After the break-up of the Monty Python at the beginning of the eighties, Terry Jones wrote, among other things, Labyrinth in 1986. Three years later, he decided to continue working in the fantasy realm with one of his most underrated movies: Erik the Viking.
It’s a story well rooted in Nordic mythology and written with a certain respect for that folklore and, in equal measure, with the typical Pythonish sense of irreverent humor.
Here’s a hint of the plot. Erik (Tim Robbins), tired of plundering villages and killing enemies for no reason, decides to put an end to Ragnarok, the dark age in which the sun doesn’t shine on Midgard and men are condemned to kill each other forever. He learns of a way to do it thanks to the witch Freya (Eartha Kitt), he gathers a handful of heroes and, virtually against the will of everyone else (including the father played by Mickey Rooney), he crosses the ocean to find the mythical land of Hy-Brasil in search of the horn with which to awaken the gods.
I can understand why the film wasn’t a great success. On the one hand, the story itself is decidedly compelling and, while classic, it’s by no means trivial. On the other hand, there are many moments in which Jones shows that he doesn’t take himself seriously at all by inserting comic sketches and improbable characters where you least expect it.
And yet… I can’t really explain why, but the tone of the film won me over. Erik is always very serious, despite the most absurd things happening around him such as him becoming invisible to the father of the beautiful Aud (Imogen Stubbs) played by Terry Jones (to be honest, this sketch is a bit reminiscent of the Christians who hide from the Roman guards in Life of Brian, 1979).
The other characters are either totally over the top, such as the bloodthirsty Halfdan (John Cleese) and his very racist intendant played by Tsutomu Sekime, or they are characterized at least by some very exasperate traits such as the berserk fury of Sven and his father (Tim McInnerny and Charles McKeown), or Loki’s art of subterfuge (Antony Sher).
Yet, I would do an injustice to this film if I only mentioned its perfect fantasy plot with lots of dragons, Valhalla and the edges of the world, as well as its unbridled sense of humor. In fact, I have the impression that something deeper is hidden in this product. Maybe it’s because I consider Terry Jones one of the geniuses of the twentieth century, without fear of exaggerating, but I’m almost certain that many of the elements of the film hide more or less successful metaphors.
Is it a coincidence that the kingdom of Hy-Brasil, where violence is not allowed, is inhabited by a mass of morons convinced that they’re making good music and are unable to recognize a flood even when literally drowning? And what about the equally extreme kingdom of Midgard, with its senseless violence and with life which is worth absolutely nothing? I believe that one of the underlying messages of the film is, and it’s a fantasy trope, that there’s a need for both peace and violence, that our nature as human beings cannot help but be multifaceted, and its dark side cannot be completely denied.
I was particularly intrigued by the character of the Christian missionary Harald (Freddie Jones) who seems to live in a different world from that of the Vikings he accompanies. Unable to see the elements of their mythology, he’s the only one with whom Aud’s ridiculous invisibility cloak works. And then what to think of the final solution of Erik’s mission in Asgard, or of the child gods who leave total freedom of action to the humans responsible for their own destinies… In short, Erik the Viking is funny, it’s a great fantasy film (in the style of Time Bandits by Terry Gilliam, 1981, to remain in the Monty Python area), it has an excellent cast and even the set design is good, despite the modest budget. Finally, it also explores some interesting ideas and themes. I have the impression that it has a lot of rewatch value too, ciao!