-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
"Ooh! Scary! Scary! Don't we look mean?"
Erik The Viking - director's son's cut|
cast: Tim Robbins, Mickey Rooney, Tim McInnerny, Eartha Kitt, and John Cleese
director: Terry Jones
90 minutes (15) 1989
widescreen ratio 16:9
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
At its release in 1989, Erik The Viking seemed destined for success; it boasted
a decent budget, a strong transatlantic cast and the writing and direction of Terry Jones,
a former Python, and history buff who, as that time, was riding high after the moderate
success of his first solo directorial gig
However, despite these undeniable strengths, the film did badly at the box office and was
slated by critics everywhere, effectively ending Jones' career as a director and consigning
this strange blend of Viking saga and Pythonesque whimsy to the rubbish bin of history. With
this re-release featuring a new cut of the film by Jones' son, is it time to re-evaluate this
film as a lost classic? Frankly, no... But that doesn't mean that the film is without charm.
After discovering that he has no taste for rape and pillage, Erik visits a local sorcerer
(bizarrely played completely straight by the notoriously camp Eartha Kitt) and discovers that
men fight because they are in the age of Ragnarok, an apocalyptic end of times that can only
be brought to an end by waking the gods and petitioning them directly. After convincing the
men of his village to go with him, Erik sets out on a quest to find the Horn Resounding,
which will take him to Valhalla and wake the gods. Along the way the group have to deal
with dragons, enchanted islands and the brutal sadist Halfdan the Black (brilliantly played
as a mild-mannered British bureaucrat by John Cleese), not to mention the disconcerting
realisation that the gods are actually children.
Jones has said that he knew this film was in trouble from the start and ultimately blames
this on his lack of involvement in the editing process. Because of this, this new DVD
includes an alternative edit of the film created by Jones' son. However, if this alternative
cut of the film proves anything, it is that the film's problems are nothing to do with editing.
The most obvious criticism that one can lay at the feet of Erik The Viking is that it
is simply not funny enough. Despite a number of excellent comic performances (including that
of Tim McInnerny as a reluctant berserker), the jokes are spread quite thinly throughout the
film, perhaps prompting the director and cast to milk them for all they're worth when they do
pop up. This makes for unfortunate and jarring changes in tone as the film lurches from whimsy
and silliness to the kind of tragedy you'd expect from a story about Vikings. These changes
of tone and direction make the film feel as if it is less a coherent narrative and more of a
collection of set-pieces, some of them funny, some of them poignant and some of them violent.
As a result the film is difficult to really get a hold of and will leave most viewers perplexed.
The second criticism is perhaps more damning for Jones as his love of history and his erudition
shines forth from every scene of this film. Indeed, from naming characters after real historical
Vikings to brilliantly summarising the squabbling and irritable nature of Norse mythology by
presenting its gods as children, Jones clearly knows his stuff. However, for all of the director's
erudition, Erik The Viking is eager to play fast and loose with the source material by
both taking an axe to it, when the plot demands it, and displaying the same ambivalence towards
his protagonists as he does in his previous film Personal Services.
In Personal Services, Jones attempts to sit on both sides of the fence at once by praising
the fetish community for their idiosyncratic and bold-faced oddness while simultaneously playing
those differences for laughs and making fun of fetishists everywhere. This inability to integrate
the dramatic thrust of a film with the need to produce laughs also affects Erik The Viking
as Jones finds himself continuously hopping from leg to the other; one minute praising the heroic
character of his protagonists only to make fun of their violent machismo the next. In fact, this
film can be characterised as an action film about how stupid action is as a means of solving
problems. This creative incoherence serves only to dissolve the film's emotional and moral
centre, further accelerating the break-up of the film's narrative structure.
In conclusion, we have a film that despite some memorable scenes and performances ultimately
fails. While Jones is correct to blame himself for the film's shortcomings, it is silly to
suggest that these could have been solved in the editing suite. Erik The Viking's
failure was caused by Terry Jones' inability to successfully make the transition from comedy
to drama, by finding a way to write jokes without undermining his characters. Indeed, given
the strength of some of this film's imagery and the quality of some of the ideas, it is
intriguing to speculate as to what Jones' fellow Python Terry Gilliam might have made of
Erik The Viking.
This two-disc edition comes with the director's son's cut as well as the original British
theatrical cut, a commentary track by Terry Jones, and interviews with the cast and crew.