Of all the cultures around prior to the Norman Conquest that now enjoy an afterlife in pop culture, the Vikings are among the most enduring, if not the most common. Onscreen, Scandinavia’s medieval seafarers can’t match the sheer numbers of, say, the cinematic Romans or Greeks, but they’ve remained a consistent presence. They’re back again with the forthcoming release of Robert Eggers’ revenge epic The Northman. Eggers is far from the first filmmaker inspired to look northward, revenge plot in hand. He won’t be the last.
Hollywood’s pre-Northman Northmen are a rough bunch. Their closest pop-cultural (if certainly not historical) cousins are probably the Spartans, who also skew overwhelmingly masculine, physical, pagan, sexually deviant, and brutish on film. Violence is the theme that unites virtually all Viking movies, which run the gamut from swashbucklers to all-out gorefests. *Cue prolonged death scene and flaming-ship burial. Roll credits.*
To be fair, Viking warriors and raids were incredibly violent. We know because the people on the historical receiving end told us. “Most of our written sources on the Vikings come from people who encountered them, often at the pointy end of their swords,” says Neil Price, a Viking expert and the chair of archaeology at Sweden’s Uppsala University, who served as historical adviser for The Northman. “Some people in the Viking Age, the actual raiders and so on, were every bit as terrifying as all the clichés would have them.”
The Vikings, real and imagined, were a strange bunch. They were stateless and pagan in a feudal and Christian Europe. “That idea of a force that does not behave either militarily or socially as the people they’re attacking is quite a powerful thing,” says Price. “That is part of that centuries-long process whereby the Vikings turned into these unstoppable marauders we see in popular culture.” This made negotiations difficult and imbued the Vikings with an inherent strangeness still felt in portrayals of them. Viking movies are full of outsiders. Often, the Viking is the outsider — this applies to both Valhalla Rising and Thor — although not always. The Vikings has Tony Curtis as a Northumbrian slave. Outlander’s outsider is a full-fledged spaceman.
Newly popular are deeper portrayals of Viking-age life and people. The History Channel series Vikings pushed the raiders and traders from the big screen to the small one, opening the Vikings to increasingly sophisticated storytelling and characterization in the process. (On the other hand, it also popularized a depiction of Viking men as resembling, as Price aptly describes it, “refugees from a metal band.”) Given the historical Vikings’ rich oral tradition, you can view this deepening of their fictional portrayals as an incidental corrective of sorts. On the other hand, no well-written character or thoughtfully developed plotline will ever change the fact that it’s simply fun to watch a hulking Viking warrior kick some Continental European ass.
The Vikings (1958)
An axes-and-boots alternative within the sword-and-sandals peak of epic Hollywood filmmaking, The Vikings kicked things off in Technicolor and with a marvelous opening-credits animation sequence inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry. The Vikings, as narrator Orson Welles tells us, were responsible for “a reign of terror then unequaled in violence and brutality in all the records of history,” and the movie shamelessly loves them for it. With its initial exposition out of the way, hunky Northumbrian slave Tony Curtis sics his hawk on Viking prince Kirk Douglas’s face. It’s off to the races in a flurry of feathers and fake blood. Legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff is on hand for admiringly slow pans over Viking shields and across gluttonous feasts, all the while working his damnedest to make the necessarily muted Viking color palette pop. For all its faults, The Vikings single-handedly laid down the must-have Viking-movie checklist: debauched feast, manly power struggles with swords, yelling “Odin!” at random intervals. Most importantly, it cemented the image, however sanitized, of the “Viking funeral” ship burial in popular culture. No fourth act of a Viking epic has escaped its shadow since.
Erik the Conqueror (1961)
Although the Italians already have their own homegrown historical champions of Europe to make movies about, their epic filmmakers — like all of us lost in the Ikea maze — found themselves unable to resist that Scandinavian design. Made with an eye on the global success of The Vikings, Mario Bava’s Erik the Conqueror repurposes its American predecessor’s basic conflict (and unconventional means to scale a fortress wall) with Cameron Mitchell and George Ardisson as long-lost brothers raised on opposite sides of the Saxon-Viking conflict. There’s some vague traitorous behavior in the background and a lot of dead weight before the inevitable final battle, but you can’t fault Bava for lack of ambition. Because this is the Italians, it’s the only movie on this list with a dance number — one with sword-batons and led by Alice and Ellen Kessler, the German identical twin sisters who were enormously popular throughout Western Europe in the ’60s and whose performances in multiple languages are a YouTube hole par excellence. The rest is high melodrama, clanging swords, and duels to the death. And no one prolongs a death scene quite like Cameron Mitchell.
Erik the Conquerer is streaming on Tubi.
The Long Ships (1964)
Seemingly unsatisfied to leave Norsemen behind after photographing The Vikings, Jack Cardiff assumed full directing responsibilities for 1964’s The Long Ships. He shouldn’t have. Shot in Yugoslavia with the support of the British and American governments in hopes of drawing then-President Josip Broz away from Soviet influence, The Long Ships is a hopelessly miscast swashbuckling epic with a simplistic plot and baffling interior logic. The film’s story is essentially a drawn-out race to a giant gold bell called “the Mother of Voices” — maybe the Ark of the Covenant was busy that day? — between Richard Widmark’s inexplicably cowboy-esque Viking warrior Rolfe and Moorish king Aly Mansuh, played by Sidney Poitier in an almost indescribably tragic hairpiece. Allowed access to purples and oranges thanks to the Moorish settings, Cardiff’s vivid colors pop in perfumed harems and on the city streets where Aly Mansuh likes to stage public executions. Dusan Radic’s score is strange and beautiful (if a bit carnivalesque during the mass-rape scene). Everything else is hopelessly messy. Turns out smashing together The Vikings and 1961’s El Cid is not a foolproof strategy for cinematic success. Now we know.
Knives of the Avenger (1966)
Although uncredited, Knives of the Avenger rounds out Mario Bava’s ’60s Viking trilogy, which also includes Erik the Conqueror and 1961’s The Last of the Vikings. This wasn’t necessarily part of the plan, seeing as Bava reportedly salvaged, rewrote, and reshot Knives of the Avenger in a matter of days. His well-intentioned rush-job features Cameron Mitchell as Athor, a Herculean nomadic Viking warrior determined to protect a woman and her son from Hagan, the power-hungry rival of her chieftain husband, Harald. Given the 85-minute run time, the film builds rather slowly toward a series of leaping and knife-throwing confrontations among Athor, Hagan, and Harald. (Maybe “leaping” is the wrong word, as Harald and Athor’s fight scene involves mostly flailing in each other’s direction while grunting and rolling down a hill.) At the end, the good guys win and Athor quite literally rides off into the sunset. It’s a largely unremarkable film, one for the diehards only, but Bava still manages some trick transitions and clever shots in a time crunch. Mind the Mediterranean bluffs in lieu of Scandinavian fjords.
Knives of the Avenger is streaming on Tubi.
Erik the Viking (1989)
Neither a Monty Python film in name or comedic quality despite being directed by Terry Jones and starring John Cleese, Erik the Viking is a tonally bizarre comedy hinging on a would-be clever premise that will be better executed later by How to Train Your Dragon. As the titular Erik, Tim Robbins is a softboy Viking warrior lacking the requisite taste for rape and murder. This dynamic is used as both joke fodder and to make heavy-handed points about how violence is, uh, not good. Neither is this movie, really, which is why Roger Ebert called it an “utterly worthless exercise” that made him feel like “a human dialysis machine” in his scorched-earth Chicago Sun-Times review. The green screen and attendant color correction are staggeringly bad even by ’80s standards; actual legends Mickey Rooney and Eartha Kitt are inexplicably present and underutilized. The movie can’t decide whether its Vikings are vicious savages or slapstick clowns, and it’s unfunny the whole way there. Perhaps it’s telling that its single most enduring scene, in which a city sinks while its king insists it is not in fact sinking, has minimal Viking involvement, Erik or otherwise.
The 13th Warrior (1999)
Plagued by reshoots and initially deplored by test audiences, The 13th Warrior is one of those genuinely enjoyable cinematic disasters. Based on the pacing and the multiple half-forgotten B-plots alone, the film is evidently the work of two different directors who seem to have had a knife fight on the cutting-room floor. (It’s labeled diplomatically as a “Crichton/McTiernan Production.”) Noted Middle Eastern man Antonio Banderas plays real-life tenth-century Arab soldier-diplomat Ahmad ibn Fadlan, whose considerable account of the Volga Vikings remains indispensable to historians. Here, “Ibn” is a softboy poet exiled into diplomatic service for looking at a woman, then drafted into the forces of a Norse prince whose kingdom is plagued by a mysterious evil named Wendol (rhymes with …). There’s something admirably balls-to-the-wall about the whole thing, including the last-act action sequence shot entirely in slo-mo that follows the other last-act action sequence full of Viking Age spelunking. Even so, the movie’s undisputed high point is its bonkers leap of the Arabic-Norse language barrier during a scene in which Ibn does some intent listening and reveals his newfound Norse linguistic proficiency by issuing a sick burn. Hell yeah!
The 13th Warrior is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
Pathfinder is probably not as bad as you remember. It’s not much better, granted, but it has some fun moments. Directed by remake jockey Marcus Nipsel (2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2009’s Friday the 13th, 2011’s Conan the Barbarian), Pathfinder is a Native American–ified take on the 1987 Norwegian movie Ofelaš and, by extension, the Sami folktale on which it’s based. Ghost (Karl Urban) is a Norseman raised in a Native American tribe — protagonists born in one culture but raised by its foe are a regular feature of Viking stories — whose ho-hum identity crisis takes on new urgency when the Viking horde returns, massacres everyone he loves, and kicks off Die Hard: Valhalla. Ghost and his ragtag band of Native stereotypes are up against raging bloodthirsty sadists already in the Iron Age, which makes for a shallow if rather entertaining actioner complete with high-speed sled chases and some extremely violent deaths. The color palette is so muted that Nispel ought to have just made it black and white, but this was 2007 and you couldn’t get away with that like you can now. Funnily enough, the exact opposite seems to be true of everything else in this movie.
Pathfinder is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
Good on Robert Zemickis for making a legendary villain truly sympathetic before it was cool, even if he did it inside the most insane-looking Beowulf adaptation ever made. (Look, just because Zemickis’s pioneering experiments in performance capture are important doesn’t mean these movies aren’t nauseating to watch or that Robin Wright bears even a passing resemblance to the character she plays.) For Beowulf, screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman thoughtfully transform English literature’s original monster into a misunderstood outcast, making for some interesting if not wholly original revisionism. They then derail the entire operation by asking themselves the question that has plagued English majors hitting the bong for centuries: “Hey, man, what if Grendel’s mother was hot?” In walks virtually naked Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s MILF on her flesh stilettos, and out walks any hope for this film. With Grendel and his arm disposed of early, Beowulf’s sins-of-the-father narrative arc hinges essentially on Danish kings’ inability to keep it in their pants and subsequent post-nut regret. However well-intended the idea to fill in some of the poem’s gaps and deepen its characters, Beowulf is a shallow adaptation that feels more like a series of video-game cutscenes than an epic story that has survived for centuries. But at least now we know what it would be like if Grendel’s mother was hot. We’ll always have that.
Beowulf is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
Although it has long been relegated to the overstuffed cultural dumpster of the 2000s, you can still argue that Outlander is a key entry in the typically terrible “what if we added aliens and/or zombies to this?” cinematic universe. One-time normal person turned Jesus in Passion of the Christ turned loony QAnon-er Jim Caviezel is Kainan, a soldier-astronaut trapped in eighth-century Norway after crash-landing his spaceship in a lake. A pack of alien monsters — the same ones that killed his space family, naturally — have somehow hitched a ride on Kainan’s ship, although how exactly this happens is unclear, which is also true for every other major plot point in this movie. In any case, the alien monsters are terrorizing the Viking locals, and Kainan is tasked with fighting them alongside John Hurt, Ron Perlman’s face tattoo, and Jack Huston. It’s not exactly so bad that it’s good, but Vikings vs. Aliens is still enjoyably nutty because it’s such a disaster. Come for the mead-filled alien trap, and stay for the overlong scene of Huston and Caviezel out-parkouring each other at the big Viking feast. There are episodes of Ancient Aliens that feel marginally more dignified than this. Take that however you like.
Outlander is streaming on IMDbTV.
Valhalla Rising (2009)
Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has a talent for making movies that are as much about the abject senselessness of violence as they are about its ritualized spectacle and cultural necessity. Valhalla Rising is no exception. Post–Casino Royale Mads Mikkelsen plays an 11th-century Norse warrior turned rising star of the Scandinavian slave-gladiator circuit. Feeling unappreciated on account of being kept in a cage all the time, Mads joins the Great Resignation early by liberating his owners’ intestines from their bodies, then linking up with a small band of Holy Land–bound Crusaders happy to overlook his heathen status to capitalize on his skills. Things go south (or rather, east) from there. Valhalla Rising flopped upon its release, and its abject desolation makes it difficult to characterize. Refn’s unforgiving direction purposefully offers little to hold on to: a sucked-dry color palette save for flashes of shocking red, permeable barriers between the real and the imagined, and a dead-silent protagonist. The director’s trademark nerve-shredding pauses stretch into near-interminable intervals of waiting. It’s a strangely-paced dark odyssey, not “action-packed” but certainly not action-free. In some ways, Valhalla Rising may be the only anti-climactic Viking movie ever made. That’s not a criticism.
Valhalla Rising is streaming on AMC+.
We’re obligated to include pop culture’s favorite Norse god for obvious reasons, although neither Marvel’s Thor nor his first solo movie have too much to say about the Vikings or Norse mythology. That’s fine. You’re here to watch Chris Hemsworth fight a robot, not dissect the nitty-gritty of Viking mythology. No fact-checking. Let’s continue. With Kenneth Branagh at the helm, Thor is essentially two movies crammed into one. In the first, Branagh constructs a family drama of vaguely Shakespearean proportions: two brother-princes, one arrogant and one cunning, competing for the throne of their aging father-king as the kingdom is beset by enemies. The second is … a boring fish-out-of-water comedy? A love story? Natalie Portman’s most startlingly bad performance? In any case, Thor gets banished to Earth, Stellan Skarsgård and Natalie Portman do some fake science while Kat Dennings cracks joyless jokes about Facebook and then they fight a robot. Hemsworth’s natural charisma in the role explains the character’s continued popularity, and it floats the movie. And however distant Thor may be from the Vikings, Price points out you can view the structure of the Marvel cinematic universe as a very modern iteration of the story worlds that formed the Vikings’ oral tradition. If it’s good enough for the Viking scholar, it’s good enough for you.
Thor is streaming on Disney+.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
There’s nothing a genuinely heartwarming movie about the power of kindness and teamwork can’t do, including earn a cool $494 million at the box office and launch Dreamworks’ most successful franchise since Shrek. As such, How to Train Your Dragon works for many of the same reasons Shrek does: an excellent voice cast, well-placed jokes for the parents, a delightfully expressive dragon, and sending someone who isn’t the hero’s journey type on a hero’s journey. In this case, scrawny Viking teen Hiccup wants nothing more than to fight the dragons that terrorize his village, only to discover upon capturing one that they’re just misunderstood. His dragon-slaying birthright and newfound realization that violence is not the answer are not so easily reconciled, and the conflicts it breeds with his friends and family feel sincere and weighty for a kids’ movie. Dreamworks nails the animation with help from Roger Deakins (on hand between Coen-brothers commitments, naturally), whose insistence on naturalism combines wonderfully with the expressive creature design and whimsical Viking village. With its emphasis on brute physicality, warlike temperament, and embrace of the majestic, Viking society, however kid-ified, is a natural fit that moves the narrative along nicely. It’s also just super-cute and entertaining. Consider the hearts warmed.
How to Train Your Dragon is streaming on Peacock.
No false advertising here. MGM and The History Channel’s game-changing Vikings does exactly what it says on the label and gives us our most complete pop cultural portrayal of Viking life to date. Vikings follows the rise and reign of Ragnar Lothbrok, a heroic king from Viking legend fictionalized here as a brooding and strategic leader prone to realpolitik. The plot moves forward in big, sweeping maneuvers, progressively opening itself up well beyond the fjords. Vikings’ Vikings find their foil in the Saxons, and the show parses the yawning religious and cultural divide in scenes of frustrated diplomatic dealings and through the character of Athelstan, an English monk taken prisoner in Ragnar’s first raid. With six seasons’ worth of time to kill in insane ways, the show manages to feel spacious and real, exploring everything from gender politics to feudal Saxon ones while barreling through every iteration of raiding, betraying, raping, dueling, and assassinating. Although it just got a spinoff, Vikings never felt like a show for everyone. Showrunner Michael Hirst knew that and never compromised its ultra-specific blend of gore and medieval geopolitics. On top of its excellent cast, smart writing, and well-choreographed fights, that singular vision is the prevailing reason for Vikings’ success.
The Last Kingdom (2015–22)
The Last Kingdom’s drama is, historically speaking, real. After nine straight years of brutal raids during the ninth century, every English kingdom had fallen to the Vikings with the lone exception of Wessex. (Hence the name of the show.) Based on Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories and having arrived when it did, The Last Kingdom started off feeling a little like Vikings drawn from the Saxons’ perspective, even if protagonist Uhtred is neither quite Saxon nor Viking since he was born English but kidnapped and raised by the Danes. It’s a whole thing. In any case, the show follows Uhtred and his ponytail’s quest to reclaim his ancestral seat and birthright, something that ends up taking enough violent and expensive battles to fill entire listicles about the best and worst ones. The action is the star here, but worth noting are several of the show’s supporting performances. David Dawson is infuriatingly great as the steely and reticent King Alfred; Ian Hart is chronically watchable as his devout but secretly practical priest Father Beocca. Emily Cox’s increasingly embittered and determined Brida raises the tempo of every scene she’s in. Brutish and superstitious warlords at the start, The Last Kingdom’s Vikings become complex villains and fragile allies. Chalk it up to the writers’ room settling in. Either that, or the march of history.
The Last Kingdom is streaming on Netflix.