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Friday, July 22, 2016

July 22, 2016: VikingStudying: Vikings on the Screen

[Earlier this month, I traveled to Iceland for the first time, a nation with recently discovered historical connections to the Americas. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the culture at the heart of those ties, leading up to a special post on a few takeaways from the trip itself!]
On the key difference between a spate of 1960s films and a 21st century TV show, and what has endured.
One of the biggest films of 1958 was The Vikings, a Technicolor blockbuster starring real-life couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh as the hero and heroine, alongside such Hollywood icons as Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine. As usual in the movie business, one successful film led to a group of strikingly similar follow-ups, including Erik the Conqueror (1961; more or less an Italian remake of the 1958 film) and The Long Ships (1964, and perhaps the most noteworthy of the bunch from an AmericanStudies perspective as it starred Sidney Poitier as a Moorish king). All these films would have to be contextualized in the period’s craze for Biblical epics, including the trend-setting Quo Vadis (1951), Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1956), and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), among others. Indeed, while The Vikings did make a point of filming many of its scenes in Norway for authenticity, from what I’ve seen these Viking epics often shared a great deal, in both style and storytelling beats (such as a love triangle where the outcast hero contends with a more powerful brother-like figure for the female lead), with those contemporary historical dramas.
It would be fair to wonder, then, whether and how such films could do any specific justice to Viking histories and cultures, or whether they simply comprised a substitute of Norse for Mediterranean or Arabic character and place names within relatively unchanging plotlines. Things seem far different with Vikings, an epic TV series that premiered in March 2013 on the History channel and is in the midst of airing its fourth season this spring. Although this Vikings was likewise inspired by a broader cultural trend (in this case the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones and the spate of historical/fantasy dramas it has spawned), creator and showrunner Michael Hirst has consistently emphasized his reliance on historical sources, both 13th century Icelandic sagas and other chronicles from the period, to research and tell the stories of his legendary protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Travis Fimmel) and his family and world. As that last hyperlinked post illustrates, Hirst and company have certainly taken artistic liberties with those histories, as any dramatic work would; yet nonetheless, starting and engaging with those historical and cultural sources to my mind already reflects a significant shift from the storytelling origins and contexts for the mid-20th century films.
Ragnar Lothbrok was also the character played by Ernest Borgnine in the 1958 film, however, and that one link can help us perceive a fundamental similarity across these distinct periods and their historical dramas. While Hirst’s show might be more consistently and thoroughly grounded in its sources than were the films, that is, it continues to tell what we could call legendary stories, epic myths of conquest, family strife, larger-than-life heroes and villains, and so on. That continuity stands to reason, since such mythic stories are generally at the heart of the Icelandic sagas, themselves (as I noted in Wednesday’s post) as much epic poems and family dramas as they are historical chronicles. The sagas have long been and remain the best source for Viking history, and as long as that’s the case it will be difficult for any representation of Viking stories not to tend toward the legendary (even Hagar the Horrible focuses on both conquest and family strife, although in a slightly different tone to be sure). And perhaps those legendary stories do capture the essence of Viking culture and identity—but on the other hand, it’s difficult for me to imagine that the everyday life and experiences for most Vikings weren’t as different from the legends and epics as was (for example) the world of most Britons from the tales of King Arthur. If so, that’s a Viking story that has yet to find its way onto the screen.
Special trip follow-up post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other ways you’d analyze the Vikings or Iceland?

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