The evocative locations, characters, and tales recounted in Old Norse histories, epic poems, and stories have inspired filmmakers since the earliest days of cinema. That history goes as far back as Arnljot, a 1927 Swedish silent movie by Theodor Berthels that is now sadly lost, and continues right up to and through 2022’s The Northman (see below). Beyond the big screen, Viking myths and legends have inspired fiction, cartoons, graphic novels, music, and of course, video games, with God of War Ragnarök set to become the latest must-play adventure.
What better way then to celebrate the eagerly anticipated release of this installment in the popular video game series than immersing yourself in the equally rich and visually wonderful universe of Norse-related films? From family-friendly animated adventures to swashbuckling classics, and with plenty of brutal swordplay and moving monologues, you’ll find a movie on this list to suit all your Viking needs.
Prior to working on The Northman, director and co-writer Robert Eggers had earned critical acclaim for two equally striking pictures: The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), both of which set fantastical elements against credible historical backdrops. Little wonder, then, that The Northman was eagerly anticipated. Happily, the film does not disappoint, delivering a rare kind of artfulness contrasted against desperate brutality, much of which is set against some truly breathtaking scenery.
Icelandic writer and frequent Björk collaborator Sigurjón Sigurðsson (also known as Sjón) takes co-writing credits for a story heavily based on the legend of Amleth, a mythical Scandinavian character who directly inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Filmed on location throughout Ireland and Iceland, the movie’s co-producer, Alexander Skarsgård, stars alongside Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and Björk herself. Despite critical acclaim, The Northman underwhelmed at the box office, but don’t let that prevent you from immersing yourself in this well-realized and surprisingly nuanced work.
The Northman is available to stream on Prime Video.
A joint English-Danish project, 2009’s Valhalla Rising is one of those films which, although it slipped under most people’s radar upon initial release, has steadily and deservedly built up something of a cult following. Mads Mikkelsen puts in an exceptional performance as One-Eye, a Norse warrior who accompanies a band of Christian crusaders in search of the Holy Land only to find himself stranded in an unknown country, beset by forces both mortal and otherworldly. As ferocious and barbarous as it is uncannily beautiful, there’s a lot to enjoy here, not least the moving performance of Maarten Stevenson as “the boy.”
Nicolas Winding Refn directs, with his usual eye for visceral kinetics, stylish angles, and simmering ambience. Two years on from Valhalla Rising, Refn secured himself both a Cannes Festival Award and a BAFTA nomination for Drive, the film which did much to establish Ryan Gosling as a credible action star.
Valhalla Rising is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi and Pluto TV.
The Vikings (1958) stands proudly alongside Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961) as one of the great historical epics from the golden age of Hollywood. There’s a lot of pedigree behind this movie. Director Richard Fleischer helmed many other classics, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and beloved sci-fi movie Soylent Green (1973). With The Vikings, the filmmaker had a plethora of heavyweight talents at his disposal.
None other than Kirk Douglas stars as Viking prince Einar, battling it out with his on-screen half-brother Eric (Tony Curtis) in a tangled tale of rights and lineage. Ernest Borgnine is unforgettable (if brief) as King Ragnar, and Janet Leigh (who was married to Curtis at the time) shines as Morgana. More than 50 years on, The Vikings is still a rip-roaring watch. The various battle scenes are exciting and visceral, with plenty of iconic moments, such as the Viking “ax climb” and the final dramatic duel. Its historical accuracy is questionable, though the screenplay is based upon the 1951 novel The Viking by Edison Marshall, which in turn took inspiration from historic Icelandic sagas.
The Vikings is available to stream on Prime Video or for free with ads on Pluto TV.
The 13th Warrior
There’s a lot to enjoy about this 1999 movie, not least the intriguing and imaginative plot, which concerns Ahmad ibn Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas), a poet in service of the Caliph of Baghdad. Fadlan finds himself caught up in the affairs of the Norsemen, whose kingdom is under attack from an “ancient evil.” Fadlan’s journey from mocked outlander to respected companion is both believable and entertaining. Banderas brings plenty of charisma to the role of his character, whose intelligence, courage, and horsemanship gradually wins the Norsemen’s approval. Diane Venora, Vladimir Kulich, and Omar Sharif provide first-rate support.
The screenplay is adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead (1976), which is itself based on the Old English poem Beowulf and the first-hand accounts of the real-life Fadlan, a 10th-century traveler and chronicler. Director John McTiernan knows a thing or two about action movies, having been responsible for both the original Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988), and it shows in the movie’s exhilarating fight sequences, which are both imaginative and bruising. In particular, the “last stand” of the Norsemen is handled with both flair and emotion.
The 13th Warrior is available to stream on Hoopla with a library card and for digital rental or purchase on Amazon and Apple.
How To Train Your Dragon
This charming 2010 family movie from DreamWorks owes much to the strength of its source material — the books of British children’s author Cressida Cowell, whose series of novels set in a mythical Viking world follow the adventures of Hiccup, a would-be dragon slayer whose views are radically altered when he captures and trains his own dragon, Toothless.
The visuals are as good as you would expect from the team behind Shrek (2001) and Kung Fu Panda (2008), but it’s the story and the characters which impress the most. Hiccup’s emotional journey toward understanding the true nature of both himself and the dragons is genuinely moving, and the film doesn’t shy away from genuine trauma, albeit with a suitably upbeat ending that will leave kids and adults alike with a warm glow. Jay Baruchel, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, and Gerard Butler lend their talents to this movie, which justly earned itself an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.
How To Train Your Dragon is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu.
Erik the Viking
The Norwegian historical comedy television series Norsemen proves that the idea of mixing Vikings and humor can make for a winning formula. Travel back to 1989 and you can find a precursor, of sorts, in this highly enjoyable romp written and directed by former Monty Python star Terry Jones. The plot follows the titular Viking as he and his ragtag crew attempt to reach Asgard, the home of the gods, in order to petition the celestial deities to cease Ragnarök (the end times) and return the sun to the sky.
Viewers will have great fun playing spot-the-star. There are plenty to choose from. Jones himself shines as King Arnulf, alongside Tim Robbins as Erik, Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt, Imogen Stubbs, fellow Python John Cleese, Tim McInnerny, Jim Broadbent, and Neil Innes. Visually endearing, the film serves up a pleasing and genre-twisting blend of base visual gags and intelligent humor, shot through with a delightfully Pythonesque sense of the absurd.
Erik the Viking is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi or Pluto TV.
The second animated film on this list, and the second to take inspiration from the Old English poem of the same name, Beowulf (2007) is a feature that, despite being overloaded with star power, strikes just the right balance between atmospheric weight and engrossing adventure. Writing credits are shared by Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction) and Neil Gaiman, several of whose works have previously been adapted for the screen, notably Stardust (2007) and the new Netflix series The Sandman.
Beowulf is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who made the Back to the Future trilogy and has also worked with animation multiple times (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Polar Express). Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, and Angelina Jolie all contribute solid performances. Beowulf utilizes live-action motion-capture techniques, lending the animated protagonists a striking presence. The film plays somewhat fast and loose with its source material, but this is not a movie striving for historical accuracy. Beowulf is visually captivating, and well deserving of your time.
Beowulf is available to stream for free with a library card on Kanopy, or for free with ads on Pluto TV.
The Long Ships
We’re back to 1964 for another evergreen classic and another international project, this time courtesy of England and Yugoslavia. (Very) loosely based on the novel of the same name by Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson, the plot of the The Long Ships centers around a legendary golden bell, the “Mother of Voices,” and the Moorish king Aly Mansuh (played by Sidney Poitier) who is desperate to possess it. Enter shipwrecked Viking Rolfe (Richard Widmark), who professes knowledge of the mythical bell’s location.
There follows a convoluted yet entertaining story involving kidnapped princesses, stolen longships, unexpected revelations, and an epic quest in search of the “Mother.” Direction is by Jack Cardiff, whose career stretched across several decades, and who is remembered for his highly influential cinematography on many celebrated films, including A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The African Queen (1951), and The Red Shoes (1948). Here, he conjures a suitably epic, sweeping feel, ably supported by a fantastically lush score by Serbian composer Dušan Radić.
The Long Ships is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon and Apple.
The Last Viking
We finish with a short but striking contemporary film. 2016’s The Last Viking is a highly atmospheric, intimate drama that stars Philip Stevens (who also directs) as Harald Hardrada, the renowned 11th-century Norwegian king whose exploits have inspired countless works. Hardrada fought his first battle at the age of 15, and his last, infamously, at Stamford Bridge in 1066, where English King Harold Godwinson and his forces ambushed and slaughtered the Norseman. Hardrada’s death is often cited as signaling the end of the Viking age.
The Last Viking centers on Hardrada’s final moments as, gravely wounded, the king recounts his story at the request of a mysterious one-eyed visitor (the Norse god Odin, played by David Clayton). Stevens justly earned critical acclaim for this stirring piece, which wrests a great amount from a simple setup. The film’s confined, intimate setting coupled with its superb, lyrical script allows the viewer’s imagination to fully engage with the material in a way few movies can. Through it’s largely just one voice and backdrop, Stevens makes long-dead history feel both immediate and relevant. It’s as fine a way as any to end your visual Viking feast.
The Last Viking is available to watch on YouTube.