Valhalla Rising: A Viking Odyssey

by James Rose Volume 17, Issue 3 / March 2013 13 minutes (3073 words)

Valhalla Rising is a sci-fi movie. It’s about traveling into outer space beyond the stars. It’s like an acid trip. It’s almost like a post-apocalyptic future.” 1

It is perhaps difficult to understand director Nicolas Winding Refn’s comment that Valhalla Rising (2009), a film set in Medieval Europe is, to his mind at least, a Science Fiction film. As a genre, Science Fiction is traditionally set in the future and usually located in distant galaxies where space-travelling humans encounter strange alien races. Conflicts often arise over advanced destructive technology and thus results in dramatic and climatic battles in which the alien is overcome and the greater good prevails. In light of such expectation, Refn’s comment is surprising as his film is explicitly located in the ancient past. There are no aliens here, no advanced technologies nor the capability to travel to the outer reaches of the universe. Instead there is only hunting, tribal rivalry, weapons made of wood, knapped stone and wrought metals. The problematic nature of this setting is further amplified by the stylistic approach the director has deployed to visualise the film’s narrative: lasting just over one and a half hours, Valhalla Rising features very little dialogue coupled with prolonged periods of static shots, all punctuated with short bursts of intense and visceral violence. These qualities are exaggerated by the film’s various nameless characters. This absence of nomenclature is juxtaposed with a protagonist who is the only character to have a name, One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), but then undermined by the fact that he not only lacks an eye but also speech. Such challenging content is reflected in the film’s numerous reviews which are, perhaps best, typified by K J Doughton who describes the film’s content as a

“…bizarre mix of head-splitting, brain-spilling violence and open-to-interpretation symbolism [that] will divide audiences. In fact, this often gorgeous, sometimes incomprehensible Viking odyssey might best work in tandem with chemical ingestion.” 2

In sharp contrast to this “bizarre mix” is the film’s relatively straight forward narrative: held captive by a tribe of Pagan Vikings, One-Eye is forced to be a combatant in a primitive form of gladiatorial games. Tethered to a wooden post, he must fight to the death in hand-to-hand combat with the best warriors from rival tribes. By winning each fight, One-Eye earns his life and his captors’ money until, by chance, he finds an arrowhead that he then uses to escape his bonds. Once free, he massacres the tribe that held him captive but spares the life a young boy (Maarten Stevenson), who, frightened and alone, can do nothing more than accompany the man that has killed his family. Together they roam Viking Scotland and, again by chance, come across a small band of Christian Vikings. Joining forces, the group attempts to travel to Jerusalem in order to take back the Holy Land but their long boat enters a limbo-like Dead Sea upon which they slowly drift until making land upon the shores of America. Finding signs of seemingly Pagan burials and rituals, the Christian Vikings set about purging this new found land by first subjecting themselves to a prolonged period of drug-induced visions and then attempting to find those responsible for the heathen practices. As they search the land they are steadily killed, one by one, by the Native People until, in the end, only One-Eye and the boy remain. Upon reaching the shores of the sea to return home, One-Eye and the boy are confronted by the Native People and, in an unspoken agreement, One-Eye sacrifices himself so that the boy can live.

Refn quantifies this narrative as Science Fiction by stating in a number of interviews 3 that Valhalla Rising is his version of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). With this acknowledgment – or perhaps confession – Refn’s notion that Valhalla Rising is Science Fiction is diverges from a genre-based conception. Instead, the film explicitly relates to science fiction through its stylistic elements and narrative, functioning as a considered reworking and relocation of Kubrick’s narrative. Thus, both films are constructed around the device of a vast journey, both of which are broken down into discreet ‘chapters’; both films rely heavily on sound and the power on the image; both films feature prolonged static shots and conclude with an equally protracted drug-fuelled sequence of chaotic and, at times, abstract, imagery. In narrative terms, the vast journey of mankind chronicled in 2001 is reduced to the singular but eventful journey undertaken by One-Eye. It is through this passage of both time and space that Valhalla Rising communicates not only its reworked relationship to 2001: A Space Odyssey but also its own subtextual content: the relationship between religion and violence.

One-Eye, the Primitive

Throughout the first half of Valhalla Rising, One-Eye is positioned as a Primitive, a primordial being who is more an animal than a man. Dressed in few clothes and with a leather collar around his neck, One-Eye is tethered to a wooden stake and forced to fight. In this sole purpose, One-Eye excels with extreme and brutal efficiency, reaching out to grab, hold, bite, twist and then break the bones and necks of his opponents. He grunts during the kill, smearing his opponents’ blood over his body as he casts aside their corpses. With such actions, One-Eye is positioned as a captured wild animal, a creature of instinct that simply and literally fights for its survival. Such qualities are emphasised by the consistent need for him to always be tethered to something, be that the central pole of the fighting arena or the guiding poles the tribesmen attach to the leather choker around his neck. Through this restraint, One-Eye’s strength and brutality is compounded, amplifying his status as a being that is feared (and perhaps fearfully revered) by the Pagan Vikings: his victories are celebrated in the constant passage of money into the Chieftain’s hands yet the fear he elicits is palpable through his leather collar and the sustained, lingering close-ups Refn continually grants it. While such imagery serves to visually compound One-Eye’s imprisonment, it also implies that, despite their strength, these bonds cannot hold a being of such violence and, perhaps unsurprisingly given the film’s overt reworking of 2001, it is with an instrument of violence that One-Eye is able to escape this bond.

Whilst heavily guarded, One-Eye is allowed to bathe in a deep, rocky pool. He stands motionless for some time, soaking his muscles and bones rather than washing away the mud and blood, before slowly submerging himself completely beneath the water. There he remains, looking down at the uneven ground before reaching out to take up a discarded arrowhead that he sees lying within the silt. Slipping it into his mouth, he rises to the surface and waits to be taken back to his cage. With the arrowhead still concealed in his mouth, One-Eye fights and kills once more for the financial benefit of his captors but, upon the return journey to his cage, he uses it to cut through the leather choker and, quickly and brutally, massacres the men charged with restraining him.

One-Eye’s escape and subsequent murder-spree with a simple weapon parallels the actions of 2001’s Primitive Man’s own rampage with a discarded bone: both One-Eye and the Primitive Man are subject to violent forces they cannot control or overcome, until they obtain their respective weapons. With the bone, the Primitive Man is able to hunt and kill in order to ensure survival and, just as importantly, dominate rival tribes by using the weapon to bludgeon and murder others. For One-Eye, the most primitive of all the tribesmen, the arrowhead secures his freedom, allowing him to take revenge on his captors and gain further weapons. Soon armed with a knife and axe, One-Eye continues to exact his revenge by decapitating the Pagan Chieftain (off screen). Glorious in his escape, One-Eye places the severed head upon the pole that he was once tethered to. While the Primitive Man’s use of the bone as a weapon begins, for 2001, mankind’s long odyssey into technological advancement and violence, One-Eye’s use of the arrowhead instigates a narrative that is preoccupied with the advancement of just one man. Despite this intimacy, the film’s wider preoccupation with both organised and Pagan concepts of religion becomes progressively more apparent and, because of their emergence from the One-Eye’s murderous escape, are anchored in the narrative through extreme and brutal violence. Subsequent events in Valhalla Rising continually correlate the desire for religious dominance and acts of violence – just as the Primitive Man’s bone is developed into increasingly technological and increasingly destructive weaponry, the religious emissaries of Valhalla Rising spread the word of God through increasing strength, subjugation and murder.

One-Eye, the Astronaut

Accompanied by the boy, One-Eye wanders, seemingly aimlessly, through Viking Scotland. They encounter no one until they come across a small band of Vikings who have slaughtered a small tribe: hacked-off limbs are piled near a pyre of smouldering bodies while the women, stripped naked and tied to each other with thick rope, huddle together by an outcrop of rock. All around the bodies are crudely fashioned flags, each bearing a blood-red cross. These are dwarfed by an equally crudely fashioned cross; made of bound branches, the crucifix has been erected upon a small hillock, the Viking Chief kneeling before it in prayer. The juxtaposition of slaughtered tribe and the crucifix is a blunt image of religious violence, an act of purging the land of the heathen in order to make it pure.

As One-Eye and the boy approach the men, the Viking Chief turns from the cross and takes up his sword before asking “Are you from the Clans? Are you Christians?” to which the boy, although lying, sensibly answers that they are. Sitting together, the Chief explains who they are and their purpose: “We’re God’s own soldiers, warrior. Heading to Jerusalem to reconquer the Holy Land. There’s great honour in it. Riches. Land.” to which the men’s Priest adds, “Your sins will be absolved, whether you live or die… It’s your soul you need to think about.” With such dialogue the film’s depiction of organised religion is made evidently clear: these are men of violence who use religion as a means by which to gain both passage to heaven and wealth upon Earth – honour, riches, land, all in the name of and for the greater good of God. In Valhalla Rising people are defined not by their tribe but by their religion – either Pagan or Christian – and, through this duality, are positioned as either locked in the past or as marching forward the future. The progress then in Valhalla Rising is not in technology or violence (as it is in 2001) but in the emergence of what would become a prevailing belief system. As Christianity gained in followers, so the Pagan beliefs and tribes were either converted or massacred, with those that were converted being men of war and combat, experienced warriors who believe in both the word of God but also the threat and power of the sword. As Refn has stated, during the time period of Valhalla Rising:

Paganism was dying out and Christianity was spreading very rapidly through Europe and the way to expand was by war. Jesus was sold to the Christian Vikings as a war hero who died in battle, so that was something they could relate to. 4

With the Priest’s words seemingly resonating in his mind, One-Eye joins the small band of Vikings and, with the boy, sets sail for Jerusalem. Aboard a long boat, the men soon find themselves adrift in an endless black void, a limbo-like Dead Sea through which they slowly float. This attempted voyage to Jerusalem becomes Refn’s space travel sequence whereby the space ship is the long boat and the vast expanse of the ocean the infinite void of space. Alone and adrift, this sequence mirror’s the Jupiter Mission sequence in 2001: in Kubrick’s film, somewhat famously, the spaceship’s central computer HAL 9000 becomes both sentient and homicidal and begins to murder the crew as they voyage deeper and deeper into space. With such actions, man’s reliance and faith in technology is brought into question, a situation compounded by the fact that the computer exhibits independence and self-awareness only to be almost immediately murdered by the surviving crew member, David Bowman (Keir Dullea). Refn relocates and integrates this concept into his characters’ religious beliefs for, as they drift in the seemingly unending emptiness, they begin to question their faith. Some retreat into prayer, some succumb to dehydration and kill themselves by drinking sea water while others revert back to their Pagan beliefs and suggest that the boy is a curse and, as such, should be killed. Violence predictably erupts and One-Eye, kills a number of the Vikings in order to protect his charge. Faith is, once more, expressed through violence.

This juxtaposition continues into the film’s climax: the long boat continues to drift until, eventually, it makes its way into the mouth of a river and the Vikings find themselves not upon the shores of the Holy Land but of America. Finding traces of Pagan ritual and worship, the Chief declares that they will purge this land and claim it as their own. In doing so, the Chief makes manifest his interpretation of faith as a means by which to wage further war upon those he perceives to be weaker than himself. His previous acts of brutal violence have become an expression of his faith, with each murder and slaughter making physical that which he both feels and believes. As Refn has commented, this man wants “to use God as a reason to conquer” 5 and, with such an attitude, finds only death himself: standing before the mouth of the river, he claims this land as his own and announces it to be the New Jerusalem. Holding tightly onto his sword, he states that he will build crosses along its length to guide his followers who will then help him build cities. Conquering becomes civilising, a process which he describes as one whereby “We raised the Cross, now we bring the Sword. The heathen will be converted, their sins cleansed. A New Jerusalem established”. With such words, he enters into the water as if to cleanse himself. Arms outstretched he reaches out only to be shot by three arrows. Staggering, his body slides slowly back into the water in a perverse and deathly baptism before drifting away with the current.

In contrast to this violent expression of faith, the Priest seeks a different kind of faith in violence. Suffering from a stab wound in his side, both he and One-Eye climb a mountain with the boy and the last remaining Viking. At the summit he confesses to One-Eye why he desired battle in Jerusalem: he believes that if he died in combat then all his sins would be absolved. As he recounts this understanding, he tells One-Eye that both his sons died alone in battle and that his sin was that he wasn’t by their side, either to save or protect them or to die alongside them. His desire for battle was not, like the Chief’s, a desire to pillage and conquer, but to die so that, in the process, his sin would be absolved he would be reunited with his sons. Having confessed his sin to One-Eye, he comes to rest on the mountain top, sitting slowly down to look out across the landscape and into the heavens, patiently waiting his death.

One-Eye, the Monolith

By denying him speech, Refn’s ensures that One-Eye’s origins are left solely to speculation. His past is never spoken of, discussed or even hinted at. He just, seemingly, appeared on the earth. The only tangible facts we know about him are that he is an extremely proficient warrior and that his ‘service’ to his captors only lasts for a period of five years. The latter is spoken by one Pagan Viking to another in an almost mythical manner, a singular line of dialogue indicating One-Eye’s ‘other-worldly’ status. Voiceless and with such potential mythic properties invested in him by others, One-Eye functions as Refn’s version of 2001’s enigmatic monoliths: in Kubrick’s film these silent obelisks appear at significant points in the evolution and technological development of humanity, seemingly encouraging humans forward into their next evolutionary step. In contrast to this, One-Eye seemingly appears at times of conflict and turmoil, at periods of violent change. Whereas Kubrick’s monoliths accompany humanity on towards development, One-Eye is a mute presence that travels alongside the Christian Vikings not towards Jerusalem but towards their deaths. It is perhaps surprising then that One-Eye himself should die at the narrative’s end: standing on a rocky shore with the boy, the native people – those who shot the Viking Chief – emerge from the wilderness. Armed with clubs they offer no words, only silent threats. For the first time, One-Eye then nearly smiles at the boy, and walks towards the natives. His death is quick but brutal, as he’s repeatedly beaten at the hands of those wielding clubs. They look at the boy but, slowly, walk away, disappearing back into the wilderness before we’re shown a brief montage of landscape images returning us backwards through the film’s settings – the river, then the sea then back to where it all began, the rocky landscape of Scotland with the film’s final image being that of a mist-enshrouded mountain. The camera lingers upon this peak and slowly, out of the mist, a close-up of One-Eye’s face slowly fades up: transformed, just as David Bowman was transformed into an astral spirit of the Star-Child in 2001, One-Eye looks down upon the earth, waiting for conflict and turmoil, waiting to return.

Notes

  1. Refn, Nicolas, “Director’s Gallery: Valhalla Rising”o; Empire. Accessed 14/09/12.
  2. Doughton, K., “Refn Rising: Interview with Director Nicolas Winding Refn” Film Threat. Accessed 14/09/12.
  3. Such as in 24 Frames per Second with Refn commenting “There’s a lot of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the movie” and in Filmmaker where Refn states that “Yeah, there’s 2001, a lot of that in Valhalla”.
  4. Refn, Nicolas, “Director’s Gallery: Valhalla Rising” Empire. Accessed 14/09/12.
  5. Gilchrist, Todd, “Interview: Valhalla Rising Writer-Director Nicolas Winding Refn” Cinematical. Accessed 14/09/12.

James Rose is the author of Beyond Hammer: British Horror Cinema since 1970, Studying The Devil’s Backbone and The Devil’s Advocate: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He has contributed to a number of Edited Volumes as well as regular publication in a range of international film journals, including The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, Offscreen, Electric Sheep, and Vertigo. His blog is linked below.

Volume 17, Issue 3 / March 2013 Film Reviews nicolas winding r