Total Recall: Mighty Viking Movies

With Thor hitting theaters, we run down some of cinema's most memorable Norsemen.


From the pantheon of ancient deities to the pages of Marvel Comics and finally to the silver screen, Thor has had quite the journey -- and judging from its robust Tomatometer, the hammer-wielding Asgardian is none the worse for wear. Arriving this weekend at theater near you (and on suitably massive IMAX 3D screens), Kenneth Branagh's action epic blends timeless mythology with cutting-edge special effects and a marquee-ready cast -- and in the process, it continues Hollywood's long love affair with all things Viking-related. Naturally, we decided to get in the spirit of things by smoking some cod, pouring a big cup of mead, and looking back at some of the more noteworthy examples of the genre. Hop into our longship, won't you?



Historically speaking, Beowulf doesn't really belong on this list, because, well, Beowulf wasn't a Viking. For Hollywood's purposes, though, any tale taking place in ancient Scandinavia -- and containing characters with names like Hrothgar and Unferth -- can swim in the same goblet of mead as the rest of our list. Coating the Old English classic poem in a layer of shiny new mo-cap gloss (courtesy of director Robert Zemeckis), the 2007 edition of Beowulf follows the titular warrior (Ray Winstone) as he destroys the dreaded Grendel (Crispin Glover) and goes up against the monster's mother (Angelina Jolie). It took plenty of liberties with the source material, but most critics didn't mind; as Richard Corliss observed for TIME, "You want to read Beowulf? Get the book, I'm not stopping you. You want bloody adventure with a brain, see the movie."

Erik the Viking


This 1989 comedy began life as a children's book that director Terry Jones wrote for his son -- and according to most critics, it should have stayed on the printed page. A critical flop and box office disaster, Erik the Viking reunited Jones with his fellow Monty Python vet John Cleese for the tale of an earnest young warrior (Tim Robbins) whose reluctance to rape and/or pillage leads him on a mystical quest to Asgard, with plenty of Norse mythology -- and historical references -- along the way. Sadly, it lacked enough Python-style laughs to earn a place alongside Holy Grail and Life of Brian, although it did earn praise from the Washington Post's Rita Kempley, who called it "a Wagnerian slapstick fantasy" and said it "has the feel of a grown-up bedtime comedy, a gross, sillier Princess Bride."

How to Train Your Dragon


Blending the Hollywood tradition of cartoons about finding the strength to be true to your heart with the timeless legends of mighty Norsemen fighting mythical beasts, this $494 million DreamWorks Animation hit follows the adventures of a young Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who discovers that the long-standing war his people have waged against dragons might not be everything it's cracked up to be. And okay, so How to Train Your Dragon isn't really about Vikings -- it takes place in another world -- but they're close enough to count for the purposes of our list; and anyway, with a 98 percent Tomatometer rating under its horned helmet, this is one of the best entries in the genre. As an appreciative A.O. Scott wrote for the New York Times, "Tenderness, beauty and exhilaration are the movie's great strengths."

The Long Ships


The same year he won an Academy Award for his work in Lilies of the Field, Sidney Poitier toiled his way through this loose adaptation of the Frans G. Bengtsson novel The Long Ships, which pits a greedy Moorish king (Poitier) against an intrepid Norseman (Richard Widmark) in a quest to obtain a giant golden bell nicknamed the Mother of Voices. As far as quite a few critics were concerned, these Ships weren't exactly seaworthy -- Time Out's Trevor Johnston dismissed it as "awful" and Variety derided its "hodge-podge of a storyline" -- but others placed it squarely in the "so bad it's good" camp, including Film4's reviewer, who chuckled, "This is pure rubbish, but thoroughly enjoyable rubbish."



Here's one you can just hear coming together in the pitch meeting: "Vikings are awesome. Aliens are awesome. If we mix 'em together...double awesome!" Sadly, things didn't quite turn out that way for Outlander, which stars James Caviezel as an interstellar soldier who crash-lands in eighth-century Norway -- and is taken prisoner by King Rothgar (John Hurt), thus allowing his deadly alien cargo to scuttle off and start slaying Vikings. With a premise that daffy, this should have been a lot of fun, but most critics were let down -- with the notable exception of a few scribes like Richard Edwards of SFX, who called it "about as subtle as being punched in the face by an angry Norwegian," and said, "It delivers everything you could possibly want from a movie about Vikings and alien monsters."


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