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The Norseman
(1978)

Director: Charles B. Pierce
Cast:
Lee Majors, Cornel Wilde, Mel Ferrer


It probably comes as no surprise to your readers when I tell you that movies were my number one hobby when I was quite young. And they still are, believe it or not. (Yeah, I guess with this web site going strong for over 20 years, you'd believe it.) Getting back to when I was young, while movies were even then a big thing in my life, there were other things that interested me. Because I had to go to school, I was made to look at a whole bunch of different topics, and I found that some of them to be quite interesting. Naturally one of them was anything to do with English, from reading to writing various things. (Somehow I knew all that practice with English would make me a popular movie critic in the future.) But another thing introduced to me at school that interested me greatly was history. Specifically, the history of mankind. While others in my school just seemed to be interested in the history of dinosaurs, I sought out books that went into great detail about various and fascinating past civilizations. I remember one of my favorite past civilizations were the Egyptians. Flipping through pages of books about them, a whole bunch of questions would flood my mind about these people. Why did the ancient Egyptians have such an obsession with cats? Just how did they build those pyramids? For that matter, why did they make those above ground pyramid tombs when it proved to be easier and more secure to make underground tombs like they did with Tutankhamun? Those questions and a bunch more I could never find answers to, but maybe that was for the best, because that degree of uncertainty just added to my fascination with the ancient Egyptians.

There were other ancient civilizations that also interested me greatly while I was growing up. The Romans, the Chinese, the Japanese, as well as the Aztecs and Mayans all put a unique and fascinating spin on the idea of ancient civilizations. But while I had a great interest in those aforementioned ancient civilizations, I have to admit that not all ancient civilizations gave me a lot of interest. I remember in grade four when my teacher spent several weeks teaching us about the Native tribes that inhabited our province, and finding they didn't have anywhere the allure of Aztecs and Mayans. Another civilization that didn't give me a great amount of interest were the Vikings. If you had asked me back then why they didn't interest me, I don't think I could have answered why. Years later, and with a little thought, I think I have a better idea. The common depiction of Vikings in the media are that they were obsessed with raiding, plundering, and killing, among other unsavory activities. True, some of those aforementioned civilizations were guilty of those activities, but they didn't seem obsessed with it as the Vikings seemed to be. That's what probably turned me off going into more depth with the Vikings. Still, while I was growing up, I have to admit that occasionally in passing I would learn something interesting about the Vikings. For example, one thing I learned was that the Vikings founded the city of Dublin in Ireland. Another interesting thing that I learned was that the Vikings actually found North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus did. And they actually set up settlements there, but there seems to be no clear reason as to why these settlements were eventually abandoned.

It may be my lack of enthusiasm towards the history of Vikings that has resulted in me seeing very few Viking-themed movies over the years. Though come to think about it, there haven't been that many Viking movies made. I've seen the Kirk Douglas movie The Vikings (pretty good), The Norsemanthe Viking spoof Erik The Viking (pretty bad), Pathfinder (forgettable), the Roger Corman The Viking Women And The Sea Serpent (also forgettable), and The 13th Warrior (somewhat better than its reputation suggests.) As you can see from what I've watched, the Viking genre doesn't seem to be jam-packed with quality films. So when I came across The Norseman, my hopes weren't exactly high. But its bizarre casting, as well as it being made by cult filmmaker Charles B. Pierce (The Town That Dreaded Sundown) - who I haven't covered before on this web site - suggested the film would at least be more memorable than Pathfinder and The Viking Women And The Sea Serpent, and give me plenty to write about. The events of the movie take place during the early eleventh century, during the peak of the period when the Vikings were crossing the Atlantic Ocean and exploring North America. A Viking by the name of Thorvald (Majors, Keaton's Cop) is making another journey to the Americas, joined by a group of loyal followers which includes Ragnar (Wilde, No Blade Of Grass), Olaf (Jimmy Clem, The Evictors), and an African by the name of Thrall (played by football player Deacon Jones). On this trip to the new lands, Thorvald has a mission in mind. We learn that on an earlier expedition, Thorvald's father Eurich (Ferrer, Guyana: Cult Of The Damned) was captured by the native inhabitants and is being held prisoner. It's is Thorvald's plan to bring his father home, but it doesn't take long for Thorvald and his followers to find out that the natives are still very hostile to these horn helmeted intruders...

As you could probably see from what of The Norseman I described in the above paragraph, there seems to have been some effort by Pierce to make these particular screen Vikings palatable to an audience, namely by the casting. Majors and Wilde had both at this point played heroic roles in the recent past, and Jones was well known in the sports world, though it does seem a bit implausible Vikings would have a person of African descent among them. But despite some effort on Pierce's part, the Vikings in this movie fail to capture the audience's attention. And the reason for that is that these characters are extremely weakly written. There are some Vikings that seem to have no purpose in being in this story. For example, the Vikings have amongst themselves a wizard (played by Jack Elam of The Giant Of Thunder Mountain) who at several points has visions of dangers for his fellow Vikings. But none of his visions or limited other actions make the slightest difference to his comrades or the story; he could easily be written out. Thorvald also has among his men his much younger brother who yearns to join his big brother and his men on the battlefield, but is repeatedly told to stay back. He does, and ultimately his presence as well seems to have no purpose, unless you consider the nepotism factor - the youth actor playing the role is director Pierce's real life son. While most of the other actors playing Vikings do get more to do, for the most part it's not that much. For example, the second billed Cornel Wilde shows some concern and grumbles here and there, but doesn't get to do that much more. In fact, in the climatic sequence, he doesn't get involved in the action. And Deacon Jones' character is only given one opportunity to talk in the entire ninety minutes of the movie.

That leaves Lee Majors and his character to possibly salvage things when it comes to the Viking characters. His character does make some major actions during the running time, from planning the rescue of his father to getting into combat with the hostile natives. But his character all the same feels quite thin. He makes a few flowery speeches, but we don't sense any personality coming from this figure; it's hard to make out what's going on in his head. Where does he know where to go, and how does he know what should be done? We never get to know the answers to questions such as those. The weak writing with this character may in part explain why Majors seems to be thoroughly embarrassed with his performance. In fact, all the actors playing Vikings at one point or more seem to suggest they wish they were elsewhere. But as weak as their characters might be, it's not as bad as how the Native Americans in the movie are portrayed. It's not because that they are portrayed as being savage and warlike except for one woman played by Susie Coelho (Theodore Rex) who lends a hand to Thorvald and his men - like it or not, there were some extremely hostile Native American tribes. What I objected to was that the movie makes them a faceless and one-note hostile mob. For example, the first time they appear in the movie, they immediately try to kill the Viking intruders. We don't get to see things from their perspective; they don't talk much, and when they do, there are no subtitles to translate what they are saying. And except for that aforementioned native woman, they don't even have any names. Even if you aren't particularly politically correct, it comes across as a somewhat insulting portrayal of Native Americans.

Speaking of being insulting, The Norseman could also be considered so when it comes to Pierce's direction. I could forgive the decision for Pierce to film the movie in Florida, when in real life the Vikings never got that far down south in North America. I could also forgive Pierce for portraying Thorvald's ship as having a substantial interior below top deck when the outside of the ship clearly shows the ship being too small to have any kind of lower interior. What I can't forgive Pierce for, however, is how utterly dull he makes the movie play out. In the beginning of the movie, there is absolutely no bite. There is absolutely no feeling that the Vikings are struggling across a gigantic ocean to a land they know absolutely nothing about. And once they reach that mysterious land, they immediately get out and start exploring without any caution or reserve, like they are only a few miles away from home. Later developments are not much better. Much of the movie is pretty boring, with a lot of talk and other pretty slow and uneventful going-ons happening on dull-looking locations. When the action does start, Pierce can't shake that slow feeling. Part of it is due to Jaime Mendoza-Nava's extremely slow and low key musical score playing in the background throughout the movie. But Pierce also has to share some of the blame for the passionless action sequences due to him using enough slow motion for five Sam Peckinpah films, as well as some clumsy editing (in one scene, the Vikings are battling the natives in a clearing, then suddenly they are in the woods.) While The Norseman may not be the worst Viking movie you have seen, it makes the achievement of being possibly the first Viking movie to be boring. Even misguided efforts like Erik The Viking and The Viking Women And The Sea Serpent had more life and energy than this.

(Posted January 25, 2020)

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See also: Duel At Diablo, The High Crusade, Star Knight

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