Director: Terry Jones
Screenplay: Terry Jones
Starring: Tim Robbins, John Cleese, Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt, Terry Jones, Imogen Stubbs, Antony Sher, Gary Cady, Charles McKeown, Tim McInnerny, John Gordon Sinclair, Freddie Jones, Richard Ridings, Samantha Bond
Country: UK, Sweden
Running Time: 99 min (theatrical) / 79 min (Director’s Son’s Cut)
BBFC Certificate: 15
Terry Jones was most famous for being part of the Monty Python team and went from being one of the group of six writers and performers to directing the live-action portions of their three most famous feature films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. He continued to work as a director after Monty Python drifted further apart, first with Personal Services in 1987 and then Erik the Viking in 1989.
The latter film began life as a series of 28 short stories Jones wrote for his son (after having already written stories for his daughter) and published as ‘The Saga of Erik the Viking’ in 1983. Jones later decided to turn the stories into a film but, after struggling to make them fit into a cohesive whole, he created something new, only loosely surrounding similar characters.
The film received mixed reviews at the time and hardly set the box office alight, so soon fizzled from people’s memories. It had its followers though, particularly among hardcore Python fans, and could be called something of a cult classic. Signal One clearly believe it’s worthy of rediscovery, as they’re releasing Erik the Viking in a handsomely presented special edition box set.
The set includes two versions of the film that were released. According to Jones, he was stuck in a tight distribution deal and didn’t have time to fine-tune the edit for the film’s original release (the length of which varies according to different sources). He felt it was too long, so cut the film down a little to 89 mins for the UK VHS. Then, years later for a DVD release in 2006, Jones was given the chance to re-edit the film again. He gave the honours to his son, Bill, who produced a 75-minute ‘Director’s Son’s Cut’, with re-ordered scenes, tighter pacing and a completely remixed and re-dubbed soundtrack. Both that later cut and the original theatrical cut are included on Signal One’s Blu-ray. I watched the theatrical version for my review, as it seems to be the favoured cut from numerous online sources and is presented in HD here, whilst the ‘Director’s Son’s Cut’ is in SD.
Erik the Viking sees Tim Robbins play the titular character. He’s a Viking that doesn’t fit in with the rest of his cohorts and a great opening scene helps demonstrate why. He’s part of a raid on a village and, during his pillaging, he comes across Helga (Samantha Bond). Being a Viking, he knows he’s supposed to rape her, so proceeds to unbutton his trousers, but it’s clear he’s not comfortable with this and Helga questions his experience. The pair get into an argument and we discover that Erik goes along with the raping and pillaging but doesn’t really like it. He prefers a life of peace and harmony. However, when he tries to save Helga from two of his comrades, he ends up accidentally killing her.
Erik is plagued by the memory of this woman, who helped him realise who he really was, so asks the wise-woman Freya (Eartha Kitt) for advice. She explains that Fenrir the wolf has swallowed the sun, ushering in the age of Ragnarök (a period of death and destruction). Freya says that, to end this, Erik must travel to Asgard to ask the Gods to usher in a new, more peaceful age. To get there, he must find the ‘Horn Resounding’ in the land of Hy-Brasil. The first note blown on the Horn will take Erik and his crew to Asgard, the second will awaken the gods, and the third will bring him and his crew home. So, Erik rallies together a group of his village’s most heroic (or foolish) men and heads off on an adventure.
I don’t think I’d ever seen Eric the Viking before or if I did it was too long ago to remember. Being a Monty Python fan, I was eager to give it a chance though, despite the rather mixed reception it’s received over the years.
Unfortunately, after watching the film, I can see why many critics didn’t warm to it. Ultimately, though I may have been distracted by the disc’s picture quality issues (see below), I just didn’t find it very funny. It’s mildly amusing throughout and there are numerous gags that feel like they might have worked on paper but don’t quite hit the mark on screen.
It’s hard to know for sure why I wasn’t laughing out loud during the film but I think it’s partially a timing issue (which might explain why Jones kept trying to re-edit it). There’s something strangely ‘off’ about everything. The action scenes are lacking in energy too.
The casting might be another major problem, though, on paper, the cast in itself is excellent. I usually have a lot of time for Tim Robbins and he’s acted in plenty of successful comedies before, but he just doesn’t fit here. It doesn’t help that he’s one of the only Americans in the cast, but he can’t pull off the Pythonesque humour like the original team. This is proven by the fact that Jones himself, playing the ruler of Hy-Brazil, and John Cleese, playing the villain Halfdan the Black, steal their scenes. In his commentary, Jones admits he doesn’t think Robbins was right for the part, though he was the only person they approached for the role that understood it.
The cast of British TV and character actors that make up most of the rest of the cast are very good though, with Freddie Jones, John Gordon Sinclair and Tim McInnerny standing out in particular. Earth Kitt makes a surprisingly good choice as a wise old woman too, though what Mickey Rooney is doing in the film is anyone’s guess.
The film has decent production values for the period and budget, making good use of some Norwegian and Maltese locations. Sets and costumes fit the bill too and I actually kind of liked the dated practical special effects.
However, on a whole, the film feels a bit clumsy. It’s lightly entertaining throughout and, despite Jones’ worries about the theatrical cut, I didn’t find it noticeably too long, but it’s never laugh-out-loud funny and never rousingly exciting, as it seems set to be. It’s a damp squib through-and-through that does little to recapture the wit and anarchic energy of the Pythons’ golden years.
Erik the Viking is out now on deluxe special edition Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Signal One Entertainment. As mentioned, there are two versions of the film included on the disc, the original theatrical cut and ‘The Director’s Son’s Cut’. I had some major problems with the picture quality on the theatrical cut I’m afraid. There’s a chance the screener I was sent was lower quality for anti-piracy reasons, but I’ve asked around online and some others have said they had issues too. The main problem is there are an awful lot of compression artefacts (i.e. pixelated blocks caused by the digitisation and compression process), particularly in darker scenes and on any large patches of the same colour. I’ve used screen grabs from the theatrical cut throughout this review so you can see what I mean on some of them (click on them to see them full-sized). Below is one of the worst examples. The screengrabs are saved as JPEGs, so some extra compression will have taken place (as well as that imposed by WordPress) but they’re fairly close representations of what I could see when viewing the film through my full HD projector. Lighter, busier scenes look better though (see examples above). The colours look nice, particularly in the Hy-Brasil scenes but it’s not the sharpest or most detailed of transfers I’ve seen.
* UPDATE FROM SIGNAL ONE – “We are aware of a picture quality issue with our Erik the Viking release and would like to inform you that we are working with MGM to fix the problem. Unfortunately this is taking longer than anticipated but once resolved we will be sending replacement discs. We will update again as soon as we can and can only apologise for this. Thank you for your patience”
I had a skim through the ‘Director’s Son’s Cut’ and that doesn’t suffer from the artefact problem but it’s only an SD presentation, so has a notably softer image, of course.
The audio is a bit weak too, with some fluctuations/wobble here and there and a slightly muddy sound. This might be an issue with the original mix though (again, explaining why Jones went back to fix the problem in his later cut).
Brand New Extras:
– Original Theatrical Release Cut in HD (103 minutes/99 minutes in PAL)
– “The Director’s Son’s Cut” in SD (79 minutes)
– NEW Commentary Track on the Theatrical Release Cut by Film Historian and Author (“Heavy Metal Movies”) Mike McPadden and Comedy Writer/Producer Aaron Lee
– Commentary Track on The Director’s Son’s Cut by Terry Jones
– Original Theatrical Trailer
– NEW Booklet Essay by Neil Mitchell
– Original Behind the Scenes
– The Evolution of a Director
– Creating the Look
– Special Effects
– Making Movie Magic in Malta
– Jones and Cleese – A Grand Reunion
– Raw Interview Footage
Mike McPadden and Aaron Lee’s commentary isn’t amazingly insightful but it’s enjoyably affectionate towards the film and the work of Jones and the Python team as a whole. They spend a fair amount of time talking about Vikings in films and popular culture too. It makes for a fun listen.
Jones’ commentary is also quite lighthearted in tone and, as you might expect, focusses on stories about the production and how it was made. It’s a decent track.
The archive behind the scenes featurette runs for around half an hour and has plenty of on-set material, so is great, though the interviews are quite back-slap heavy.
The other archive featurettes are shorter and largely just recycle clips from the longer behind the scenes piece, so get rather repetitive. The extended raw interview clips are decent though as they offer fuller answers than the snappy soundbytes used elsewhere.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to look at, unfortunately.
So, unfortunately not a release I’d give much of a recommendation to. Fans of Erik the Viking will get a lot more from it, of course, particularly with the disc including two cuts of the film, but the picture quality issues will still have them hoping for a better release, further down the line.