- by Simone Render
The Dark Ages aren't as popular a setting as the High Middle Ages for movies and television, but with the surge in popularity around Vikings over the last ten years or so, there is much more available now than there has been in past decades. Shows like Vikings and the Last Kingdom, along with movies like Valhalla Rising and the 13th Warrior do a great job at giving context and texture to the period, even if they are sometimes not entirely historically accurate.
Which is a point worth remembering - these are works of historical FICTION. While they do mostly strive to be accurate and realistic portrayals of history, actual accuracy ranges from "close" to "barely". Most of these movies and series serve more to give one a sense of time and place, a feel for the people and how they lived, rather than accurately portraying real people and events. Combat details especially are often portrayed incorrectly, so it's always a good idea to watch with a critical eye and back one's viewing up with a bit of reading as well.
These aren't meant to be full reviews, but I have given each entry on the list an overall rating on a 10 point scale. I've also added a pair of additional ratings that specifically evaluate the movie or series' value from a historical point of view:
- Overall - How good is the story and how well is it told with regards to script, acting, direction, production and other? This is the usual critical rating one might expect in a review.
- Historical Accuracy - How accurate is the movie or series' portrayal of the people and events being depicted?
- Setting Accuracy - How accurate is the movie or series' portrayal of the setting? This includes weapons and tactics appropriate to the time and place being depicted.
This list deals primarily with the Viking Age, from around 790CE to about 1000CE, and is perfect for inspiring your SAGA Dark Ages games. I'll be making similar lists for the Arthurian Age (Aetius and Arthur) and the Crusades (The Crescent and the Cross).
History Channel's hugely popular foray into scripted drama tells the tale of Ragnar Lothbrok, the legendary Viking warlord who first crossed the North Sea from Scandinavia to raid Saxon England and eventually took Paris, albeit temporarily. The storytelling, acting and production are top-notch, and the series competes with the best premium cable television out there today.
That said, Vikings does take some liberties with history. It compresses decades into the lifespan of a single group of characters, Ragnar and his kin, and ties most of the events of that period directly to them. As long as one keeps that in mind though, Vikings is a beautifully realised retelling of the legend of Ragnar and his infamous sons, which paints a richly detailed picture of early Saxon England, Frankia and the Danelands.
- Historical Accuracy: 6 - Vikings does touch on the important events and people of the Viking Age, but compresses the period to revolve exclusively around the exploits of Ragnar and his family. That said, the time and place is beautifully portrayed.
- Martial Accuracy: 8 - The lack of helmets is problematic, but the weapons and tactics used are generally quite accurate.
- Overall: 8 - Vikings takes some historical liberties but is a fantastic introduction to the Viking Age.
The Last Kingdom (2015-ongoing)
The Last Kingdom is based on the excellent Saxon Chronicles series of novels by Bernard Cromwell. It follows the life of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon raised by Danes, who despite his conflicted heritage and loyalties, serves Alfred the Great in his dream to forge a united England. The series is a more historically faithful adaptation than Vikings, expertly weaving Uthred's story into the events of Alfred's reign. The story, acting and action are fantastic, and the series does a great job of recreating ninth century England.
If any complaint could be levelled at the series, it might be that the story moves along at breakneck speed, leaving very little time for lesser characters and plot points to see much development. Ultimately that's a minor complaint though - while some story elements do suffer from the lack of development time, the pace of the show makes for an exciting look at one of the most important periods in the formation of Western Europe.
- Historical Accuracy: 8 - The Last Kingdom's protagonist is a fictionalised amalgam of real historical people, but the story makes an effort to weave his story deftly into the events of Alfred the Great's reign.
- Martial Accuracy: 9 - The Last Kingdom is one of the best depictions of Dark Ages era combat on this list. The weapons and armour are accurate, the tactics of the time well realised and the overall portrayal of battle a treat to watch.
- Overall: 8 - While it doesn't have quite the budget Vikings does, The Last Kingdom is a great story and an accurate, if occasionally rushed prtrayal of late Anglo-Saxon England.
Hammer of the Gods (2013)
Hammer of the Gods takes place in 871AD, shortly after the Battle of Ashdown, where the Danish king Bacsecg was defeated by King Ethelred and his younger brother Alfred. The film tells the story of his son Steiner, tasked by his father to track down his elder brother Hakan, heir to Bacsecg's throne. The story takes some interesting turns, and includes a very different take on Ivar the Boneless, grimdark Saxons and lots of blue woad.
Hammer of the Gods isn't in the same league as some of the other films on this list, but it's a fairly entertaining story that illustrates how open the Dark Ages are to telling creative fictional tales in amongst the real events of the period.
- Historical Accuracy: 4 - While the movie is set against the backdrop of a real battle, the story is entirely fictional, and the portrayal of the Vikings themselves "vaguely barbarian" rather than anything more specific than that.
- Martial Accuracy: 4 - The complete lack of mail and shields and the use of arming swords where Carolingian swords should be the norm is a clear indication that not a lot of research went into this movie, and that they opted for "vaguely medieval combat" instead. For what they are though, the fights are mildly entertaining.
- Overall: 4 - Not a good film, but also not bad enough to be rated as poor. It's just kinda ... okay. Some of the action is cool, and seeing some Vikings alumni playing different - or in the case of Clive Standen, pretty much the same character, is moderately fun.
The 13th Warrior (1999)
Based on a novel by Michael Crichton, the 13th Warrior weaves the story of an Abbasid ambassador to the Varangian Vikings, Ahmed ibn Fadlan, into a confrontation between the Northmen and an unspecified primitive group, the so-called "Eaters of the Dead". Despite many flaws, it makes for an enjoyable adventure movie that depicts places and people not generally seen in western historical fiction.
Antonio Banderas is a treat to watch as ibn Fadlan, and the Vikings are a fun enough collection of tropes. The movie is also beautiful to watch, making full use of the landscapes and sets to evoke a sense of time and place. Unfortunately the combat isn't the best. While the swords are reasonably accurate (except for an almost Final Fantasy-worthy meat cleaver thrown into the mix), the lack of helmets and shields, along with a weird selection of armour that even includes some plate, make for odd if entertaining battle scenes.
- Historical Accuracy: 6 - The 13th Warrior is a fictional tale, but it does go to some trouble to depict the interactions between Golden Age Baghdad and the Volga Vikings well. The sets, costuming and languages also evoke the period well.
- Martial Accuracy: 6 - Some of the characters use period-appropriate arms and armour, but it feels a bit more like an afterthought than due to much research. Of course, the movie does date back to the 90's, so it could also just be that research has moved on since then. The production quality elevates it above some of the other egregious offenders on the list though.
- Overall: 7 - a solid average with some good scenes and some fun performances. While it never deserved to be a blockbuster it was definitely a better movie than its box office indicated.
Valhalla Rising (2009)
Valhalla Rising tells the story of a Danish warrior, known only as One-Eye, who travels with a group of Crusaders in search of the Holy Land. Their journey goes very wrong and they end up in Vinland - present-day Canada instead, and the film chronicles their trials in the unforgiving wilderness of the new land.
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, Valhalla Rising is a stark, brutal work of art with minimal dialogue, which tells its tale through action and imagery. The film is challenging in both its style and the violence it laces the story with, but it is worth the effort of watching from start to finish. More a character study than a plot-driven story, Mads Mikkelson plays One-Eye brilliantly, and the supporting cast complements his performance really well.
- Historical Accuracy: 6 - Valhalla Rising is a fictional tale well-realised. Though mostly wilderness-based, the costumes and props are fairly accurate.
- Martial Accuracy: 6 - The movie does take place in the closing years of the Viking Age, so the fact that some of the characters are using arming swords and even longswords isn't entirely out of place. And they're all poor people so no surprise at the lack of armour except for a half-baked attempt at ring armour. The lack of helms and shields is sad though.
- Overall: 8 - Valhalla Rising does leave a bit to be desired in the historical accuracy department, but it is a beautiful, fantastic movie well worth your time.
Pathfinder barely qualifies as historical fiction, but as long as you watch it as a fantasy movie instead it's a lot of fun. A Viking child named Ghost, the last survivor of an expedition to Vinland, is adopted into a Native American tribe and grows to be one of its warriors. Fifteen years later, a second Viking expedition threatens the tribe, and it is up to Ghost to kill off the entire group and save his tribe.
To say Pathfinder has issues is an understatement - historical accuracy is a "maybe next scene" sort of thing, and the movie just can't get away from its White Saviour complex. That said, it's an absolute treat to watch. The Vikings are nothing so much as Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer made real, and I love Karl Urban in pretty much everything. Clancy Brown plays the Viking leader Gunnar, so scenery is also chewed with great abandon. Pathfinder was a box-office bomb, but it's definitely worth watching if it turns up on television or online somewhere.
- Historical Accuracy: 3 - Pathfinder is in no way, shape or form a historical film beyond it being Vikings vs. Native Americans. I have limited knowledge of Native American culture so I can't really comment on the movie's depiction of that, but the Vikings are ... well yeah.
- Martial Accuracy: 3 - Not only do these vikings have horns, they have multiple sets of horns! And Skulls! Lots of Skulls! They're like viking-inspired Space Marines. There's also everything from twin-headed axes to huge morningstar flails. Surprisingly though, some of them at least are wearing mail, there are shields aplenty, and everybody is in a helmet. So it's not a total loss. Barely. The depiction of Native American weapons does seem slightly better, but only as far as my very limited knowledge of the culture is concerned.
- Overall: 5 - This movie is a guilty pleasure of mine but I'm under no illusions as to its quality. It's a bad film, but it revels in every bit of over-the-top madness it perpetrates.
- Northmen, a Viking Saga (2014) - This is a bad film. It depicts a conflict between a group of Viking exiles and a bunch of mercenaries working for the Scottish king, but everybody ends up just looking like "vaguely medieval warrior x". Enjoyable enough as a bad action movie, but of little historical value.
- Viking (2016) - I came across this Russian movie a few weeks back and have yet to watch it, but it looks decent and I'm excited to see the Volga Vikings more accurately depicted. I'll more than likely amend this article to include a proper mini-review once I've seen it.