in the 10th century (sort of): Dragonheart (1996).  Movies set later in the Norman period and a little too late to be Viking: The Lion in Winter (1968 and the best written of any movie discussed on this site), Becket (1964), a bunch of Ivanhoes and, for that matter, all those Robin Hoods.

The best  Viking movie plot

Royal Deceit, AKA Prince of Jutland (1994)


A spare, awkward little film with some top-notch actors.  It's about that troubled Danish prince who has some serious family issues, moved from a Shakespearean setting to early, low-budget Denmark.  A little too early for a true Viking movie, but the plot has stood the test of time pretty well.


The most memorable moment in a Viking movie

The 13th Warrior (1999)


Video clip from The 13th Warrior (1999)



With an overwhelming force bearing down on them and death all but certain, the small Viking mercenary force stands fast in a pouring rain and they begin their death prayer.  It's a great moment.

Buliwyf 'Lo, there do I see my father. 'Lo, there do I see...
Herger the Joyous My mother, and my sisters, and my brothers.
Buliwyf 'Lo, there do I see...
Herger the Joyous The line of my people...
Edgtho the Silent Back to the beginning.
Weath the Musician 'Lo, they do call to me.
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan          They bid me take my place among them.
Buliwyf In the halls of Valhalla...
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan Where the brave...
Herger the Joyous May live...
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan ...forever.


Also memorable:
  • Ragnar about to be cast into the pit of wolves in The Vikings (1958) showcases some very effective acting by Ernest Borgnine.

  • Video clip from The Vikings (1958)

  • Riding the Mare of Steel in The Long Ships (1964) is pretty intense, as well.  Hurts just to think about it.

The best single combat in a Viking movie

The 13th Warrior (1999)


The holmgang between Herger the Joyous and Angus is tense and involving, emphasizing advancing the plot and character development over skillful swordsmanship.  The use of three shields and its inception over personal honor are very Viking.



Screen captures from The 13th Warrior (1999)

The best single combat in any movie

Troy (2004)


Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Hector (Eric Bana) do battle in the climax of Troy with spear, shield and sword.  Exceptionally well staged, this battle can be watched over and over again and is just breathtaking in its choreography and execution.  These legendary characters, Achaean and Trojan, should be portrayed at the peak of their chosen profession, and both actors capture them expertly.  Brad Pitt particularly demonstrates a mastery of both edged weapons and his shield that is unequaled on film.  Every movement either completes an attack, defends against an anticipated attack, or sets up the delivery of the next attack.  All with a cold, surgical and arrogant precision.  Eric Bana's Hector is an exceptional warrior also, but there is clear difference, by an order of magnitude, in their abilities.  You'll never see two warriors in combat where their skill levels are so beautifully shown - and differentiated.  In most movie fights, editing is used to cover poorly executed movements or hide transitions to the next series of disconnected movements.  In Troy, the editing highlights the flow; it shows just how continuously dangerous this form of combat was.  Given the weapons and armor used, this level of filmed battle could be translated easily to a Viking age scene - and should be, if only it were staged this well. Richard Ryan is listed as the sword master in the movie's credits, but no one is identified as the fight choreographer.  Whoever is responsible has done an amazing job. 



Screen captures from Troy (2004)

Since I like giving credit where it's due, here's a note from Mike W., one of our web page visitors:

"Re: your accolades for the Achilles/Hector fight scene, Richard Ryan was in fact responsible for the fight choreography, as he did for all sword work for Troy. That particular fight scene was nominated for a Taurus (stunt award) and MTV Film award (ref: www.safd.org/user/18). Don't you just love that VERY memorable leaping/downward-thrust "kill move" of Achilles??? He was asked to develop special fight moves for each of the main characters to help reinforce their individual mythologies.

"You'll be happy to know that Richard Ryan was also the Swordmaster, Asst. Stunt Coordinator, and Gabriel Byrne's stunt double for History's Vikings. How ironic, eh???

"You'll probably also be happy to know that he was stunt coordinator for Hammer Of the Gods (2013), which you've also referenced.

"BTW, Richard has worked on quite a few highly memorable fight scenes since Troy, including winning a Screen Actors Guild Award as part of the stunt ensemble for The Dark Knight. How about that very memorable fight scene in Sherlock Holmes (2009), where Robert Downey Jr. is in a fight pit (slow-motion... Holmes analyzes his opponent to develop his winning series of moves... "break cracked ribs, traumatize solar plexus, dislocate jaw entirely..."). Richard was fight coordinator there, too." (Mike W.)

Also recommended: The Duellists (1977), The Princess Bride (1987), Rob Roy (1995), The Three Musketeers (frequent) and Zorro (pretty often)

The best massed combat in a Viking movie

Alfred The Great (1969)


Although a product of the '60s in tone and with some iffy shields, Alfred the Great includes a very rare depiction of a shield wall at work.  And an absolutely unique demonstration of a boar's snout maneuver used to defeat it.

Screen captures from Alfred the Great (1967)


And: The assault on a later period castle demonstrates the use of archery and massed shields to provide suppressing fire while the drawbridge is breached in The Vikings (1958).

Screen captures from The Vikings (1958)

The worst Viking movie

Pathfinder (2007)

A tough call since there are so many bad ones to choose from, but I'd have to pick Pathfinder.  Some Viking movies are badly cast, many are poorly acted and most are badly written, but Pathfinder depicts the Vikings who land in North America as faceless orcish brutes in costumes inspired by Frank Frazetta and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It cynically uses misconceptions about Vikings as a lazy pretext for a Rambo-style revenge flick.  Still haven't been able to sit through much of it.

Grendel (2007), on the other hand, is just wrong.  Also worth avoiding: Erik the Viking (1989), The Norseman (1978)

Image from www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2006/05/07/arts/07olse_CA0ready.html

Screen captures from The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957)

Also suggested: The Vikings (1958 and it seems an obvious choice, doesn't it?) Hrafninn Flýgur AKA The Raven Flies AKA Revenge of the Barbarians (1985) and Í Skugga Hrafnsins, AKA In the Shadow of the Raven (1988)

The greatest missed opportunity Viking movie

Hrafninn Flýgur, AKA The Raven Flies, AKA Revenge of the Barbarians (1985)


Filmed in Iceland by an Icelandic director using a largely Icelandic cast, this could have been a better movie.  The revenge plot is vaguely Viking, but way overused in movies.  The swords, leather helmets and khukri knives don't look remotely authentic.  The hero armed with throwing knives seems to be from a different movie.  It does have an interesting spin on village life and worship of the gods.  The Icelandic horses are great, but this is a pretty narrow slice of the Viking age, with an overlay of Sergio Leone that drags it off the edge of the earth.


We don't get to see much more of the ships, unfortunately.

Gest the former slave wears a raincoat/duster from another era.


The hero juggling one of his throwing knives.


A sword-shaped object of uncertain Oakeshott type.


An authentic longhouse and Icelandic horses.

But this is home for some of the villagers.
Screen captures from Hrafninn Flýgur, AKA The Raven Flies, AKA Revenge of the Barbarians (1985)

Another that should have been better: The 13th Warrior (1999)
 

The least Viking Viking movie

The Viking Queen (1967)


This really isn't a bad little movie for its time.  The problem is that it's set in Roman Britain and borrows heavily from the story of Boudicca, an Iceni Celtic queen (AD 60).  We're about 8 centuries early for Vikings, so the only thing Viking about it is the title.

Also suggested: Erik the Viking (1989)


The best Viking movie never made

Hrafn Gunnlaugsson and Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness were collaborating on a script for a saga-based film which never got funding.  On a recent visit to Hrafn's house, I watched as he acted out several scenes, playing all the roles himself.  I think it would have been good.  (William Short)

Note also that Mel Gibson has discussed a Viking movie he plans to make on the scale of Braveheart (1995) or Apocalypto (2006), possibly starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  In April, 2012, Gibson said that Randall Wallace, the writer of Braveheart was writing the script. (Jack Garrett)
Thanks for contributions, ideas and suggestions: Brian Agron, Rodney Basler, Charles Gadda, Dan Howlett, Jaye Moretz, Henrik Olsgaard, Jeff/Seth,  William Short, Eric the Unsurnamed, Bruce Willis

©   For information contact Jack Garrett at info@vikingsofbjornstad.com