War And God: An Analysis of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising foto Dean Rogers

(The following analysis was written by Nathan Liu, an avid film buff and a fellow film blogger. He runs a wonderful film blog called liusviews. Please do not read if you haven’t seen the film before.)

Epic, eerie, dark, disturbing; these are the first words that come to mind when I hear the name Valhalla Rising. A Danish picture, shot in English with Scottish actors, this 2009 film has been described by some critics as a “cinematic sojourn through hell.” I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it that, but I do know that, with its haunting visuals, hypnotic soundtrack, and harrowing explorations into the themes of war, religion, greed and nation building,Valhalla Rising is a fascinating, surrealist nightmare of a movie.

Not to suggest that it’s free of flaws. Valhalla Rising falls far short of perfection in several areas. Its extremely violent, poorly acted, and many of the characters lack depth or back-story. But the weaknesses of the film, or even the strengths, (I’d give the movie an overall rating of 7 out of 10), are not what I want to discuss here today. I’m not, strictly speaking, writing a review. Why? Because I’ve always wanted to write an in-depth analysis of a movie, and Valhalla Rising is one of those films that’s so strange, so nebulous, that you can’t help but analyze it. It has very little dialogue, and instead relies on atmosphere to convey story and character. A film like that is just begging its viewers to draw their own conclusions as to the meaning of its content. Well, I’ve watched the film, thought about it deeply, drawn my own conclusions, and if you will do me the great honor of reading further, I would like to share just a few of my ideas with you.

Before I go on, however, I feel like I should explain a few details. They might seem pretty trivial now, but had I not had them lurking in the back of my mind when I saw this film, I might have had a totally different reaction to it. First, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Nordic Mythology, Valhalla is the Hall of Odin, the one-eyed king of the gods. People went to Valhalla after death if, during life, they had been great warriors. The reason why only warriors could go to Valhalla is that Odin, as well as all the other gods, was mortal, and so needed as many skilled soldiers as possible to defend him in the last great universe-destroying battle with the forces of evil. Second, it is widely believed among historians that the first people to set foot on North America, after the Native Americans, were a group of Vikings led by a man named Lief Erikson. Thirdly, in his acclaimed Revisionist Western, Blood Meridian, author Cormac McCarthy writes, “War is God.” There! Now I think you know enough to go on.

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Anyway, Valhalla Rising is a ninety minute epic divided into six episodic parts; Wrath, Silent Warrior, Men of God, The Holy Land, Hell, and The Sacrifice. The film opens with a brief prologue, which states that, at the dawn of time, there was mankind and nature, and then warriors bearing crosses drove the heathen to the fringes of the Earth. The movie then fades into a wide shot of a cold, mist-covered highland, and it is in this desolate landscape that we are introduced to our hero, a mysterious mute warrior known only as One-Eye. He has been taken prisoner by a group of Pagans who force him to fight other men to the death for entertainment. Between battles, he is fed and cared for by a young, orphaned boy. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that One-Eye has been endowed with the gift of divination. Events that are to come appear, blood red, before him in dreams. One of them is his finding of an old arrowhead while bathing in a pond. He ends up using this object to free himself and slay his captors. He spares the life of the Boy who cared for him, and together they set off for an unknown destination.

Eventually, the two of them come across a rag-tag group of Crusaders, Christians fresh from killing male pagans and holding all the women as naked hostages. Recognizing that One-Eye is a man of great strength, the leader of the Christians, a man known only as The General, asks him to join them on their quest to re-conquer the Holy Land. He says that, regardless of whether or not One-Eye survives the endeavor; he will be absolved of all previous sins and allowed to go to heaven. The General then asks the Boy if he knows of One-Eye’s origins. The Boy, who seems to be able to read One-Eye’s thoughts, says that One-Eye was brought up from hell, and that hell is a place somewhere across the sea. He does not, however, specify whether the hell which One-Eye claims to hail from is the Christian hell, or hel, the underworld of Nordic Mythology. One-Eye does eventually agree to join the Crusaders, but only because he had a vision in which he saw himself riding in their boat. Throughout the movie, he follows all his various premonitions without question.

The next segment of the film takes place on the Christians’ ship. It quickly becomes clear that what began as a glorious mission filled with hope and anticipation has since spiraled down into a disaster filled with hunger and despair. The group has been at sea for weeks, and yet they do not appear to have gotten any closer to their desired destination. There is no wind, no current, and, to make matters worse, a dense fog has closed in around them. Water is running short, and many of the men are beginning to starve. Rumors begin to circulate that the voyage is cursed. Some of the crew blames their predicament on The Boy. Mutiny nearly arises when a desperate crew member attempts to murder The Boy and is killed by One-Eye. Later on, One-Eye senses a change in the motion of the boat, takes a drink from the water, and discovers that they are actually in a fresh water estuary and no longer at sea. With the fog dissipating, the crew catches the first sight of land off in the distance.

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It quickly becomes clear to them that the place they have arrived at is not the Holy Land. Instead of the large deserts and scorching sun of the Middle East, this new place has vast forests and rolling hills. The crew sets out to explore the area, finding neither animals to hunt nor fruit to eat. Nearly starved, they continue until coming across some indigenous burial sites. One of the crew members leaves the group to venture out on his own. The group searches for him for hours and some blame One-Eye for his disappearance. The General argues that there is no proof that One-Eye killed him. Finally accepting that they have not reached Jerusalem and that their whole quest was for nothing, the crew prepares the ship to depart and head home. While on the water, the group is taunted by a single arrow, which flies in from nowhere and kills one of their men. Terrified, they soon come to believe that they are actually in Hell.

 Upon returning to shore, the men drink a strange brew given to them by The General. This is his dubious method of “…..claiming the land in His Name.” Subsequent events demonstrate that The General has gone insane. One-Eye has a vision of his ultimate fate. He wades to a small island to construct a cairn, a pile of stones used in certain rituals. Meanwhile, the other men split up and experience a variety of perceptions and emotions including apathy, desperation and despair. One prays. One attacks and rapes another. Others wander or wait. One-Eye and the group are then confronted by the lost crew member, who emerges from the forest bare-chested and covered in orange-brown mud in which runes and hieroglyphs are drawn. This lost Crusader says he can hear One-Eye’s thoughts now and translates that the warrior is saying they are in Hell. Another crew member then accuses The General of lying to them, and One-Eye of bringing them there. He disavows the existence of God and attacks One-Eye. Three people die in the skirmish that follows.

Arrows from the forest continue to harass the remaining Christians after the band breaks up. As the group’s Priest prepares to follow One-Eye, The General stabs him in the side and declares that he himself will stay and create a “New Jerusalem” for the men of faith. Upon his subsequent appointment of The Lost One as his chief spiritual adviser, however, even the orange mud-stained Viking merely laughs at him. The wounded Priest and The General’s Son follow One-Eye up the mountains. Several arrows then hit the General, who slips into the water as he dies. They stop to rest and question their fate, turning to One-Eye. The General’s Son decides that he must go back to his father, knowing full well that the man is probably dead and that he too will die. One-Eye and The Boy continue on, but the Priest does not follow. Mortally wounded, he sits with flies buzzing all about him, staring blankly into the valley below.

One-Eye and The Boy successfully reach the coastline and are soon met by over a dozen Native American warriors. One-Eye regards them knowingly, as he has already foreseen this event in a vision. He puts his hand on The Boy’s arm, and then walks into the middle of the tribesmen. He drops his axe and his knife and closes his eye. One of the warriors fells him with one blow to the back of the head, before the other warriors finish him off. One-Eye’s spirit walks into the estuary next to his cairn and disappears below the surface. On the beach, the remaining tribe members quietly withdraw back into the forest, leaving the boy looking out at the ocean. The final shot shows a grim face, possibly One-Eye’s, woven into the clouds.

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There’s no other way to spin it–Valhalla Rising is a strange story. And as is often the case with strange stories, there are many ways to interpret it. However, for the duration of this article, I shall focus on just one, my own. To me, Valhalla Rising is the director, Nicholas Winding Refn’s, dark satire of religion and traditional perceptions of manhood.  Then again, satire, a harsh term which implies ridicule, doesn’t quite do what the film is justice. Yes, the movie certainly criticizes the above-mentioned topics in much the same manner as   a satire would, but it also pays homage to these concepts as well.

Let me explain. Religion is one of the film’s primary themes and, at first glance, it appears as though it is nothing more than a concept that the director intends to thumb his nose at. All the film’s religious characters are violent, insane, and greedy. On the one hand there are the pagan clansmen who, in addition to worshiping many gods, enslave other men and force them to fight to the death for sport, and then there are the Christians, who burn infidels at the stake, round up naked women to be used as sex slaves, and invade distant lands with the hopes of forcefully converting the local population. All in all, it doesn’t exactly look like Refn is organized religion’s biggest fan. And yet, unlike other cinematic criticisms of faith, Valhalla Rising is able to acknowledge, and even incorporate, some of the most fascinating, positive, and simultaneously important aspects of the religions that it’s focusing on. All you need do is look at the main character, One Eye, and you have your proof.

One Eye serves as a kind of cinematic synthesis of Odin, the king of the Norse Gods, and Jesus Christ. Scholars of Nordic Mythology, or anyone whose ever picked up a Thorcomic book, know that Odin, in addition to having only one eye, was able to see the future, and all devout, or at least halfway committed, Christians know that Jesus allowed himself to die on the cross so as to forgive mankind for their sins. One Eye has the ability to see the future and, in the end, sacrifices himself in order to save the boy, who represents the innocent, unblemished side of humanity. The sacrifice is arguably the most important concept in all Christianity. It illustrates the absolute love that God, embodied here in the person of Jesus, has for us. We cannot hope to understand God in all his glory, but we can understand his son, a man of absolute kindness whose suffering we are all of us far too familiar with. The sacrifice is God’s way of offering us a shot at redemption. One-Eye, a man who has known nothing but hate and violence his whole life, is able to find redemption in the act of sacrificing himself because, by giving up his own life, he is able to save the boy.

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While the larger meaning, and religious significance of, the sacrifice is not lost on many people, these same qualities of One Eye’s appearance and ability to see the future are. You see, just as love, kindness and charity are three of the most important philosophies in Christianity, courage, self-sacrifice, and endurance in the face of adversity were some of the pillars upon which ancient Nordic religion rested. Anyone who’s been to Scandinavia knows that it is a harsh, unforgiving, incredibly cold environment. If you wanted to survive back in the day, you had to be strong and fearless. Ancient Nords were constantly reminded of, and accepted, there own mortal frailty. Death was everywhere in their lives, and their perseverance in the face of it is everywhere in their stories. How, you might ask? Well, unlike the immortal, all-powerful God of Islamic and Judeo-Christian tradition, the Norse gods could die. Some of them, like Odin, knew exactly how and when they were going to die, and it was their ability to keep moving, to continue to work towards the greater good in the full knowledge of their own frailty, that made them so heroic. It was in this way that they, like the violent and sexually overactive gods of Greek mythology, reflected the mindsets and behaviors of the ancient Nords. Keeping all this in mind, it becomes easy for one to see the protagonist, One-Eye, as the quintessential Nordic hero. He is a mighty warrior who endures pain and death without question or complaint. He, like Odin, knows everything that is going to happen to him, and is completely unbothered by it.

Now I bet some of you are thinking, okay Nathan, you’ve made it pretty damn clear that this film is religious satire, but how, exactly, is it a satire of traditional perceptions of manhood? Simple, the film has the one character who does not behave in a “masculine” manner go to heaven. Let me explain. The last few seconds of the movie show a grim, deeply scarred face woven into the clouds. It’s hard to say for certain, but the face in question appears to be One-Eye’s, and since we, the audience, saw him die literally one minute beforehand, and heaven is generally thought to be located somewhere in the sky, it becomes easy for one to see this last scene as the director’s way of saying, “Hey, just in case you’re wondering, he’s in heaven now.” Some of you might be thinking, okay, so One-Eye made it to heaven, but what does this have to do with him acting in a non-masculine manner? In fact, how and when did he behave in an even remotely non-masculine way? After all, we see him kill more people than anybody else in this picture, and isn’t violence generally seen as something highly masculine? Yes, One-Eye does kill lots of people in this movie, and yes, traditionally; men have sought to prove their manhood by killing one another.

In ancient Scandinavia, you couldn’t be considered a true man unless you’d fought many wars during your lifetime, and died in battle. Dying in battle was actually the only way that one might hope to enter Valhalla, the hall of the gods. Personally, I think that’s the reason why Refn chose to name the film Valhalla Rising. See, the time period in which the movie is set, the Viking Era, was n age of constant and increasingly bloody warfare, and Refn wants to show us that it was by having a title that says more people were dying in battle and going to Valhalla. But I’m getting off topic here. One-Eye behaves in a “non-masculine” manner at the end of the movie when he simply allows himself to be killed. To an ancient Nordic warrior, surrender and capitulation to the enemy were two behaviors that simply could not be tolerated. By choosing to not fight back, One-Eye is saying, to the ancient Nords, at least, that he is not a man, and according to them, this means that he wouldn’t be able to go to heaven. And yet the last shot of the movie indicates that he, the supposed non-masculine character, did go to heaven. In fact, he appears to be the only person in this entire movie that made it there. What Refn is trying to say here is that, if you show restraint; if you are willing to accept what comes to you with calm, love and kindness; you will be rewarded. Basically, if you want to be tough, you have to be able to take punches as well as throw them.

 

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