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The Top Ten Viking Movies

In September of 2013, Norwegian Public Television asked The Vikings of Bjornstad to create a list of the best Viking movies for their program about movies called Filmbonanza. Below is the top ten list we came up with. Not an easy task.  In case you hadn't already noticed, a lot of truly bad Viking movies have been released worldwide since we began sitting in darkened theaters to be enthralled - or appalled - by filmed "entertainment".  Our recommendations for the top three were filmed and you can see the resulting video here.  The comments below the list are by Jack Garrett unless otherwise noted.  If you have comments about our comments, or the list itself, let us know at info@vikingsofbjornstad.com.
The Vikings of Bjornstad's List of The Top Ten Viking Movies
1: The Vikings (1958)
2: Beowulf & Grendel (2005)
3: The 13th Warrior (1999)
4: Vikings (2013)
5: Stara Baśń – The Old Fairy Tale: When the Sun was God (2003)
6: Killian's Chronicle (1994)
7: The Littlest Viking AKA Sigurd Drakedreper (1989)
8: The Long Ships (1964)
9: Hrafninn Flýgur AKA The Raven Flies AKA Revenge of the Barbarians (1985)
10: The Viking Sagas (1995)

Click here to see our complete list of Viking Movies.
Click here to see how we arrived at our choice for the Best Viking Movie ever.

10: The Viking Sagas (1995)

The Viking Sagas was filmed in Iceland and is a pretty decent attempt at depicting the Viking culture a thousand years ago. Ralf Moeller plays Kjartan, who has recently returned from Norway, where his father Valgard the Wolf sent him to learn to be a farmer. (And at 6' 5" he's the largest farmer you're ever likely to see.) Unfortunately, the aggressive Ketil the Black has plans to extend his family's power over the local Icelandic chieftains.  In the effort he mortally wounds Valgard, taking the Ghost Sword, mystical symbol of Valgard's chieftainship.  Kjartan escapes from captivity in Ketil's camp, taking the sword with him.  Ketil's brother Mord has his own plans: marriage to the beautiful Gudrun (Ingibjörg Stefánsdóttir), who has recently developed an attraction to Kjartan.  Untrained as a warrior, Kjartan manages to kill Mord but is wounded in the process.

There are some interesting lines throughout the movie, including one heralding a medical breakthrough when Gudrun tells the injured Kjartan, "A virgin's blood heals even mortal wounds". Good to know.

A life on the run ensues for Kjartan, while he learns to be a warrior from the best: Gunnar the Easterner (and we're not told which East that might be.) But we are in familiar movie territory when Gunnar says to him, "Every drunken killer in Iceland will be looking for you." The challenge in their part of Iceland is that there are no trees and only one rock per hillside to hide behind. Kjartan loses the Ghost Sword when one of Ketil's men shoots an arrow into his back. Kjartan recovers from this wound also, but Gudrun is forced to fall back on other treatments at this point in their relationship.

Ketil kills Gudrun's father, mother and brother, but plans to achieve Icelandic supremacy by installing Gudrun as Lawspeaker, then controlling her using Gudrun's friend as hostage. At the Council of Chieftains (the Althing?) Gudrun asserts her new authority anyway, announcing that she's Kjartan's wife and bears his child. As it turns out, Kjartan needn't have bothered learning to fight with the sword; he responds to the hostage situation with a high-angle bow shot that would have impressed Robin Hood.

In the final battle, Kjartan regains the Ghost Sword and avenges his father. It's a victory for the farmers and chieftains, if not for diplomacy.

The Viking Sagas has a lot going for it: a magic sword, an unseen ghost, a witch, a prophecy, family feuds, burned farmsteads, Icelandic horses, Icelandic landscapes and Icelandic lore. The music is effective. The combat is average for this type of film. The direction is unexceptional, but gets the job done. The weaponry isn't bad, but is scaled up to lend more impact (no pun intended). The costumes are more generic Early Middle Ages peasant than Viking. For all the talk of farming, we never see a sign of any. But ... the overwhelming problem undermining the movie in every scene is the acting. To say it's wooden is an insult to trees. It's possible to enjoy The Viking Sagas, but it helps to be able to block out that part of a movie you usually pay most attention to.

Valgard takes 'The Walk' around a runestone, aiding his son Kjartan's escape.  Gutwrenching.

Mord forces Gudrun to marry him, but doesn't survive to enjoy the honeymoon.

Hrut the archer interrupts the geothermal festivities.

Gudrun the Lawspeaker holds court on the Lawrock.

Ketil leads with the Ghost Sword's undersized pommel against Kjartan's wallhanger shield, losing the weapon in the process.

Kjartan yells in triumph. Ketil doesn't object.
Screen captures from The Viking Sagas (1995)

9: Hrafninn Flýgur, AKA The Raven Flies, AKA Revenge of the Barbarians (1985)

One of a trilogy of Viking films by Icelandic director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson. Self-advertised as the "Most authentic Viking film ever." The director claims his inspiration was Sergio Leone's Italian Westerns, and it shows. Filmed in Iceland by an Icelandic director using a largely Icelandic cast, this could have been a better movie.  The revenge plot is vaguely Viking, but is overused in movies.  The swords, leather helmets and khukri knives don't look remotely authentic.  The hero armed with throwing knives seems to be from a different movie.  It does have an interesting spin on village life and worship of the gods.  The Icelandic horses are great, but this is a pretty narrow slice of the Viking age, and that overlay of Sergio Leone drags it off the edge of the earth.

Slaves are delivered to their new owners in Iceland.

Gest, an Irish former slave, carries a secret.
Screen captures from Hrafninn Flýgur, AKA The Raven Flies, AKA Revenge of the Barbarians (1985)

8: The Long Ships (1964)

Fun to watch and exciting, but a Viking movie only because there's a long ship and they have round shields. Richard Widmark is a prodigal Viking son and Sidney Poitier is a Moorish ruler. Memorable for the Moorish execution device called "The Mare of Steel" and a golden bell called "The Mother of Voices." Given the size of the bell, and their ability to move it at all, gold was apparently lighter centuries ago. Great music.

The Vikings defend against Moorish cavalry.

The Vikings raid a harem.

Someone will ride The Mare of Steel.

The Moors bring back the Mother of Voices.
Screen captures from The Long Ships (1964)

7: The Littlest Viking AKA Sigurd Drakedreper (1989)

Sought this one out mainly because it was filmed in Norway (and they ought to know about Vikings, right??) A children's story - intentionally. It's the saga of the second son of Jarl Haakon, derisively called Sigurd Dragonslayer for his frequent daydreaming.  His "modern" sensibilities aren't in tune with those of his clan.  It seems he's unhappy with slavery and the continuing feud with the clan in the next fjord.  Obviously a politically correct Viking. Nice views of fjords and period-looking Norse settlements.  The box has two NFL linemen (who aren't in the movie) wearing horned helmets and at the climax the boy throws a Franklin Mint Charlemagne sword into the fjord to end the feud.  Ju-u-u-st this side of being "Disney's Littlest Viking".

Sigurd and his mother put on their best finery to welcome the Jarl home.

Jarl Haakon and Sigurd's older brother Thorstein sail home into the fjord.

Slaves are part of the expedition's booty.

Sigurd's home - in the year 1000 AD.  Nicely done.
Screen captures from The Littlest Viking (1989)

6: Killian's Chronicle: The Magic Stone (1994)

A good story with occasional references to the Saga of Erik the Red. A well-written script. Generally effective acting. Completely convincing locations. Killian's Chronicle shows that a tiny budget doesn't mean you can't make a good movie. The chronicle in the title refers to the journal written by an Irish man enslaved by Vikings who is forced to accompany them far beyond Greenland to an unknown shore. There he finds danger, beauty, friendship and love. His possession of a critical navigational aid, a sunstone, makes him more important to the Vikings than he wants to be. But having it means he can return to Ireland, to prove he is no longer a slave.  A quiet film that perfectly captures how the first contact between the Norse and the "skraelings" might have looked - and the perils involved for both cultures.

The Vikings approach the shores of North America.

Trading starts off well.
Screen captures from Killian's Chronicle: The Magic Stone (1994)

5: Stara Baśń, AKA The Old Fairy Tale: When the Sun Was God (2003)

I am going to rate Stara Basn as the best Viking movie. This is a recent Polish movie (Poles are good at making historically accurate movies and their sense of history is much better than in America or the rest of Europe-even if it's bit nationalistic). It's made by Jerzy Hoffman, who is basically the John Ford of Poland. It takes place in the 9th Century and tells the legend of the evil king Popiel and how he was overthrown by Piastun and the Viking-raised Ziemowit.

I don't want to give too much away but the Polish Jomsviking group was used as Vikings. Viking Age re-enacting is very big in Poland and they have a big following. With the exception of one horned helmet, authenticity overall was good. Hoffman always goes all-out for historical accuracy. If you saw his 17th Century flicks, you would understand. The movie mixes the Viking and Slavic pagan themes pretty well and the battle scenes are good. (Bruce Willis)

Popiel's fortress.

The villagers take the longships and brace for the Viking attack.

The Viking Jarl Sigvald prepares to challenge Ziemowit.

Dziwa and Ziemowit sail into the sunset.
Screen captures from Stara Basn AKA The Old Fairy Tale (2003)

4: Vikings (2013)

Vikings is a series from the History Channel, following the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok.  The series begins in 793 AD and draws heavily from an actual historical figure, celebrated in Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum, the Icelandic poem Krákumál and Ragnars saga loðbrokar, all set in the late 8th to the mid 9th century. The series tells the story of Ragnar’s band of Viking brothers and his family, as he rises to become king of the Viking tribes.

As a Viking re-enactor and sometime historian, I'm impressed. The clothing is unlikely, but we've seen much, much worse elsewhere. The hairstyles apparently borrow from the Bayeux Tapestry's Normans and ... Mohawks??? Having said that, the list of "accurate" Viking cultural references is pretty impressive. We've seen a warp-weighted loom, a sun compass, a sunstone, a Thing, a trial, a judicial punishment, raiding as a seasonal event, the taking of slaves, a longship under construction, the effort needed for tracking / hunting / preparing food, the limitations of food-stores during winter, villagers engaged in trades and crafts, oral transmission of history and myth, the negotiation of a bride-price, ravens, a spectral Valkyrie and even guest appearances from Odin, complete with floppy hat.

One could quibble with something about the depiction of every one of these, but the filmmakers fearlessly put the results of their considerable research front and center. As an example, the raid on the abbey at Lindesfarne is filmed in an unspectacular, unflinching, and completely realistic manner. The historical event could have happened and looked exactly like this. The writing for the series is excellent, as is the acting from Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Gabriel Byrne and the others in the cast. It's a creditable effort by the History Channel. Now could someone explain why the longship has its steering board on the left side?

Image from the History Channel

3: The 13th Warrior (1999)

Well staged, but an unsatisfying plot. Antonio Banderas portrays Ahmed ibn Fahdlan, based on a real Arab observer of (Rus) Viking culture. Fascinating depiction of a well-oiled and experienced Dark Age mercenary force. The Norsemen, among them Buliwyf (the leader) and Herger the Joyous, are unforgettable characters. Many good lines, well-delivered. Here's one: the Arab poet is tossed a huge sword. He complains, "I can't lift this." The Viking responds, "Grow stronger." Another: the Vikings position themselves to investigate a farmstead. The Arab incautiously moves forward. Rethel the Archer, bow half-drawn, warns, "Don't ... step in front of me." The armor spans centuries before and after the period. The swords are period-appropriate, but scaled up to hand-and-a-half size. Some of the best music in movie history. For a few reasons why this is one of the best Viking movies, click here.

Screen captures from The 13th Warrior (1999)

2: Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

This version of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem is set in the 6th century AD, but is one of the best in its depiction of near-Viking costumes, weapons and culture. It's one of our favorites among the films listed here.  Filmed in Iceland, its landscapes are scenic, if desolate, and provide an effective setting even if they're not really representative of the Danes' homeland. There are some intriguing twists: it proposes a grounded and realistic view of how the Grendel legend might have begun - with a minimum of fantasy in its depiction of Grendel and family. It also introduces a woman outcast from the rest of the settlement whose mysterious involvement is gradually revealed.

As the film starts, Beowulf the Geat (i.e., from part of modern Sweden) is already well known for his exploits. Beowulf and Grendel is an ironic and amusing view of how a hero sometimes struggles with his own legend. Gerard Butler plays Beowulf; he looks the part and does a great job. As the well-known story unfolds with its wholesale slaughter, despair, battles with monsters and eventual triumph, this version adds the mystery Beowulf feels compelled to solve and the growing discomfort he finds in his role as monster hunter.

Beowulf and Grendel moves a little slowly.  It takes its time telling the story and showcases its beautiful Icelandic vistas as it goes.  This isn't an epic movie; it tells its story on a smallish budget and concentrates on Beowulf and Hrothgar having to deal with others' expectations for them.  It's the setting that's epic.  Add a few hundred years to the swords and helmets and this is what a Viking movie should look like.

The great Danish hall of Heorot is under siege.

The warriors leave their peaceful Geatland.

Hrothgar listens with skepticism to Beowulf's pledge to save the Danes from the monster Grendel.

Beowulf and his men find the hunt for Grendel more challenging than they had expected.

Grendel taunts his pursuers.

The mysterious Selma may know more than she has told the locals.

Grendel attacks the hall, but has to deal with Beowulf.

There won't be peace until Grendel's mother is defeated, with an ancient sword taken from her own treasure hoard.
Screen captures from Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

1: The Vikings (1958)

Great adventure and the one against which all Viking movies have to be compared. Costumes are too Hollywoodish and the castle is off by centuries, but the setting and depiction of the culture are reasonably accurate. Kirk Douglas does a pretty good Viking. Worth watching to see him run the oars of the long ship, without a stunt man or CGI. See the "Making of ..." on the DVD to see how much research they did. It's impressive for the time.  To see more about why it may be the best Viking movie ever made, click here.

The longship sails into a Norwegian fjord.

Einar returns home - with loot and a captured princess.

Village life.

Ragnar sailing through the fjords.

The feast.

Assaulting Aella's castle.
Screen captures from The Vikings (1958)

©   For information contact Jack Garrett at info@vikingsofbjornstad.com