The Viking Sagas (1995)

A highly authentic and enjoyable Viking Adventure filmed in Iceland, starring Ralf Moeller, from director Michael Chapman. Image R1 USA.

The Film

Film makers have always taken liberties with historical accuracy - cutting corners to save money or simply make their films more action packed. Most of the time, these errors could be overlooked, and in the case of the Vikings, there were several enjoyable films made during the 1960s featuring Norsemen, that took huge liberties with history. However, it was after such films as The Norsemen (1978), with The Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors as a Viking warrior, that the Icelandic film maker Hrafn Gunnlaugsson shot the first of his trilogy of Viking films Hrafninn Flýgur (1984) in Iceland itself, with authentic dialogue and settings. Unfortunately, although popular, the films were never widely distributed. Fortunately however, in 1995 the American cinematographer Michael Chapman decided to shoot his own Viking story, taking advantage of authentic Icelandic locations and actors...

With the death of his father at the hands of Ketil, Kjartan (Ralf Moeller) finds himself to be the last chieftan left to fight against this menace. He escapes from his execution and finds himself at the house of Magnus, the country's lawgiver (Chief Justice). Magnus has the gift of foresight, and has forseen that the man who washes up by his house would be the one to save all Iceland. Kjartan was never trained to be warrior, and his father has encouraged him to meet up with the legendary but recently outlawed warrior Gunnar (Sven-Ole Thorsen). Although encouraged to simply wait it out at Magnus' farm until the warrior next arrives, Kjartan falls for the lawgiver's beautiful daughter Gudrun (Ingibjörg Stefánsdóttir) and when he discovers that she is bound to marry a horrible man, he takes it upon himself to challenge the man to a duel - thus revealing his identity, and bringing Ketil's forces upon him, with deadly consequences.

story was the invention of director Michael Chapman and comes off as a cross between the authentic day-to-day conflicts that would have dominated Viking Iceland - feuds over women, land and power, and revenge for murders - and the embellished tales of the storytellers who would have told these sagas. Accordingly the film uses framing scenes of a storyteller telling this tale to an avid audience, and Chapman makes good use of this man's narration to keep the film flowing and explain the storyline without need for exposition from the characters. At times the film does appear very remniscent of the Sword and Scorcery boom of the 1980s, with the idea of a magical sword, unsettled ghosts and prophecy - but any real supernatural elements are kept to a minimum, and can simply be explained by the exaggerations and poetic license of a storyteller. The film moves along at a pretty quick pace, leaving good time for characterisation but certainly never dragging, and it builds to a suitably dramatic (although not unpredictable) climax.

Director Michael Chapman is best known for his amazing cinematography on films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) and does some great work on the film here - boosted of course by the amazing Icelandic scenery. Unfortunately the quick pacing means that he never quite exploits the lonely and beautiful landscape to its full, as one might expect from a Werner Herzog film (see Aguirre (1972)). The costumes, weapons, and buildings, even the choice of horses all have a real sense of authenticity to them, showing some good research and attention to detail (except for Kjartan's small metal shield that he sports late in the film, that seems noticably out of place). The film does feature a variety of lost limbs that all look particularly realistic and quite graphic, while the special effects in generally look very good - and although not particularly original, the musical score does a very good job of building tension and atmosphere.

German actor Ralf Moeller takes the lead role - usually an action movie star (who gained most of his early experience in Jean-Claude Van Damme films), he certainly looks the part as a sword-wielding hero and with his distinct accent is often remniscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and although a better actor than the big Austrian, is certainly no Oscar winner (incidentally, he would be cast in Schwarzenegger's iconic Conan role in the 1998 television series Conan the Adventurer). The former body-builder and very widely travelled actor/stuntman Sven-Ole Thorsen (who has starred in films from Predator (1982) to Gladiator (2000)) plays the outlaw Gunnar and again looks the part, but never quite meets the emotional requirements of the role. The beautiful Icelandic singer Ingibjörg Stefánsdóttir, who performed at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993, is the focal Gudrun, and gives probably the best performance in the film. The rest of the cast are mostly Icelandic character actors who give decent performances.

Boasting a well written script and highly authentic atmosphere with some beautiful locations and women, it does suffer from some rather poor acting, and misses the potential to make more of Iceland's truely epic landscapes. Ultimately The Viking Sagas is a very enjoyable film for action movie fans (who don't mind a good helping of storyline), and anyone interested in Viking history, and comes highly recommended. My only caution would be against anyone planning to use the film educationally - the abundance of bloody fight scenes makes this certainly unsuitable for young viewers.

In Brief

Anyone famous in it? Ralf Moeller - a big German actor who has starred in a variety of action films, including Gladiator (2000)
Directed by anyone interesting? Michael Chapman - the two-time Oscar nominated cinematographer of Raging Bull (1980) and The Fugitive (1993) who also directed the pre-civilisation adventure Clan of the Cave Bear (1986).
Any violence/gore? Several gory death scenes and lots of fighting.
Any sex? A couple of tasteful sex scenes with some brief topless shots.
Who is it for?
Anyone interested in Viking history, and action movie fans should really enjoy this.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour
The print is good, with strong colours, mild grain, and only occasional speckling.
Audio English 5.1 and stereo tracks - audio is very strong, with good use made of the surround features on the 5.1 track.
Subtitles None
Extras None
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Other regions? Available on DVD in Germany as Viking Sagas, but only with German language options, and with no bonus features (also on an earlier DVD in German speaking countries as Islandic Warrior with a low quality, full-frame print).
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut - the print used is English language.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 14th August 2007.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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