Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ghost in the Case: Erik the Viking

"I could do with a holiday, I can tell you.  All this financial work, you know.  The stress really gets to you... ummm... flay him alive, garrote him and then behead him."

Ghost here, thanks for joining me today.  I welcome you to another

The type of childhood you have (the things you were taught, the home situation, and the things your parents liked) all have a fairly profound influence on how you life the rest of your life and what you seem to be interested in.  Growing up, my parents and I bred Norwegian Elkhounds and performed in dog shows with them.  As they were our breed of choice we became interested in their background which lead us to the vikings and Norse Mythology.  There is a reason that Thor is my father's favorite Marvel character.  Also at a very young age I used to sit in the living room with my parents and watch British Television that would come on PBS Saturday Nights and on BBC America.  I found myself loving shows such as Keeping Up Appearances, Faulty Towers, Absolutely Fabulous, Are You Being Served, Poirot, and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

I say that because when I saw that there was a movie about a Viking going to awaken the Norse gods which was written and directed by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) and also stars Jones and John Cleese (also of Monty Python fame) I was guaranteed to enjoy it in some part.  But the question is... will anyone else enjoy it?  This is one where critics and movie-goers are split straight down the middle.  It's a 50/50 approval rating.   Why is that?  Well let's take a look at this film and see if it seems like something that might interest you.

The Story

Erik is a viking who is out on another expedition to rape pillage and plunder across the region.  However, he's not so keen on the whole raping thing as we find out when he barges into a woman's home then proceeds to talk to her about how he would rather the action be mutual between two people.  The woman, Helga, talks to him about how the killing and pillaging is just as bad and in their brief conversation Erik starts to really like the woman.  Unfortunately as two more vikings come in and attempt to assault her, Erik slays them and accidentally stabs Helga in the stomach and she passes away.

Erik runs to the mountains to visit an old Seer woman living in a cave by the name of Freya.  Freya explains that they are in the Age of Ragnarok, an age where men fight and die by the axe and sword; an age where the sun would not shine until the gods were awakening in Asgard to end this horrible fighting age.  The only way to awaken the gods is to find the Horn Resounding which is located on the mythical island of Hy-Brasil and blow it three times.  Erik decides to go on the quest to awaken the gods and perhaps find Helga their among the slain in Valhalla and bring her back to the land of the living.  Assembling the best warriors of his village, and the local missionary, Erik and the crew begin building a ship for their journey.

While the ship is being built, the local blacksmith, Keitel, and his wormy assistant, Loki begin discussing how the Age of Ragnarok is good for their business and don't want it to necessarily end.  Loki makes a delivery of swords to the local warlord, Halfdan the Black (played by John Cleese), and discusses Erik's voyage.  Since Halfdan the Black is also profiting from this age he agrees to help Loki stop Erik and possibly kill Keitel in the process so that Loki could become the main blacksmith and all the money that comes with the position.

Erik and the crew then leave the shores of Norway but run into Halfdan the Black's ship.  Fleeing into the mist, Erik passes through the Gates of the World and comes face to face with the great Dragon of the North.  Coincidentally the missionary cannot see the dragon as he doesn't believe it exists.  After fighting off the Dragon who sneezes them into the horizon, they find themselves on the Island of Hy-Brasil.  Here they meet Princess Aud who pleads with them to put down their swords.  Her father, King Arnulf explains that the island has a blessing upon it but if any sword were to shed blood upon the land, the whole island would sink below the depths.

After some quite horrifying musical number and a bit of humor involving King Arnulf being fooled by an invisibility cloak that only works against the king, Erik finds that Halfdan the Black is approaching Hy-Brasil.  Rowing out to meet him, Erik and his men defeat Halfdan's minions and Halfdan escapes on a small boat.  Several of Erik's men perish in the battle.  A celebration is held in the viking's honor for keeping Hy-Brasil safe and Erik is presented with the Horn Resounding.  Loki takes the mouthpiece and sends Keitel to throw it into the ocean.  Another Viking, Snori, follows Keitel and stops him from throwing the mouthpiece, causing it to drop to the rocks below for Princess Aud to pick up.  Loki kills Snori and the island begins to sink from the second the blood touches land.  Princess Aud gets on board Erik's ship and rescues the vikings pleading with her father to hop on board.  Her father and the rest of the Hy-Brasilians are too stupid to believe their island is sinking and drown.

On the water, Princess Aud blows the first note on Horn Resounding and the ship is flung to the edge of the world.  Fearing for his life, Loki turns to Erik with a knife but Keitel tosses Loki overboard to his death. The ship is then flung off the edge of the world and lands in Asgard, land of the gods.  Erik blows the second note and Valhalla's lights begin to come on.  The vikings walk to the doors of Valhalla, but the missionary just passes through the stone walls because, again, he does not believe the Norse mythology.  Erik and the gang enter Valhalla and find not only Helga but all their slain crew-mates.  Erik begins asking Odin to end the Age of Ragnarok as Princess Aud sends the missionary back to the ship.  Odin agrees to end Ragnarok but sends Erik and his crew to the pit of hell for stepping foot where only those slain in battle can stand.  Those fallen friends of Erik try to help him but get sucked into the pit as well.

The missionary blows the third note and he, the ship, and everyone falling into hell are rescued and sent back to their home village.  Everyone begins to celebrate but is cut short when they find Halfdan the Black has tied up their families and intends to kill everyone starting with the children.  They move in to do so but the ship containing the horn and the missionary land on top of Halfdan and his men crushing them to death.  Everyone celebrates as the sun finally rises for the first time in a century.

Interesting Facts

As with the last Python Alumnus movie I covered, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (written and directed by Terry Gilliam), there is quite an interesting backstory to this film, though this one is a happy story instead of the "cursed film" aspect of the other.  For writer/director Terry Jones, Erik the Viking is a deeply personal film.  When Terry Jones' daughter was born he began writing short stories for her to tell her at bedtime.  Later, when his son Bill was born he decided to do the exact same thing.  Jones had recently gone to the London Museum which had an exhibit on vikings and he decided that the stories for his son would be about a group of vikings.  He created, and eventually published around twenty four short children's stories about Erik the Viking.

Eventually Jones was given the opportunity to make his short stories into a single film and in 1989 was able to release Erik the Viking to the public.  However, he decided to keep his hands out of the editing for it and due to some short deadlines the film that was released he was not entirely happy with and would have cut close to thirty minutes of film out out of it to help the pacing not be so slow.  Eventually in 2007 when this was to be released on DVD, Jones with the help of his son Bill was able to re-edit the film.  They moved a few scenes around to better explain things before they happen as well as make the timing on jokes better and remove what they felt was pointless filler.  More likely than not, if you see this film now you will be seeing what they have dubbed the "Director's Son's Cut."  My parents have the VHS of the original cut of the film and I do have to say that it is an improvement.

One other notable thing is that people received this film very poorly at the time of its release.  Critics and movie-goers alike seemed to not be very thrilled with it in general.  Jones has a theory on that and I fully agree with him.  Since we have Terry Jones writing and directing the film, and we also have both Terry Jones and John Cleese acting in the movie as well, people were expecting a Python film.  I'm sure I would have expected the same thing given what information I knew.  However this is definitely NOT a Python film.  Erik the Viking is a fantasy action adventure film which is supposed to be taken more seriously than the non-stop run of gags that Monty Python usually provides.  Yes when Erik the Viking does go into comedy it hits the mark but it's main point is not the comedy; it's main point is telling the story of these Vikings trying to end an age of war.  If you go into this film realizing that it's NOT a Monty Python movie  you'll probably end up liking it a bit more.

A Few Highlights
Rather than go into detail about everything that was good and bad with the film, I thought I'd just talk about three points which really stood out to me.

The first is John Cleese as Halfdan the Black.  John does a wonderfully comedic performance as the main villain in the film, especially when we first meet him.  Halfdan is a sort of business man whose business is torture and unspeakable things.  He doesn't start off as your standard crazy madman though he does eventually sink to that low at the end of the film.  His business-like nonchalant mannerisms never cease to crack me up.  For example when we first see him on screen he is explaining that he simply can't give this man a third chance to bring him the money that he and other people need so he orders the man's beheading.  As the man pleads for his life he shouts that Halfdan should take his sheep.  Halfdan's response is  "OH there's a good idea, take his sheep too!  I really wish people would think ahead on these things.. *sigh*  Next."

The second thing that stood out to me was the depiction of the Norse gods.  Rather than have them being these larger than life powerful beings, they are depicted as children.  This fits fairly well with the ideology that the Norse gods were able to help and do things for mortals but held no sense of responsibility towards them.  They didn't have to do jack diddly if they didn't want to.  Having children play the gods was honestly pure genius.  It didn't do much for the story overall but it was just a neat interpretation.

Lastly, Harold the Missionary was an excellent inclusion.  He spends the whole movie trying to get people to convert to Christianity with little luck other than the occasional "shut up."  I thought he was just going to be a joke character but he becomes very interesting when they leave Norway.  Anything that he does not believe in as he is a Christian he simply cannot see and is not affected by.  The Dragon of the North holds no danger for him though the others are panicking.  Asgard holds no power of him as he does not believe it exists either so he can pass through the walls and escape from the Norse gods.  Having his belief be the thing that lets them escape death was a wonderful way to end the film.


I probably said it best in the interesting facts section.  If you go into this movie expecting it to be a Monty Python movie you're going to have a bad time.  The comedy moments are spread sometimes a fair distance apart.  That's not to say the comedy is poor.  The times that they are actively seeking to make a joke generally hit the mark and are on-par with Python weirdness.  Only the singing joke seems to miss the beat a little bit.   If you like Norse Mythology, vikings, or a good fantasy story you may enjoy this.  I certainly do!  Find it for yourself and see what lies within!

Erik the Viking is rated PG-13 and is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox.

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