Fantasy Films 101.11 1989's "Erik the Viking"
All good things must come to an end. Whether you consider this column a good thing or not is up for grabs, but the other half of the statement is certainly true, whether you choose to believe it or not. Belief being a pretty important thing, as I'll demonstrate in an exploration of 1989's Erik the Viking, by Terry Jones.
The year 1989 marked the end of an era for role-playing games. It was out with the old, and in with the new, as TSR released the 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules. Gone were the demons, devils and bare-breasted nymphs of old, gone were the cavaliers and barbarians and assassins, gone were the hardbound Monster Manual and Fiend Folio. And gone were the great fantasy films many Dungeons & Dragons fans grew up with.
Throughout the 1980s, playing Dungeons & Dragons was dangerous: you could be lured into the bowels of hell; you could be forced to commit suicide; you could kill your friends and your parents; or worse. The evidence was right there--wrapped within a fantasy world were hordes of devils and demons and chaotic evil assassins, just waiting to grab you and suck you in.
The fantasy films of the 1980s, for all their lightheartedness, were in much the same vein. These movies pulled no punches; they just sometimes threw different combinations. Time Bandits was all about evil, and it ends with a young boy losing everything he has to a chunk of the stuff. Conan the Barbarian and Beastmaster were chock full of blood and breasts and evil sorcerers. We don't even need to discuss Legend. Even films that appeared harmless, such as The Neverending Story, Labyrinth and The Princess Bride were full of moral ambiguity, of betrayals and fast allegiances and youthful indiscretion and dancing with the Devil. These films were dangerous, because of what they were. And what they were was fantastic.
And here we are in 1989, as TSR wipes its books clean of all traces of evil, giving in just when we'd all thought they won the battle. And Hollywood throws us a one-two punch of notable fantasy-themed films. Both of them are about the thin line between reality and fantasy, and the people who choose (or are chosen) to walk that line. One of those films is Baron Munchausen, which (despite its silliness), is ultimately about an old man whose fantastic life is a Don Quixote-esque hallucination. More interesting, and at once more deep and more silly, is Erik the Viking, the story of a band of warriors sent to sail off the edge of the world to wake the Gods... when nobody is sure there is an edge of the world, or who the Gods really are.
Both of these films also deal indirectly with the issue I've been dancing around here for 11 long episodes: that 1989 marked a change in thinking for the fantasy genre, both in the world of role-playing and in the world of fantasy film making. After this point (and throughout the 1990s), the entire fantasy genre seemed watered-down. I can't think of a single film that came out between 1990 and 1999 that can justifiably be called a great fantasy film. Go visit http://www.filmsite.org/90sintro.html, and read through the intro discussing the best films of the '90s. Not one fantasy-genre film among the lot of 'em.
Of course, I'm not here to play Delphic Oracle and predict doom for the genre. If I felt that way, I wouldn't be writing this column right now. I love fantasy and always will. But I can't help looking back with disappointment at how watered-down the entire world of fantasy got throughout the 1990s. We can only hope that the forthcoming Lord of the Rings films help rekindle the fire that once burned so very brightly.
Which is where this week's film begins--with fire, and pillaging, and looting, and raping. Sort of.
Erik the Viking (Tim Robbins) isn't much of a Viking as Vikings go. When we first see him, he's raiding a village with his men, but can't bring himself to rape a woman he comes across. And lest you think I'm going to be all serious with this one, since we're dealing with rape here, keep in mind this is Monty Python.
HELGA: Have you done this sort of thing before?
ERIK: Me? Of course! I've been looting and pillaging up and down the coast.
HELGA: (looking sceptical) Looting and pillaging, eh?
ERIK: (on the defensive) Yes.
HELGA: What about the raping?
ERIK: Shut up.
HELGA: It's obvious you haven't raped anyone in your life.
Erik, being the nice guy that he is, tries to leave the woman be, but it's all for naught, since a pair of Vikings burst in and try to have their way with her. In the fracas, the duo (named Ernest and Jennifer) are killed by Erik, who inadvertently runs the woman (named Helga) through as well. Plagued by self-doubt and sadness for what he's just done, Erik decides that maybe he's not cut out for all this running around killing and looting. After a heart-to-heart with his Granddad (Mickey Rooney), he seeks out Freya (a Norse Goddess played by Eartha Kitt) and discovers his destiny: to end the age of Ragnarok and bring hope back into the world.
ERIK: Is there nothing men can do?
FREYA: The Gods are asleep, Erik.
ERIK: I will go and wake them up!
To accomplish this task, Erik must go on a quest. In the midst of the Western Ocean, he will find the land of Hy-Brasil, where he must locate the Horn Resounding. He must then blow the horn thrice: once to get to Asgaard, land of the Gods, once to awaken the Gods, and once to come back home.
Of course, he can't go on this journey alone, so he quickly rounds up a crew consisting in part of Vikings with names like Thorfinn Skull-Splitter (Richard Ridings), Sven the Berserk (Tim McInnerny), Leif the Lucky (Jay Simpson), Ivar the Boneless, Snorri the Miserable (Danny Schiller), (John Gordon Sinclair ) and Harald the Missionary (Freddie Jones). Erik might get top billing, but Harald is the single most important character in this film, and perhaps the most important figure in all the fantasy films I've covered thus far. And the reason for that is that Harald, being a Christian, does not believe in the fantasy world of Viking mythology. While the Vikings see sea monsters and Gods and danger, he sees nothing.
What none of them see is the plot being brewed up between Halfdan the Black (John Cleese), Loki (Antony Sher) and Keitel Blacksmith (Gary Cady), all of whom realize that if Erik succeeds in ending Ragnarok, their war-mongering days will be over. This must not be allowed to happen, and so Loki and Keitel also go with Erik on his journey, with the intent of thwarting him at every turn. And so it is that after a bit of motherly lecturing, Erik and his men set off.
ERIK: (he turns and addresses everyone) Don't be sad.... You all know why we're going, so don't grieve. Maybe untold dangers do lie ahead of us, and some of you may well be looking at the one you love for the last time...
Someone bursts out sobbing. Erik desperately tries to rally their spirits.
ERIK: But don't grieve! Even tough the Hordes of Muspel tear us limb from limb... or the Fire Giants burn each and every one of us to a cinder...
ERIK: ...though we may be swallowed by the Dragon of the North Sea or fall off the Edge of the World... don't cry.
ERIK: No! Don't cry....
On their journey to Hy-Brasil, the Vikings battle seasickness, race to escape Halfdan the Black, wind up in a thick bank of eerie mist, pass through the Gates of the World, and encounter a nasty sea monster (which Harald cannot see, of course) that Erik "dispatches" with a feather pillow, causing their boat to be hurled through the air until it crashes and capsizes hundreds of miles away. Of course, where they've landed is in the shallows beside Hy-Brasil, and come morning they wander ashore to greet the natives, including Erik's love interest Princess Aud (Imogen Stubbs), the single-minded King Arnulf (Terry Jones) and a whole Court of people who can't carry a tune to save their lives.
The Vikings are asked to disarm themselves, due to a decree by the Gods that if a sword ever spills blood on the land, Hy-Brasil will sink beneath the ocean and be gone forever. After enduring a bit of bad singing, sleeping with the King's daughter, and discovering a cloak of invisibility, Erik and the others spot Halfdan the Black on the horizon. Obviously, if Halfdan lands, blood will be shed and Hy-Brasil will sink, so it's off to the high seas for a desperate battle against the enemy Vikings. After a pitched battle filled with berserking, a bit of misguided heroism, and some great lines, Erik and his men defeat Halfdan's men rather easily (with the help of a few hundred slaves from Halfdan's own ship).
Of course, Halfdan slips away on a lifeboat, but the battle is won nevertheless, and Erik is awarded the Horn Resounding as thanks for saving the land of Hy-Brasil. Just in time for Loki and Keitel to mess it all up by attempting to sabotage the Horn Resounding, resulting in the death of Snorri, a drop of blood hitting the earth, and all of Hy-Brasil sinking into the sea. At least, for everyone except the King and his Court.
CITIZEN: We... er... do seem to be going down quite fast, Your Majesty - not trying to contradict you, course.
KING ARNULF: No, of course you're not, citizen. But let's stick to the facts. There has NEVER been a safer, more certain way of keeping the peace. So whatever's happening, you can rest assured, Hy-Brasil is NOT sinking. Repeat, NOT sinking.
AUD: It's sinking! Hy-Brasil is sinking!
KING ARNULF: Well, my dear, I think you'll find it's all a question of what you want to believe in....
What Erik believes in is the Horn Resounding, and so he and his crew blow the horn twice, sailing over the edge of the world, landing in Asgaard, and waking the Gods. But Erik can't just leave it at that. He has to confront the Gods, to find out once and for all if Valhalla is really real, and if the afterlife is all it's cracked up to be. It isn't. Nobody is happy, there are still chores to be done, and the Gods are a bunch of children playing games. And their first game is to attempt to thrust Erik and his men into the Pit of Hel, since none of them can escape.
Except for Harald, whose lack of belief in Viking mythology means that he can waltz out through the walls of Asgaard and blow the third note on the Horn Resounding, taking everyone back home, just in time to stop Halfdan the Black from raiding their village and watch the sun rise for the first time in their lives. And they all live Vikingly-ever-after.
There's obviously quite a lot going on in this movie beyond the silly situations and memorable lines (particularly if you're me, typing this out as my mind slowly slips into the abyss at 3 am on a Tuesday morning). But before we get into all the thick symbolism, let's look at the key pieces of this puzzle; the same key pieces you've seen in every single fantasy film I've covered thus far:
- A young hero. Erik the Viking, natch.
- A damsel in distress. In this case, there are several: Helga (whom Erik kills), Aud, and an entire village full of Viking women who are harassed by Halfdan the Black.
- A motley band of companions. For Vikings, they're not much, but when you get them together they're a tough lot. And if it wasn't for their priest companion, Harald, they wouldn't have made it back.
- An ancient magical item. The Horn Resounding, proving once and for all that the big magical item in the story doesn't need to be a sword.
- Wicked evil bad guys. Halfdan the Black, a horde of dog-faced Viking warriors, and the deceitful Loki add up for a wicked bunch.
- Unbeatable odds. When you're tracking down the Gods themselves, and trying to sail over the Edge of a round world, you're up against some pretty steep odds. But they pull it off, natch.
Hero, damsel, companions, magic, villain, tough odds. Six simple things that must always be present in your adventures to make them worthwhile. Obviously, the damsel needn't be a damsel all the time, but there should be someone or something in danger, someone to rescue or something to save from certain destruction. And so on and so forth.
But with Erik the Viking, as well as with all the other fantasy films I've covered, there's also quite a lot more going on, and the true storytellers among you must be aware of the larger issues at play here. These elements are most visible in this film (as well as in Baron Munchausen to a lesser degree), but they're everywhere in fantasy film, if you know where to look:
- The power of friendship. No hero goes the journey alone. Everyone needs a little help from their friends now and again. This is true in fantasy films as well as in role-playing. If you're not gaming with your buds, then you may as well be reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book by yourself. Adventuring is all about friends, about tackling tough tasks together, and living to laugh about it. Why else would a stuck-up elven wizard hang around with a stinky little dwarven warrior? Because through it all, at the end of the day, they need each other. And they both know it.
- The power of fantasy. Every fantasy story needs fantasy. This seems obvious but it's often taken for granted. It's really easy to get bogged down in the details of a campaign world or an adventure, of figuring out political motivations, or the breeding habits of dwarves, or drawing up detailed, complex maps showing the maneuverings of vast armies. But none of that matters when it comes down to the story. What does matter are the fantastical elements you add (or don't). Unicorns, dragons, fireballs, goblins and faeries and birthmarked princesses, ancient spells and even more ancient prophesies, magical forests and enchanted towers and Somethings Of No Return. Ham it up. Let it all hang out. This is what it's all about. Leave the politics to George Bush and Al Gore.
- The power of belief. This is the biggie, the one everyone forgets, and the one that Harald the Missionary, Baron Munchausen, and the best Game Masters are well aware of. What's real to you is what you believe in, and what's real to others is what they believe in, and there's no middle ground. The thing that makes the best stories stand out is how believable they are, for all their fantasy. This is no easy task, but it's essential. Dragons make good fantasy, but when they appear from thin air, breathe cotton candy from their noses and sing folk songs while slaying the party with poison popcorn, it's pure silliness, not pure fantasy. Fantasy must always be tempered with believability. You have to make 'em believe it's all real, make the players feel the chill of the dungeon, hear the creak of the wooden door, smell the reek of rotting flesh as the zombies creep closer. Because if you can't believe in the fantasy, it's just a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme.
And belief is what they were frightened of back in the 1980s. Play Dungeons & Dragons and you'll believe that you're really your character, and then when your character dies you'll kill yourself. Believe that you're really a wizard and you'll worship Satan and cast spells on your parents. And so on. But we've all been there, and lived through it, and we all know that it was, for the most part, hogwash. Having Devils in the Monster Manual didn't make us want to worship Satan, it made the fantasy believable, it made our make-believe, fantasy hell something to be believably feared as we wandered the hellish caverns with our friends.
Likewise, it was the believability of the fantasy films we watched in the 1980s which made them the works of art that they truly were. Each and every one of them was about a dangerous task for a group of companions in a fantasy world that was brought to the audience in a believable way. J.R.R. Tolkien knew that, which is precisely why his Lord of the Rings saga started it all off for the folks who created Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, and exactly why we've come full circle in the year 2000, with both a Dungeons & Dragons film and a Lord of the Rings trilogy set to hit theaters.
Will this newfound interest in fantasy film spark a true resurgence, a revitalization of a genre that's lain dormant for a decade now? Will we get back our monsters and bloodshed and bare-breasted princesses and musclebound heroes and magical swords and noble quests? Or will everyone simply skulk in the shadows of yet another nightclub with their vampire coteries?
It is, ultimately, up to you.
In closing, I'd just like to provide a more or less incomplete list of the films I've watched along the way, from which I chose the select few I've had time to cover in this column (marked with an asterisk). I recommend them all. In parenthetical notes are non-fantasy film releases which nevertheless deserve a mention, if only to help serve as bookends for an amazing decade of fantasy films.
- 1978: The Lord of the Rings cartoon
- 1979: (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons First Edition is released)
- 1980: Hawk The Slayer
- 1981: Time Bandits, Dragonslayer, Excalibur
- 1982: Conan the Barbarian, The Dark Crystal, The Beastmaster, The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Last Unicorn
- 1983: (The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon premieres), Krull
- 1984: (The Dragonlance Chronicle novels are released), The Neverending Story, Conan the Destroyer
- 1985: Legend, The Black Cauldron, The Dungeonmaster, Red Sonja, Ladyhawke
- 1986: Labyrinth, Highlander
- 1987: The Princess Bride
- 1988: Willow
- 1989: (AD&D Second Edition released), Erik the Viking, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
And with that, and with the opening fanfare of James Horner's Krull score ringing in my ears, it's off to bed. Thanks for listening.