Russian FILM REVIEW: VIKINGS
By Stephen Wilson
Moscow, Russia -- It seemed so surreal. I was deeply brooding over the past and other passengers were in an urban trance when a group of Vikings barged into our compartment brandishing swords and axes. All were dawning helmets, armour and leather.
They looked drunk. One Viking lay down on the floor next to a policeman. The policeman simply smiled in amusement and took it in his stride. I thought a physical assault was imminent but quickly realised those guys meant no harm but were just putting on a performance. The passengers relaxed and even began taking photos of them .
Who were those Vikings? Maybe they were part of reenactment society or extras for a film. Then a few days after this the Russian film 'Vikings' came out at the Cinema.
The film 'Vikings' is an almost melancholic , moody ,dark ,and passionate film about the story of how Prince Vladimir wages a ruthless war against his brothers, takes the throne and converts Russia to Christianity in 988.
The film, directed by Andrei Kravchuck, is loosely based on the Primary Chronicle and King's saga. The role of Prince Vladimir is played by Danila Kozlovsky , and his military leader Sveneld by Maxim Sukhanov while Vladimir's wife Rogneda is played by Alexsandra Bortich and Yaropolk is played by Alexandr Ustugov. One of the best performances was given the actress Svetlana Khodchenko who plays the Greek companion of Yaropolk, Irina. Sasha Bortich also provides a great performance as a bitterly passionate Princess who taunts the Vikings who won't work for Vladmir with the words ; " You are not warriors but mere merchants".
An enormous amount of effort expanding over years went into the creation of this epic film. A whole team of designers and artists were building authentic Viking ships, houses and costumes . The film was made on a 13 million dollar budget.
Unfortunately, many film critics have misleadingly labelled it as Russia's answer to 'Game of Thrones'. Another critic mocked Vladimir not as a hero but 'Cry baby'. Much of this criticism misses the point that this is a deeply psychological film about how the main hero 's mind is scarred and tortured by traumatic events. It depicts what might , or might not
have been one aspect of Vladimir's personality. Who knows?
The plot of the film centres on events following the death of Svyatoslav, when his sons all fight to seize the throne. A brutal fratricide erupts.
Vladimir is forced into exile to Sweden to evade his treacherous brother Yaropolk who has murdered his other brother Oleg. He has conquered Kiev Rus. Sveheld, a military commander , persuades Vladimir to gather a force of Varangian mercenaries, led by a Swedish chieften , played by Joakan Natherquilst. They hope to seize Kiev from Yaropolk and then fight Byzantine.
Vladimir ruthlessly wages a war against his brothers. He cunningly offers peace to his brother but then has him murdered.
He forces Rogneda to marry him and kills her father and mother as well as taking a Greek woman hostage.
However, the character of Vladimir in this film more resembles a hapless and indecisive puppet . He is viewed as falling under the evil influence of his military commander who tells him: " People never change. We have to use cunning". Vladimir deeply regrets killing his brother and all the other victims he has ill treated. He is so indecisive and slow that he fails to prevent the deaths of a man and his son fleeing from
the ritual sacrifice of pagan priests. As a prince, Vladimir is inept, incompetent and often prone to sobbing .
One of the most poignant scenes is when Vladimir is told by a priest that God will forgive him for committing all his terrible sins. This seems an odd and pleasantly shocking revelation to Vladimir. Vladimir confesses his sins and then is made to drink from a communion cup all his sins. He also finds it comforting that people can rise from the dead.
This does not not satisfy Vladimir's military leader who regards it as nonsense.
He taunts him with the words : " Show me you can rise from the dead after I kill you". Then he tries to drown Vladimir. Finally Vladimir challenges him saying: " Go on kill me". His Military leader throws his sword down and walks away disgusted but reflective enough.
The basic idea of the film is it was mainly the remorse over killing his brothers which led to Vlad's conversion to Christianity. But many historians would challenge this version, stating that more pragmatic considerations spurred the decision. Kiev Rus required moral and political support from Byzantine as well as lucrative trade routes. However, given the meager fragments of historical sources it is not entirely implausible that Vladimir did in deed feel remorse over his past sins. What may be more doubtful is the presentation of Prince Vladimir as such an indecisive and hapless man. On the contrary, the way in which Vladimir forcefully converted many Russians to Christianity by forcing them with a sword into the river to be baptised suggests a very determined and decisive prince.
Prince Vladimir was made into a saint. According to some legends he was a highly hospitable king who laid out feasts for the poor and may have been the first King in Europe to aboilsh the death penalty. The latter decision was taken because he literary took the commandment : "Thou Shalt not Kill. " Prince Vladimir actually humanised the Christianity inherited from Orthodoxy by stressing the social importance of defending the weak against the strong . The widow, the old and orphans had to be well cared for. The blood feuding of the Viking era (Vladimir is originally a Swedish name) was discouraged in favour of more peaceful accords.
The film 'Vikings' won't go down well with people who want to see a ruthless strong and cruel no-nonsense King. The Vladimir in this film is too fragile, vulnerable and humane to be understood by people who prefer Marvel comic heroes.
The film 'Vikings' is a beautifully shot film. There are often very stunning and moving scenes which render this film a superb must. It is a well worth watch !