As the popular expression goes, America was built upon the backs of immigrants.
Surely, one of the most remarkable movements of human history was the great rush, during the last few hundred years, of people westward from Europe to what would become the United States of America.
Immigration is such an integral part of the American fabric that there is not a citizen of a country, culture, or people that has not made their way to the United States.
The cultural ancestors of people from Viking societies were no different. People from Scandinavia, especially Norway and Sweden, made their way to the United States in droves during the mid to late 19th century.
Escaping a mixture of poverty, boredom, and a lack of opportunity, they came to the US to seek their fortunes and start afresh.
These Scandinavian settlers flocked to the Midwest, where their descendants make up significant parts of the population of states like Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.
It is estimated that more than 2 million Scandinavians set sail after 1825 to relocate to the United States.
By the turn of the 20th century, when Hollywood as we know it was slowly forming, this sizable Scandinavian culture began to influence popular American culture.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the movies that this booming new movie mecca would produce over the course of the next century and beyond.
Featuring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis in a tale of familial rivalry and conquest, The Vikings (1958) set the stage for Hollywood's enduring interest in Viking lore. Illustration: Reynold Brown (1917–1991), Public domain
Early beginnings (1950s – 1960s)
The foundations of Hollywood's obsession with Norse mythology can be traced back to the mid-20th century.
Whilst there had been movies influenced by the Norse myths, sagas, and legends, it was the runaway success of The Vikings (1958) that helped transform Hollywood's relationship with Norse mythology.
This film stars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis as half-brothers, unaware of their relation, battling for the vacant throne of the Kingdom of Northumbria and Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh).
Shot in Norway – so featuring some of that magnificent West Coast scenery, including many a fjord, the film helped introduce into Hollywood some of the tropes that have become synonymous with Vikings, including horned helmets and longships on the horizon.
The blockbuster earnings of The Vikings helped spur other movies in an era where historical epics (think Ben-Hur and Spartacus) were de rigueur.
Other movies made during this initial popularity of Vikings and Norse mythology include the much-derided The Long Ships (1964).
This film is set partly on the Muslim-controlled Moorish coast and features cross-cultural conflicts between the Vikings and Moors.
Knives of the Avenger (1966) focuses on the trials and tribulations of a young peasant woman and her son in the early 9th century.
Alfred the Great (1969) features a young Michael York playing Guthrum, leading a horde of Vikings hellbent on destroying Alfred, a former trainee priest turned warrior-king.
In the 1989 film Erik the Viking, Terry Jones of Monty Python fame delivers a humorous take on Viking life, with Tim Robbins playing an atypically non-violent Viking protagonist. Source: Orion Pictures, screenshot (Copyright, fair use)
Fantasy films and flops (1970s – 1980s)
Thanks to the so-called "New Wave" of American directors coming of age in the 1970s, Sword and Sandal movies were consigned to the dustbin.
There was a new focus on realism in Hollywood movies, featuring often iconic antiheroes or tortured heroes, like Al Pacino in Serpico, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, or Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.
Social and cultural issues - whether it was the war in Vietnam or the personal effects of a divorce (Kramer v. Kramer) - were seen as more suitable subjects for a movie than fantasy epics featuring early medieval warriors.
The most notable Viking-related movie from this era was The Norseman (1978). Starring Lee Majors, this formula film featured a group of Vikings seeking revenge against Native Americans.
Filmed on location in Florida (surely the least Nordic-looking part of the US!), it featured several professional American footballers from a local team drafted in to play Vikings.
However, at the dawn of the 1980s, fantasy films came back in popularity thanks to the success of Arnold Schwarzenegger's action film Conan the Barbarian.
Elements of Norse mythology found their way into other films, including Conan, that are more fantasy than Norse mythology, like Labyrinth (1986) and Willow (1988).
One of the funniest depictions of Norse lore and legend, however, comes from this decade with Erik the Viking (1989).
Written by Monty Python member Terry Jones, the film features Tim Robbins as a rather sensitive Viking who isn't that keen on, you know, raping and pillaging.
It did not receive favorable reviews but is a fun romp, nevertheless.
Antonio Banderas's performance as Ibn Fadlan in The 13th Warrior brings a unique perspective to the Viking genre, combining historical records and Norse mythology. Source: Walt Disney Studios, screenshot (Copyright, fair use)
Old sources and modern technology (1990s – 2000s)
Norse mythology would lay dormant for much of the 1990s until the last year of that decade.
In The 13th Warrior, Spanish actor Antonio Banderas portrays Ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab diplomat and traveler who heads to the far north for negotiations with Vikings.
Drawing from Fadlan's detailed accounts and observations, Banderas masterfully embodies the sophisticated Muslim intellectual, contrasting sharply with the brutish Vikings he encounters.
With its substantial USD 100 million budget, the film is adapted from a novel by Michael Crichton(yes, he of Jurassic Park fame).
One of the greatest examples of pure Norse mythology on the silver screen was the CGI-heavy epic Beowulf (2007).
This film showed how advancements in computer technology could help bring fantastic stories to life.
Based upon the Anglo-Saxon poem, Ray Winstone voices the titular character as he travels to Denmark to slay a demon.
Full of Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Norse mythology, this should be a must-see for all those who love Norse myths, sagas, and legends.
In The Northman, Hollywood delves into the dark heart of Norse legends, presenting a visually stunning and emotionally charged adaptation of the saga of Amleth. Source: Focus Features / New Regency Productions, screenshot (Copyright, fair use)
Marvel movies and a new golden age (2010s – Present)
As much as we sometimes deride what the Marvel movie franchise has done to the quality of movies, let alone Norse mythology, it should be praised for bringing these myths, sagas, and characters to a much broader audience.
This can all be traced back to Thor (2011), which saw the first appearance of Chris Hemsworth as the Norse God of Thunder.
Spawning three sequels, with a fourth in development, this has become one of Hollywood's highest-grossing franchises, not bad for an early medieval deity.
Following on from the untold riches produced by Thor, soon a whole plethora of Viking-related movies cropped up in what has been called a "Golden Age" of Norse mythology in Hollywood.
Hollywood has been busy plowing the fertile grounds of Norse mythology for box office gold.
This includes ultra-realistic depictions of the era, such as 2022's The Northman, based on Shakespeare's Hamlet – itself inspired by Amleth, a Viking-era character from Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum.
Additionally, films aimed at the next generation of Vikings, like the 2010 animated kids' film How To Train Your Dragon, have also contributed to this trend.
It has been argued that Hollywood simply copied what worked well on the smaller screen.
These all feature a blend of historical facts and compelling fiction, which has enthralled (no pun intended) global audiences.
What is interesting is that they are made outside the Hollywood system, even though they have budgets and audiences akin to a Tinseltown blockbuster.
For more information on a recent archeological finding that undercuts Hollywood's depiction of Vikings, visit Euro News here.
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