Review: Vikings (docu)

In this three hour BBC documentary, celebrity archeologist Neil Oliver presents the Vikings and travels through the landscapes of the “barbarians of the North”.

The BBC, UK’s public broadcaster, neil-oliver-vikings3has produced several documentaries and fact series about the Vikings. This is their latest.

In the first episode, Neil Oliver travels to Scandinavia to find out about the roots of the Vikings; where they came from, what formed them as inhabitants of the North, and how they evolved from iron and bronze age tribes. We don’t actually get any Viking information in the first part, but we do learn why it was possible for the people of Scandinavia to become Vikings. For example, the fact that the Roman expansion stopped somewhere in Germany, which left the Scandinavians alone for another 1000 years, free to worship their own gods and rule by their own laws (also, not learning to read). In other words, Scandinavia was left behind the rest of Europe, delaying the development enough for a separate culture to develop.

In the second episode, Oliver takes us on a journey in the footsteps of Vikings as international traders. He shows how Vikings made it to Russia and Konstantinopel, and how they set up slave trade from Ireland as a business. We also learn that Danish Vikings invaded England and actually ruled half of the British isles for some years. Viking evidence is found in abundance everywhere in what would become the UK, including many everydays words like knife, boat, leg, angry, skull and bag. Some 1500 modern English words are believed to be remnants of the Viking settlement in England.

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In the third and last episode, we briefly learn about the Vikings’ expansion into the North-West, including how they discovered America 500 years before Columbus. The bulk of the programme is taken up by the Christianity of the Viking countries. The Nordic region was one of the last places in Europe to receive Jesus, and that effectively marked the end of the Viking era, as national states and powerful kings replaced local lords at the same time. What I miss from this episode though, is how Christianity was brutally enforced on peasants and fishermen (“convert or die”-style), and how Viking culture continued to live in paralell with the new, official religion.

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While being very enthusiastic about the topic, Oliver keeps refering to “the Vikings did this and the Vikings did that” as if they were one, big, united empire spanning the entire Scandinavian area. They were not. There was no one Viking king with a master plan, there were no Viking nations and they were not formally synched in their work, culture, religion or development, like our EU or NATO today – still, that is the idea you get from hearing “the Vikings did this” all the time. It can be downright misleading if you don’t know your basic Viking history. In fact, we are told very little about how the Viking era societies were organized. Who did rule, how did they rule, what were the local and regional ranks, how did ordinary people live? Nothing of that is touched, even though it would be more interesting than maps of Scandinavia showing where the Vikings lived, which actually makes up a portion of the series as Oliver travels from here to there.

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We are also not informed about the amount of piracy and looting the Vikings did. Was that really the only thing they spent time doing, since they are known for it? No, but this point is not investigated. It would be nice if we could get some explanations for their raids. Was it merely a way to get rich quick? This series does nothing to educate me on the most popular Viking topic. Not to mention that it would be great to get more insight into their peaceful activites and religion. In fact, most of the information presented is basic Viking knowledge one learns in elementary school, at least in Scandinavia. Has no new Viking knowledge emerged, have no theories and finds been revised?

A 304 page book authored by Oliver and titled Vikings: A History was published by W&N in October 2012. In addition, a 177 minute region 2 DVD version of the series was released by the BBC in November 2012.

This BBC documentary is jampacked with information, presented by Neil Oliver in a popular manner, as he walks back and forth in museums, between landmarks and on excavation sites. You have to pay attention to what he says, in his charming Scottish dialect, because there are no (or very little) re-enactments, computerized illustrations or archive footage (from other films) to spice things up. In many ways a low budget production that does not use the TV medium for what it is worth. Kind of like reading a book, where the images have to be produced in your mind. Oliver is, however, good at explaining facts, and seems very enthusiastic about the topic, so it does not get boring as such. Seen as a basic introduction to Vikings, the series work well, but for a recent documentary by the big BBC and their fourth on Vikings in a decade, one does expect more than a man standing in front of a museum piece and talking.

Rated 5 of 10.

BBC, 2012, directed by Jon Eastman, Rosie Schellenburg, Simon Winchcombe.

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What are Viking movies?

An introduction to Viking movies; why they are not just a subgenre of historical epics or pure fantasy, and what lies behind the genre name.  

You’ve got your fantasy films,vikinglongship historical epics, ancient kings going to war, barbarians invading sword-and-sandal emperors, cool characters like Conan, big franchises like Lord of the Rings…. mix all that and you get; Viking movies! One would think that most countries with a movie industry would churn out Viking movies on a regular basis, considering how popular movies with the above ingredients have been the last 15 years. Not so! In fact, looking at all the action-adventure-fantasy genres, Viking films probably come last in terms of number and reputation, in spite of having the potential to offer everything people love in their imaginary entertainment.  This underrated genre has its fans, and the fans now have www.VikingMovies.info to keep them informed!

Underrated? Even movie fans struggle to mention more than five Viking movies, let alone five good Viking movies. Viking films – the few that exist – may have a bad reputation, but nevertheless they are often great fun and offers a way to explore themes in a raw and imaginative way that is rooted in reality, not fantasy. Usually, a movie about wild fur-clad barbarians that throw axes, burn down churches and steal women will have to be a fantasy movies like Conan the barbarian or Conquest. Great as they are, they are pure fantasy (although often inspired by Viking mythology), whereas Viking movies are always based on actual history. Granted, many Viking films either border on fantasy or cross over to fantasy completely, and most of the genre’s films take huge liberties in terms of historical accuracy, but there is still that core of truth which has been confirmed by archeologists and historians. This makes Viking movies different – they are “fantasy movies based on actual events”.

Unfortunately, the genreerikthevikingdvd is so small that there are even people who don’t know what or who the Vikings were, so here’s a quick introduction. Around 1000 years ago, the Northern-most areas of Europe (known today as the Nordic region; Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland) were not divided in countries. These cold and distant mountains, fjords and forests were populated by people who were farmers, fishermen, hunters, traders and craftsmen. Local clans, kings and lords divided the land between them. Around the year 790, the northmen created a new business; raids on more or less distant neighbours. The first recorded raid was in 787 in Dorset in England, while others count the attack on Lindisfarne in 793 as the start of the Viking age. With ocean-going longboats, they murdered, raped, stole and burned through Ireland, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, wherever they could travel. The Viking age lasted only a few hundred years, from the 8th century to around 1100. The battles at Stamford Bridge and Hastings in 1066 is often seen as an end of the Viking era. While Viking raids, their laws and culture existed before and after this period, one usually limits the Viking age to this period due to defining events that were documented.

Centuries later, Vikings would become the symbols of Scandinavia; Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland take pride in their Viking history. Barbaric business aside, Vikings were also brave adventurers who discovered Iceland, Greenland and North America, and traded with civilizations as far away as North Africa and the Middle East. The word “viking” is difficult to translate from its original meaning; it could mean “a raider at sea” or “a journey”.

Naturally, authors and movie producers have tapped into this rich and exciting culture, and created books, TV and movies more or less based on actual events, historical people or the culture itself. Let’s not be hypocrites about it; most Viking movies can not be taken literally, as they are too fictional and take great liberties with historical accuracies. Some movies have one leg firmly in history and the other leg in fantasy, but that is perhaps because everything about the Vikings kickstart the imagination so much? It’s not really a surprise that the biggest fantasy classic of all times, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, were heavily influenced by Viking mythology and culture. The fact remains; you cannot really know exactly what, how, and why Vikings acted. A lot of the content that can be seen in the movies could potentially have happened. If you forget about aliens, monsters and time-travel, Viking films are about real people, not about superheroes or magical worlds. Part of the fascination lies in how all the adventures could have taken place. Unlike, say, the adventures of Sinbad that clearly are made up in someone’s imagination, and must remain in fantasy land.

The first Viking movie is believed to be The Viking (1928), a story about how Erik the Red discovered Greenland east of Iceland. It was also the first colour movie to have a complete soundtrack. Since then only a few dozen Viking movies have been made, including the ones that cross over into fantasy or is based on legends that are similar to Viking stories, such as Beowulf adaptions. Nobody has yet compiled a complete list, but I would be surprised if the list reaches 100 titles. Peel away all the fantasy ones, and you might end up with only 50 movies and TV series.

Viking movies can roughly outlanderposterbe divided into four categories; the realistic, the fantasy based, the reversed perspective ones, and comedies/children’s movies. Many films place themselves in two or more categories. The realistic ones features no dragons, otherwordly beasts or magic. They focus on either actual history, or things that could physically and mentally happen in the Viking age. The White Viking (1991) is an example of that, with its story about Scandinavia turning into Christian territory towards the end of the Viking age. Possibly the most famous Viking film, The Vikings (1958) with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis is also in this category, even if the historical accuracy fails. At least they battle eachother, not aliens or monsters as in fantasy based Viking films, a relatively new subgenre. Island at the top of the world (1974) is an early example, but in later years we have had big-budget films like Outlander (2008) and Beowulf (2007) that threw new and much needed fuel onto the Viking fire. Strictly speaking, Beowulf is not really straight Viking material, but many adaptions place Beowulf and Grendel in a Viking setting, and the poem does take place in Viking era Scandinavia. The third category, reversed perspective Viking films, deals with Vikings from the perspective of non-Vikings, such as their victims or the consequences of Viking raids. Alfred the Great (1969) is a well known example, and Asterix and the Vikings (2006) could be said to belong to that category, as well as being an animated movie mostly aimed at children. Vikings are more often that you’d think featured in children’s entertainment, although usually highly exaggerated and simplified. Some adult comedies are treasures though, like Erik the Viking (1989), starring some of the Monty Pythons. In Sweden, the sitcom Home to Midgard (2003) was aimed at adults, so there are all sorts out there.

Here at vikingmovies.info we’ll write about all sorts of Viking films and TV shows, from the silly ones made in Turkey via BBC documentaries to “real” Viking films made in Scandinavia. We will also cover the outskirts of the Viking genre, such as the Arn trilogy which is set after the Viking age or movies that include Vikings but not as the primary characters.

Bookmark and enjoy!