Goals are a good thing. They give us something to strive for, something to try to achieve. Maybe you want to become a millionaire. Or you want to climb a mountain. Or not quite get gored by a bull in Pamplona.
Me? One of my goals is to identify the worst Viking movie ever made.
I didn’t come up with this goal. My friend and fellow medieval historian Kelly DeVries has had it for many years. But once he revealed to me this perverse obsession, I couldn’t help but share it. I mean, most Viking movies are bad … but what’s the worst?
Well, Kelly and I recently sat down to watch one contender: The Norseman, a 1978 film starring Kentuckian Lee Majors (i.e., The Six Million Dollar Man) as Thorvald the Bold. Does it deserve a claim on worst ever? Is watching the film “worse than crossing the high Alps to kill the white bear with empty hands” (actual quote from the film)?
Read on to find out!
When Kelly and I sat down to watch The Norseman, we agreed as professional historians to take our viewing task as seriously as possible. As such, we decided to pause the film and take a drink whenever we saw a historical error.
I confess, this game did not last long. Here’s the first bit of the title scroll:
This film is based on fact. [drink] As early as the year 793 A.D. [drink] a lusty horde of blonde giants [drink, drink] came out of the icy mountains of Norway [drink] to boldly sail the seas in longships. They were called Norsemen.
We may or may not have also taken a bonus shot for an unexpected Star Trek echo in there.
From this nonsense we went to a scene of Thorvald and his band of Vikings on a longship at open sea. Thorvald and his 12-year-old brother (who inexplicably narrates the movie as a grown adult) are sailing to America to find their father, King Eurich (played by Mel Ferrer), who went there with his own crew and never returned.
To be sure, as plots go, “let’s find so-and-so and bring him/her/it home” is not horrible. Worked for Finding Nemo. Worked for Saving Private Ryan. Plus, we know that the Vikings really did visit America, starting with Bjarni Herjólfsson around the year 985 (if the Norse Vinland Sagas are accurate). Subsequent years saw further Norse explorations, most famously those by Leif Eiríksson, that led to the establishment of some settlements. We’ve discovered one of these Norse settlements at L’Anse aux Meadows, on Newfoundland, and a second settlement might have been recently found close by, too. The Vikings called America Vinland, but they didn’t stay long: violent encounters with Native Americans, whom the Norse called Skraelings, led to the abandonment of North American settlement by Europeans until the arrival of Christopher Columbus some five centuries later. [Side-note: for a study of possible remembrance of Viking Vinland, you can check out my article “More Vinland Maps and Texts” in the Journal of Medieval History.]
That’s history, and it’s vaguely what’s behind this made-up story of Six-Buck Thorvald and his band of Viking bros.
Only what we get is so very much not historical. Kelly and I weren’t ten minutes into this mess before we realized that the night might end in hospitalization if we continued our pause-and-drink game. (The fact that we still watched this film through to the end might also have put us in danger of institutionalization, but that’s another subject.)
Anyway, the film opens on a longship with a group of these “lusty” dudes (only a couple of which are blonde, and none of which seem to be lusty) rowing their longship on a stormy sea while wearing thick metal breastplates with forged “six-pack ab” accents on them in the exact way Viking armor did not have. They have shields that are metal in the exact way that Viking shields were not. Worse, they are also wearing helmets that have big horns on them in the exact way Viking helmets did not. And worse still, these Wagnerian horned helmets have the strangest fur muffs around the base of the horns. Observe:
So these Vikings are wearing armor and these strange and imminently impractical helmets (at sea, in a storm, while rowing), and we meet them, one by one. There’s Ragnar (Cornel Wilde), Rolf (Christopher Connelly), one of many guys credited simply as “Norseman” (one of whom is NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff), the mute Olif (Jimmy Clem), who can’t speak because his tongue was torn out by a fellow Viking, and the tongue-tearing Viking himself, a hulking black man called Thrall who came from a Viking raid in sub-Saharan Africa [drink, drink, drink, drink]. Thrall is played by NFL Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones.
As it happens, the word thrall means “slave” in Old Norse, and Deacon Jones is a black man who ultimately gets a single line in the film. His one line is about honoring the Scandinavian gods, and it is quite literally delivered while he is carrying an old dead white guy.
And that’s not even remotely the most racist thing in this film. Seriously, just check out the trailer.
Yep, The Norseman has the Skraelings played by white actors in ruddy makeup wearing leather things, speaking in halting monosyllabic nonsense, whooping in pow-wow fashion … all set to the most stereotypical flute and skin-drums. The trailer and the movie poster call these white folk “the savage warriors of the Iroquois Nation,” which is all kinds of wrong both in terms of stereotyping and history: the Iroquois was a confederacy of nations, not a nation to itself; it was founded hundreds of years after the Vikings were gone; and whether the Skraelings were Dorset peoples or proto-Inuit Thule peoples, they weren’t members of the nations that joined the Iroquois Confederacy.
Moving on, at we get to meet the “Wizard” (his casting title is Death Dreamer), who is a hooded man “whose face cannot be seen” (except that it is visible in seemingly every shot) who sees future events. He’s played by Jack Elam, who I always remember as Jake from Support Your Local Sheriff (1969).
And … drum-roll please! … there’s our hero, Six-Buck Thorvald, who wears a Roman-looking breastplate (huh?) over mail and a polyester tunic. Instead of a horned helmet he has a pseudo-Vendel helmet with a leather Lone Ranger eye covering that will later be called a sacred mask. I still don’t know why. He also has a pornstache in place of a beard, and instead of anything remotely Scandinavian he has a Kentucky drawl. “We’re Norzemen,” he announces.
The boat they are on is called “Raven of the Wind,” which made me realize I prefer one or two-word names for boats (your mileage may vary), and we know it is at sea because the camera rocks like it is on a boat. In defiance of gravity, though, hanging things on the boat don’t move in any corresponding way. And this longship actually has a full deck underneath it in the exact way Viking longships did not. (TARDIS-like, the ship is also bigger inside than outside, which is a neat trick.) This at least explains why the Vikings always anchor offshore in the exact way Vikings did not… and then they wade or swim (freestyle, while wearing armor) into shore.
Sadly, whether Vikings historically swam freestyle or sheepdog-paddled is beyond my knowledge. For all I know they did the butterfly and called it the wyrm. I just don’t know everything, y’all.
Watch and Be Amazed!
Will Thorvald and crew, sailing west, happen to land on the exact spot in North America where Eurich is being held?
Will Thorvald woo the Native American princess who wears far too little clothing?
Will the Vikings always spill into their beards when they drink from their horn-cups (because of course)?
Will the Vikings consistently row out of sequence with one another?
Will Thorvald wear both his blue and his red jumpsuits?
Will Ragnar randomly wear a sixteenth-century French tapestry?
Will Native American arrows go through a “Norse” breastplate like it is cardboard?
Will the Vikings set up a dozen-man shield wall and then immediately negate its strength by running away?
Will Thorvald declare that a good Norzeman dies “with his sword in his hand,” while holding a sword that is built in exactly the way Viking swords are not?
Will flashbacks literally start with wavy lines and a trilling harp?
Will Thorvald turn to his Vikings, who are all armed with crossbows (!), and order them to “Hold your arrows”?
Will Eurich look like Saruman after having grown several feet of perfectly straight, perfectly clean, perfectly white hair while in prison?
Will it seem strange at all that this movie about Norse Newfoundland was shot amid the palm trees of Florida?
Would this movie be waaaaaay better if every time Thorvald does a slow-motion jump/punch/spin we heard that slow-motion slinky sound from The Six Million Dollar Man?
Yes to all, my friends. Yes. To. All.
Historical accuracy: 0/10 Elmer Fudds in Viking armor.
Acting: 2/10 busts in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Unintentional hilarity: 9/10 Lee Majors mustaches.
So is this the worst Viking movie ever made? It just might be. And if it isn’t, I can’t wait to find one that’s far, far worse.
Check it out and see for yourselves (if you dare), and if you have suggestions for others I need to judge, let me know in the comments!
Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. The Gates of Hell, the follow-up to The Shards of Heaven, his historical fantasy series set in Ancient Rome, comes out this fall from Tor Books.