Northmen – A #Viking Buddy Movie

Northmen

Can’t believe how long it is since I first drafted this post. I guess that tells you something about the movie and my enthusiasm for it. Anyway, here it is now, in all its stream-of-consciousness glory.

In northern Europe in 873 a gang of ruthless Vikings are exiled from their homeland and find themselves shipwrecked in Scotland. They must carve a bloody trail through their enemies to find sanctuary in England. Where do I even begin with this movie? It’s a chase movie. It’s a buddy movie. There is gore. There is testosterone to excess. There is only one female character. I guess the Viking theme makes it easier to ignore the female characters except as objects of desire or by introducing them as women warriors, but it still feels wrong for the films to be so male-oriented. Maybe it could be remade with shieldmaidens and only one male character. After all, shieldmaidens are in vogue at the moment. At least she is front and centre in the movie poster, while Tom Hopper (Asbjörn) does the whole looking back over his shoulder so you can see his arse pose, even if it is hidden by the others.

So, snark aside, how does it play out? Not well, I’m afraid. It looks good with fantastic scenery. I’ll give it that, and Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth fame plays Valli, so it has Viking metal cred. There is also plenty of action that will appeal to many, including a ninja monk. Ok, he’s a Christian monk really, but in the Friar Tuck super-warrior with a staff mould. I can imagine that I would have enjoyed this movie much more if I were quite a few years younger and less critical in my approach. I mean, it did pull me along with it, and I did not notice the time going by as I watched it, so it was not bad in that sense. But …

The start of the bad: only one female character. And she is more prize than protagonist.Charlie Murphy plays Inghean, a Scottish princess who is kidnapped by the Vikings after a fight on the cliffs at the start.  The Viking ship is wrecked. They climb the cliffs. At the top, a coach is going past, so the Vikings and the coach guards immediately attack each other. Here’s where the film started going wrong for me. Why do Vikings on film never try to talk to the other side first (one notable exception being Vikings)?  There is never even any thought of talking to the other side. It’s all, “Yeah, we don’t know where we are. Let’s just kill the first people we see.” It’s men playing up to stereotype refusing to ask for directions! Throughout the film, this sort of attitude is prevalent. It reminds me of a dominant trend in some companies I have worked for where the bosses demanded action rather than thought. Act first, think later don’t even bother thinking. It’s a bit of a shit way to work, and does not generally lead to constructive outcomes.

So, the Vikings capture Inghean. Asbjörn is smitten. Stockholm syndrome takes over and she falls for him in the end. Cheesy! Capturing her leads to a chase across Scotland. The baddies, who are really bad and thoroughly earn their baddie credentials by various bad acts, pursue them. You’ll have to watch the film to learn how, but I doubt any of it will surprise you. While being pursued, the Vikings argue a lot. Vikings don’t make decisions by consensus. They argue and bully until all other voices are silenced by voice or blade. Respect is gained only by being louder and more aggressive or more willing to kill than the rest of the group. Camaraderie is not really present, and I cannot imagine any members of this group of Vikings actually having a bromance. They are all too macho for that. The way the Viking group works reminds me very much of Patrick’s work on street gangs in Glasgow in the 60s.(1) The leader of the gang was the one who was most willing to go the extra mile in the pursuit of violence, being the most violent and dangerous.

There is not really a lot more to the film beyond the chase. The performances are not the worst I have ever seen. The scenery is pretty, and the cinematography and production standards are pretty decent. But it still felt like it could have been a lot more than it was, and I found some disturbing values being foregrounded. In common with most of the more recent Viking films I have watched, this film emphasises violent and aggressive masculinity at the expense of thoughtfulness. It seems to be reflecting and/or reinforcing a view of masculinity as aggressive and action-oriented with no soft edges and no room for friendship. This may be a response to recent dialogues about masculinity being in crisis, with the movie presenting a model of masculine behaviour that reverts back to perceptions of older, less civilised times when men could be real men, or it could be an escapist fantasy about such things. Nevertheless, I find it ultimately unsatisfying.

  1. James Patrick, A Glasgow Gang Observed (London: Methuen, 1973)

About ruarigh

Historical consultant, archaeologist and peripatetic berserkerologist. My PhD was a cognitive analysis and textual archaeology of the Old Norse berserkr in popular culture from the early medieval period to the present day.
This entry was posted in Masculinity, Movies, Vikings. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Northmen – A #Viking Buddy Movie

  1. aelarsen says:

    It’s amazing how generally lousy Viking-themed films are, isn’t it?

    • ruarigh says:

      Yes. There’s little depth to most of them, and little depth to the characters in them. There is definitely room for a quality drama with depth, historicity and a good mix of characters.

      • aelarsen says:

        And little awareness that Norse culture was more than Vikings

      • ruarigh says:

        Very true. I suspect this view is compounded by the use of Viking as an ethnicity these days. It probably does not help that universities run Viking studies courses, and that Viking is used even in academic circles as a shorthand for the period and the people. As usual, vocabulary causes problems and directs thinking along particular paths. But a lot of people are quite strongly wedded to the idea of the Viking as the Conanesque barbarian and don’t like to have that view challenged. These films certainly don’t challenge it which, I guess, is quite comforting for them.

      • aelarsen says:

        Yes! When I cover the Vikings, I always start by saying they’re not an ethnic group so much as a sort of occupation.

      • ruarigh says:

        That needs to be repeated a lot. Also that Scandinavian and Icelandic society in the Viking Age was not the monolithic culture that calling them all Vikings suggests.

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