When I was a kid, my father used to take me to all the action movies. High-budget, low-budget--it didn't matter. We saw just about everything. As I got older, of course, I got too smart for my own good and started to roll my eyes a lot more and complain about our cinematic choices. I think it was either the fifth or sixth Death Wish that broke my back, and I ended up leaving the theatre to go play video games.
Naturally, as time has worn on, I've realized that old habits do indeed die hard, and I still have an appreciation for bad, B-grade action. I was already out of college when The Viking Sagas came out in 1994, but had I been living at home, I am sure my father and I would have gone to see it at the $1 theatre. It's as unpretentious as you can get when it comes to period epics. Plot is pretty much a moot point. Old warrior dies, passing on his famous Ghost Sword to his son; the son goes off in search of the grizzled master fighter to teach him the skills needed to avenge dad; the kid falls in love with a beautiful blonde, knocks her up, gets her family killed, and then must fulfill an ancient prophecy in order to set things right. No fuss, no muss. I don't even think they explain why the Ghost Sword is the Ghost Sword, though we do get to go into a haunted cave.
The Viking Sagas was directed by Mark Chapman, who previously had helmed Clan of the Cave Bear. Having only directed a handful of movies (he hasn't done one since The Viking Sagas), Chapman is more famous as a cinematographer. His career ranges from Taxi Driver to last year's kid flick Hoot. Like Cave Bear, he goes for accuracy in The Viking Sagas. This isn't the Pirates of the Caribbean version of Vikings. There are no big ships, no horned hats. It's shot entirely on location in Iceland, amongst rocky and treacherous landscapes. The setting fits the low-budget picture (they need only build rudimentary huts), but it doesn't seem like a low-budget concession.
The film is carried on the muscular shoulders of Ralf Moeller, who later played Conan on television and Hagen in Ridley Scott's Gladiator. A former Mr. Universe, he wasn't cast for his skills at emoting. He's in The Viking Sagas because he's blonde and he's ripped. In that capacity, he's very capable. For anything more, his finest hour was yet to come. It's no matter, though, because The Viking Sagas is about fighting, about hard men doing hard things, and the occasional softcore sex scene in a steamy natural bath.
By today's standards, the fighting in The Viking Sagas is a little slow. Part of that is the realism Chapman is striving for. When the men battle, their movements are encumbered by the heaviness of their weapons. There are no digital effects, so some of the editing techniques to pull off the old-fashioned blood and gore are a little obvious. Still, the weight of those swords and axes creates a feeling of real peril. The blows are crushing, and while there aren't a lot of dudes jumping around and doing backflips, we are also spared the showy gravitas of most recent epics. Having your skull cleaved in half is grave enough.
Sure, The Viking Sagas is kind of dumb, but it's the kind of dumb that has its heart in the right place (if that's not too much of a mixed metaphor). The filmmakers maybe think we're a little too dumb ourselves, given how much is explained to us via a storybook voice-over, but a lot of the narration also feels like a quick way to dispense with pesky things like story and get to more beheadings and lost limbs. There are plenty of both, as well as eviscerations and piercing arrows, in the appropriately bloody finale. For good measure, Chapman also tosses in some snicker-inducing macho posturing. When Ralf Moeller screams out in triumph, I could almost hear my father say, "Now that's a good movie."
The Viking Sagas was transferred to DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and enhanced for widescreen TVs. The picture is clean.
Two mixes: 5.1 and 2.0. Excellently done. Lots of clanking swords and bubbling blood sounds, and they are good and loud.
Rent It. While The Viking Sagas isn't really that good, it does have its charm. If you long for a simpler time when men were men and movies where lots of people died clocked in at under 90 minutes, then it's worth a look-see.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.