MGM // 1989 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // December 10th, 2007
Meet the original pillage people.
In the "Behind the Director's Son's Cut" featurette, writer/director Terry Jones mentions the box office misfortunes of Erik the Viking, shrugging, "I guess they were expecting a Monty Python movie." My immediate reaction was, "Well, of course, they were expecting a Monty Python movie, you pillock! The movie looks just like a Monty Python film, it sounds just like a Monty Python film, and it has several Monty Python members in it. There's not a lot there to suggest that it isn't a Python film! Except for the unfunny bits, of course."
And there's the movie's problem in a nutshell. It desperately wants to be something other than Monty Python, but Jones' writing and direction, coupled with an overzealous editing job that reduces the film to a handful of disjointed episodes, leave the viewer with a dreadful case of Python envy.
Erik the Viking (Tim Robbins, Mystic River) is in a funk. In the midst of a day's pillaging, he couldn't bring himself to rape Helga (Samantha Bond, Goldeneye). Making matters worse, while fighting off some other Vikings intent on doing to Helga what he couldn't, Erik accidentally killed her. Now, all bummed out, he turns to the mystic Freya (Eartha Kitt, The Emperor's New Groove), who asks him if he's noticed that the sun doesn't come out anymore. There's a reason for the exceedingly long night, you see: The great Grey Wolf Fenrir has swallowed the sun, for the world is in the midst of Ragnarok, the age of darkness in which brothers will turn against one another and all will be consigned to chaos and despair. She tells Erik that in order the stop the dire proceedings, he must journey to the legendary land of Hy-Brasil, where the Horn Resounding will transport him to Asgard and awaken the sleeping gods-only they can make Fenrir restore the sun and bring peace to the land.
Erik convinces a group of Vikings to stop fighting amongst themselves to accompany him, but a number of people, including über-chieftain Halfdan the Black (John Cleese, A Fish Called Wanda) would rather Erik not succeed, as peace and prosperity would be bad for business.
The events leading up to this particular DVD are a tad on the murky side. The basic premise came from The Saga of Erik The Viking, a children's book written by Jones based on some stories he'd made up for his son, Bill. After Monty Python went their separate ways following The Meaning of Life, Jones turned to adapting his book for the screen. Jones didn't have final cut over the film, and was never happy with the pacing of the 100-minute U.S. release; he trimmed the film down to 93 minutes for the British release, but even that editing job was rushed. Leap forward sixteen years, and the plot thickens. MGM announced the release of a 93-minute "Director's Cut" (which was really just the British release) for 2006, and released the cover art -- but the release date came and went with nary a sign of a DVD. While Jones prepared to record a commentary track, he mentioned that he'd really like to take another run at editing the film. Someone at MGM liked the idea, and the 2006 release was summarily canceled to make way for the new cut. Oddly enough, despite having said how much he wanted to recut the film, Jones promptly turned the job over to his son, film editor Bill Jones -- hence the "Director's Son's Cut." Jones (Bill) not only trimmed the film down to 77 minutes, but completely restructured the movie and remixed the soundtrack. However, because no additional footage was available, Jones (Bill) was limited to using only the material from the longer cut (The lack of alternate footage may well have been why Terry Jones didn't do the cut himself; he realized that the available footage was insufficient for his needs). Finally, while MGM was willing to pony up for the new cut, they were not willing to package multiple versions of the film.
Let's just say that last bit was a mistake, and move on.
As a member of Monty Python, Terry Jones' strength was never verbal humor, but rather, situational humor. Surreal situations (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more) were the hallmark of his work. So it's hardly shocking that Jones would come up with the idea of an introverted Viking who's just not into the whole "rape, pillage, and loot" milieu. And it doesn't take much in the way of mental gymnastics to see how such a character would present a number of possibilities for a children's story, a more adult fantasy, or a comedy (or some combination thereof). The problem is that the movie can't really decide which it wants to be, rapidly developing multiple personality disorder. The opening scenes, establishing Erik's character as well as the nature of his quest, establish a reflective character. There's some humor, but it's subordinate to Erik's growing self-awareness. But then, quick as a dragon's sneeze, we find ourselves in Hy-Brasil, where the inhabitants' ear-numbingly bad singing and the clueless King Arnulf (Jones) are the very essence of silliness, as is a fight sequence in which Erik only thinks he has been rendered invisible. You simply cannot watch the Hy-Brasil scenes and not flash on Life of Brian. Then the silliness sinks beneath the waves, along with the rest of Hy-Brasil. The arrival in Asgard abruptly shifts us back into a more somber tone, as the remaining Vikings encounter their fallen comrades. I can't help but wonder if some of the cut material would have made the transitions between the different episodes more palatable, but as it is, each shift to a new locale is more jarring than the last.
The underlying idea has merit -- the solution to mankind's violence lies not in some outside force, but within mankind itself -- but the theme is barely given voice; Jones notes that a fairly long speech in which Erik expounds on this point was cut as being too blatant. All well and good, but certainly some middle ground must have been available. The final shot might be part of the solution -- the remaining characters, looking across a frozen landscape, watch the first sunrise in decades. It's a lovely shot, full of hope and promise, but we're not really prepared for it, and no sooner does the image register than the credits are rolling.
The audio remix is good, but not great. The music makes fair use of all available channels, but the dialog and sound effects tend to gravitate to the center channel. The music (by Monty Python regular Neil Innes) is primarily a boisterous, swashbuckling-type theme that is seriously overused. In many cases, it's used during inappropriate times -- such as the deaths of some of Erik's men in battle -- that undermine the effectiveness of the scene. There are no noticeable hisses or pops, though, and even muttered or whispered dialogue is easily understood.
Video, on the other hand, is more uneven. While there aren't any scratches, spots, flecks, or other artifacts, the color balance is garishly inconsistent. Some scenes are a little more red-saturated than normal, and a few scenes look as though the actors spent a few too many hours in a tanning bed. At one point, I had to change to a broadcast channel to reassure myself that nothing was wrong with my set.
The commentary track has Jones chatting with Chas Whiteman (no, I have no idea who Chas Whiteman is). The track is OK, but it's main failing is that apart from a few lines here and there, it never really addresses the elephant in the room -- the differences between the theatrical cut and this version. 20 percent of the original film was removed, and the remaining scenes reordered. What material was cut? What was the original arrangement?
The two making-of featurettes are pretty much by the numbers; you'll get a little info here and there, but overall, they're generic.
For all of the film's faults, it sports a number of standout supporting characters. It's easy to point out John Cleese, whose conciliatory attitude as he condemns various people to death just never stops being funny (Rumor has it that Cleese stepped in at the last minute to replace Jack Lemmon. Jones doesn't mention anything about it in his commentary, but it is so damned easy to imagine Lemmon in the role that the rumor may well have merit). There are several other standouts as well. Mickey Rooney pops up for a brief but thoughtful turn as Erik's Grandfather, and Eartha Kitt brings her distinctive voice and vibe to the role of the mystic. But the real standout is Freddie Jones (Dune) as Harald the Missionary. He's so committed to converting everyone in his path to Christianity that his mind simply blocks out anything that does not fit into the Christian worldview. This perspective (or lack thereof, I suppose) manifests most clearly when the quest arrives in Asgard. Not only can Harald not see Asgard, Valhalla, or the gods themselves, for him none of it not even exists, and as a result he can walk right through the walls of Valhalla without a second thought. It's at once an intriguing inverse existential kind of thing, and also turns out to be a critical plot point. It's rather appropriate that Harald ultimately becomes the means of the quest's salvation.
At first glance, Tim Robbins is an odd choice for a Viking hero. But somehow it works. Robbins is substantially taller than the other characters, so even visually he stands apart from his fellow Vikings. His accent further distances him.
Also worth noting is the movie's attention to detail. Jones studied medieval and Old English literature at Oxford before trying his hand at comedy, and his training serves him well. The Viking villages, clothing, weapons, and ships are all reproduced with an eye towards realism.
This version of Erik the Viking comes across as a fleeting glimpse of some of the directions Terry Jones might have gone with his ambitious tale. But on its own merits, it's a disjointed mess.
MGM is guilty of trying to use a cute title -- "The Director's Son's Cut" -- to sell a bad package. There's no excuse for not including one of the earlier cuts -- particularly since a Region 2 Special Edition includes both the new cut and the 97-minute British cut.
Review content copyright © 2007 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Terry Jones
* "Terry and Bill: Behind the Director's Son's Cut" Featurette
* 1989 Making Of Featurette
* Photo Gallery
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Wikipedia: Erik the Viking