…not to be confused with the movie of the same name from 2009.
It seems Vikings are the flavour of the year. There’s a TV series featuring Vikings, and there’s an exhibition coming out of Sweden to the National Maritime Museum. I tend to lap up anything about Vikings because I’m always hoping to see something like ‘Njal’s Saga’ or ‘Egil’s Saga’ on screen. It’s a hard genre to do and even when you do it well, it’s not like there’s a great audience out there of it; One of the best Viking movies I’ve seen is ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’ and that one didn’t exactly set the box office alight.
This one is a little different because it ambles in to the narrative with the sensibility of a Heavy Metal album cover (up to and including he title which is also the title of one of the most scandalous accounts of the career of Led Zeppelin). As such, the milieu and sensibility are not exactly as one would expect arising from the old sagas. But then, we know how those attempts go and they’re never really exciting screen fodder.
Clive Standen who is in the TV series of ‘Vikings’ playing second banana Rollo to Ragnar in that series is also in this series playing second banana to Steinar in this film.
So, here’s the obligatory spoiler alert!
What’s Good About It
While this is a Viking movie, the best thing about it is the third act. The journey the young Viking prince Steinar takes into the heart of darkness of England leads him to a cave full of savages – every bit as savage as those in ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’, but then it turns out we’re actually in the last section of ‘Apocalypse Now’ re-imagined. The confrontation and fight that takes place between his brother is the fight Willard should’ve had with Kurtz at the climax of ‘Apocalypse Now’.
To backtrack to ‘Apocalypse Now’, Marlon Brando turned up to set in the Philippines overweight and underdone, neither having read the script nor the book ‘Heart of Darkness’. This account is recorded in ‘Hearts of Darkness’, the documentary about the making of ‘Apocalypse Now’, and in the end Francis Ford Coppola sort of fudged the climactic fight by doing some weird montage to explain what happens in a metaphorical way than actually have Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando do a proper fight scene. When you think about, it wouldn’t have been too good given the respective actors’ talents.
So what’s surprising about this film is that in the third act, you suddenly find yourself watching exactly that same scenario – of having traveled up the metaphorical river in to darkness, to arrive at the land of the savages run by the best man from your civilisation. this layering adds so much more meaning to the fight and denouement of the film. They even found an actor that looks a little like Marlon Brando c.1978 to play Hakan. It’s absolutely wild and riveting – but only if you’ve watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ever wondered what the hell the bull-slaughter-scene is all about.
What’s Bad About It
It’s an uneven film with fairly obtuse sort of presentation of the story. You’re never sure about which bits of exposition is important as the characters set across land in search of Hakan the Ferocious. Also, the film starts off with such a goofy mimesis with the Heavy Metal font, you sort of expect it to not be a terribly profound film, except of course you find yourself in ‘Heart of Darkness’ in the third act.
What’s Interesting About It
This is a hard one to sell. The film spends a lot of time in different sorts of mimesis that you never really settle in to the narrative flow. I’ve been thinking about this and I suspect it is because the film is trying to obscure its tracks as it takes you up the metaphorical river in to the heart of darkness. Consider that in the final chapter of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Conrad discusses the likelihood of Britain as having been that savage land in Roman times,where a Roman contingent of adventurers would have traveled up the Thames. In one sense, this movie is about that, but without the Romans.
The motif has been big in cinema in the last few years. ‘King Arthur’ starring Clive Owen posited the original King Arthur as a Roman Briton in the dying days of the Roman Empire; Both ‘Centurion’ and ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ sent the Romans into the maws of the savage Picts with the same undertones of England being the land of darkness.
The England of ‘Hammer of the Gods’ is a strange place. It certainly goes out of its way to show an alienating landscape.
Taboos And Abjection
The dawning realisation in the cave for this film is particularly nauseating. The long lost brother and long lost mother turn out to be lovers. The incest at the core of the story is enough to make you mutter “motherfucker!” and you’d be right. Freud would have been so full of praise for this film for the way it essentially manages to not only go up the river into the heart of darkness, but thrust Oedipus into the mix and – *gasp* – it works! It’s like some mad genius wrote this thing.
It works because it takes you there gradually, dropping hints; so that when the realisation comes it comes with the full ferocity of a transgressed taboo. You have to say “well played!” Considering how goofy the film is at the beginning, by the time you’re in with the savages you feel like they got you completely.
I really can’t say whether this is a “good” film or not but if you’ve ever watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ and wondered what the hell that was about, or watched a performance of Oedipus and wondered what the hell the fuss was all about, then this film is sort of the de-polemicised regurgitation spelling out exactly what they’re about. In turn it’s a film that seems to come from the darkest recesses of our imagination, and for that it deserves a great deal of credit.