Before the 2000s, Viking culture and characters did only make occasional appearances in American cinema, but movies like the 13th Warrior and Valhalla Rising reintroduced the savage warriors to a wider audience. The Viking Sagas was made before this revival, and can be considered a spiritual B-movie predecessor especially to Valhalla Rising. Both movies share a mystical atmosphere and stunning photography of the barren Scandinavian landscape.
The film may also have been an attempt to recreate the vibe of Icelandic classics such as Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s masterful Raven trilogy of Viking adventure films that came out in the 1980s. The Viking Sagas is a US production, so maybe not surprisingly it spiced up its story with sex and a lot of bloody violence, but reducing it to a feast for the lower senses would not do it justice at all.
Viking Chieftain Valgard is killed in battle by his rival Ketil, but Valgard’s son Kjartan manages to escape. Kjartan falls in love with Gudrun, who is promised to Ketil’s cousin for marriage. Kjartan retreats to the mountains with the mighty warrior Gunnar who teaches him to become a master swordfighter before his final confrontation with Ketil. The film tells a tale of love, war and heroism, and was apparently inspired by some of classic Icelandic tales that were written 800 years ago. In our time, the story will sound conventional for film audiences, but back in the days it was probably as epic and heroic as it could get.
The movie was directed by Michael Chapman, who had an impressive career as cinematographer in Hollywood. He who worked with legends such as Martin Scorsese and was nominated for an Oscar as best cinematographer for Raging Bull and The Fugitive. In The Viking Sagas his incredible talent as a cinematographer resonates in every scene. From the first minute, we’re treated with the breath-taking scenery of the Icelandic nature. The plains, valleys and mountains are captured in calm and panoramic takes, and the humans are frequently dwarfed against the monumental backdrops.
The movie scores high on atmosphere, and that’s not only because of the landscape shots. I cannot judge how true it exactly is to the historic life of people in Iceland at the time but the sober attitude and lifestyle depicted in the film make a lot more sense than anything else that ever came out of Hollywood on the topic. The story is told dryly, and the sober Nordic temper is perfectly reflected in the interactions between the characters.
The Viking Sagas is a low-budget affair, there are no lavish sets, special effects or famous actors involved. It is still a thoroughly professional production with well-crafted sets of Viking villages and battlegrounds. The buildings are integrated perfectly into the landscape, leaning against the mountains, or standing in the open skewed by the wind. Everything looks worn as it should in such a harsh environment, including clothes, weapons and the character’s faces.
The movie was filmed with mostly local Icelandic actors that speak English with a strong accent. This is weird for a production that is otherwise so authentic, but I guess it was unavoidable for commercial reasons. The poster figures for the marketing are bodybuilders Ralph Moeller as prince Kjartan and Sven-Ole Thorsen as mighty warrior Gunnar. Ralph Moeller was never much of an actor, but in this film he fits right into this tight-lipped and archaic society. Same goes for Sven-Ole Thorsen who usually made appearances in movies as a minor villain character, but in this film he actually has a meaningful role.
t’s not all Viking drama and landscape photography, the film also features as good deal of sword combat. Some of the fights are staged quite nicely, others are shot and edited quite choppy, it’s a mixed bag. What they all have in common is that almost everyone who dies is killed in a brutal way, often by beheading or various body parts being chopped off. There is also a fairly extreme scene of the so-called Fatal Walk, an alleged way of executing someone in the Viking culture, where a person is forced to coil his own intestines around around a rock.
The Viking Sagas may seem like a low-key affair on first sight, and it is far from perfect. It has an incredibly dense atmosphere, though, and the austere plot and characters capture the spirit of the times perfectly. It’s still a movie with the aim to entertain, but in the skilled hands of director Michael Chapman it becomes a mystic and enchanting tale with stunning cinematography of the Icelandic nature and some brutal violence thrown in between.