The success of the TV series Vikings (History Channel), and to a lesser extent The Last Kingdom (BBC/Netflix) has unfortunately spawned a cottage industry of cheap and not-so-cheerful Straight-to-Home-Video Viking-related movies (Rise of the Vikings, Viking Destiny, Viking Legacy, Quest, Blood etc).
But these generally mediocre low budget productions should not obscure the handful of genuinely great Viking movies.
Every Scandinavian aficionado will have their favourite, such as The Vikings (1958), The Long Ships (1964), even the much maligned Pathfinder (2007), and maybe the unremittingly grim Valhalla Rising (2008) or the highly entertaining genre mash-up Outlander (2008), where grizzled viking chief John Hurt teams up with offworld human Jim Caviezel to battle the monstrous alien Moorwen in a sci-fi spin on the Beowulf myth.
But for my money, the BEST Viking movie ever is 1999’s box-office bomb The 13th Warrior.
Despite a spiraling budget (apparently balloning to $160m), clashes between director John (Die Hard) McTiernan and writer Michael (Jurassic Park) Crichton (who eventually recut the movie with new footage) and the bad-mouthing of co-star Omar Sharif* the movie always works for me, no matter how many times I watch it.
And that’s despite some distinctly odd choices in costuming, with the band of brothers sporting a mixture of Roman gladiator helmets, medieval armor and Renaissance gear.
Antonio Banderas stars as the titular 13th Warrior, the Arabic exile Ahmad ibn Fadlan, and turns in a performance of great charm, whilst the supporting cast includes some strong performances from the likes of Vladimir Kulich (Vikings the series), Dennis Storhøi (The Thing prequel), Diane Venora (The Insider) and Brits Clive Russell (Got) and Tony Curran (Ray Donovan). Some time ago I spoke to Clive Russell who portrayed Helfdane in the picture, which he claimed to enjoy -- probably the overruns helped his bank balance as well.
Many of the action scenes kick serious ass, and the appearance of the ‘Fireworm’ is very cool:
There’s also plenty of humour in the cultural clashes between the sophisticated Arab and his Viking comrades, with both sides eventually appreciating the virtues of the other, sadly something that has yet to come to pass in the present day. The script actually has many clever touches, especially when Banderas picks up the language of the Northmen -- by simply listening:
Not everyone agrees with my assessment however. While many Crichton novels (Jurassic Park, Congo) have been transformed into blockbuster hits, this renamed film version of The Eaters of the Dead with McTiernan at the helm didn’t test well with audiences. Touchstone began to have second thoughts and they spent big bucks to rework the film, to no avail.
Omar Sharif actually retired briefly from acting because of his poor opinion of it. Said Sharif, “After my small role in The 13th Warrior, I said to myself, ‘Let us stop this nonsense, these meal tickets that we do because it pays well’ . . . bad pictures are very humiliating, I was really sick. It is terrifying to have to do the dialogue from bad scripts, to face a director who does not know what he is doing, in a film so bad that it is not even worth exploring.”
All told, the film lost $137,142,407 in 2012 dollars. You can watch it for free on Vudu.