Like with any genre of film making, there are periods of time where there's an influx in a certain type of entertainment and then it ebbs away again. Often times, over saturation of a certain genre will lead to its sudden disappearance. Gangster movies of the '30s and '40s gave way to Westerns in the '50s, which dominated the cinema landscape for almost three decades before they dipped their cowboy hat to spy thrillers and action films of the '70s and '80s.
One genre that hasn't received nearly as much attention tells the story of Vikings, those Norse warriors who worshiped multiple gods and sailed the seas pillaging and conquering. Lately, we've seen a healthy interest in Vikings due to well-executed historical dramas like Vikings on the History Channel, and The Last Kingdom on Netflix. But what about all of the great Viking films out there? Every few years one will be released, with varying degrees of authenticity and aesthetic, but there will always be those that capture the genre the best. Here are the 10 best Viking films of all time, ranked.
Directed by Russian filmmaker Andrei Kravchuk, Viking is a mid-budget grunge spectacle, with almost no US distribution and poor subtitles. Still, despite its faults (historically inaccurate costumes, some poor CGI), it manages to accurately convey some of the culture of Vikings of the time.
Its primary focus is Vladimir of Novgorod, a Viking prince in the 10th century who is forced into exile by his half-brother Yaropolk, who has already murdered one of their other brothers and who wants to throne for himself after their father dies. Sveneld, an old Viking warrior, convinces Vladimir to assemble an armada and return to conquer Novgorod, to stand against both his vile brother and the forces of Byzantia.
Outlander explores what would happen if Kainan, a man from another world, crash landed in Norway during the reign of the Iron Age Vikings. But Kainan isn’t alone - he’s brought a predator called the Moorwen. Sworn as a soldier to murder his enemy, Kainan bonds his advanced tech with the Viking weaponry to defeat it.
The idea around Outlander is reminiscent of Cowboys vs Aliens, and when it works, it works well. It offers more of an authentic look at Vikings that its premise might suggest, and the battles involving Kainan, his Viking allies, and the Moorwen are impressively done. It’s also worth noting that both Kainan and the Moorwen have committed atrocities against each other, making it a feud tainted with ambiguity.
8 THE LONG SHIPS
A Viking epic film made in the mid-‘60s, The Long Ships focuses on a highly prized bell made out of gold called the “Mother of Voices” and the two powerful men that seek to obtain it. The mythical treasure that’s bigger than a truck has elicited the attention of Moorish ruler El Mansuh (Sidney Poitier) and Viking leader Rolfe (Richard Widmark).
Rolfe sails with his men from Scandinavia to seek the bell in Africa, reluctantly taking El Mansuh and his cohort along for the ride. They focus all their energies on an object that may be pure fantasy, testing the depths of their spiritual fortitude and physical strength. With elaborate costumes and large sets, it’s a beautiful film, though it only half focuses on Viking culture.
Though Pathfinder was originally ridiculed when it came out, it enjoys a measure of cult status. When a Viking youth named Ghost is adopted by the Wampanoag tribe after he survives a shipwreck, he grows up becoming an Indian brave instead of a Norse warrior. Eventually, he goes up against his own Norsemen as a young man, who ravage his people and their land.
He falls in love with a young woman of the Wampanoag tribe, defending her against his native countrymen and in so doing, becomes a savior to his people despite a prophecy that foretold that he would be a harbinger of nothing but destruction.
6 HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
This animated feature from DreamWorks Studios perfectly captures the real adventure of the Viking Age as well as its magic. It centers around a youth Viking boy, Hiccup, who manages to train a Night Fury dragon, one of the most dangerous of all the dragons, to be his constant friend and fellow fighter against attacks on his village.
The plucky film about a boy and his dragon spawned two sequels, each gaining in momentum and popularity. The series results in a glorious dragon utopia for the Viking people as Hiccup, his partner Astrid, and his Night Fury Toothless protect it from all manner of dark threats that would seek to destroy it.
5 THE 13TH WARRIOR
Another film that focuses on a blending of cultural attitudes and norms, The 13th Warrior chronicles a Muslim ambassador in exile who abruptly becomes part of a Viking caravan. Ahmad ibn Fadlan is originally confused, bewildered, and offended by the behavior of the unruly Norsemen, but as they overcome more adversity in their travels, he comes to admire their strength.
As the Vikings and Fadlan get word of an ancient evil threatening both of their ways of life, they learn to fight together, and Fadlan discovers that there is a warrior lurking inside of him as well. With an all-star cast led by Antonio Banderas, the acting is top notch and the story is uplifting as well as exciting.
In its initial release, Beowulf wasn’t well received, with audiences having issues with the filmmaking style (CGI rendered over live actors for a strange not-quite-animated look). Nevertheless, it was an ambitious and epic take on the ancient legend, and boasted an all-star cast of talent.
The courageous warrior Beowulf is summoned before King Hrothgar to protect the people of his kingdom from a dangerous demon known as Grendel. Though Grendel proves no match for the mighty Beowulf, its death invokes the ire of its mother, a vicious creature that proves both beguiling and challenging to the bravest among heroes. If you like a bit of Greek mythology with your Viking myths, you’ll like this film.
Thor, the Mighty God of Thunder, is banished from Asgard on the day he is to inherit the throne from his father Odin. He is cast out from the lands of his people because he dared to defy the Frost Giants, who themselves violated an ancient treaty by setting foot in Asgard on the day his coronation.
Thor is banished to Earth, where he is discovered by several scientists (one of whom he becomes romantically linked to) who introduce him to Earth’s foreign customs. Meanwhile, back in Asgard, his brother Loki, God of Mischief, plots to overtake Odin in the absence of Thor and his mighty hammer Mjolnir.
2 VALHALLA RISING
The magnetic, heavily tattooed Mads Mikkelsen smolders in this Viking epic set in 11th century Scandinavia, playing a slave called “One Eye” due to the severe wound across his face. He leads a revolt against the men who have imprisoned him and unites with Eirik, as well as several religious fanatics who spread the Lord’s word.
Once free of his captors, things don’t get any easier for One Eye. As he heads for the Holy Land and Jerusalem with Eirik and his crew, they suffer from starvation, infighting, and attacks off the coast. Only greater hostility and carnage await One Eye in this incredibly moody, and visually stunning epic. It’s a slow burn, but an intriguing one with lots to take in.
1 THE VIKINGS
Like its name suggests, this film is all about Vikings. It stars Kirk Douglas as the Viking prince Einar and Tony Curtis as Eric the Slave, two men locked in a feud that only grows when Einar kidnaps the princess Morgana (previously engaged to King Aella), whose only love is Eric. Morgana becomes the center of focus for three vengeful men, all hellbent on claiming her as their bride.
Every member of the cast is an experienced thespian of the sword and sandal epic, including Janet Leigh (Morgana) and Ernest Borgnine as Einar’s father, King Ragnar. The acting is somewhat stiff but powerful, and for sheer scope and scale of Viking civilization and battles, it holds its own against the CGI-filled versions of today.