When it comes to directing films, Terry Jones (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) always struck me as a quiet achiever. While widely acclaimed as a comic actor, screenwriter, and historian, his directorial career sat in the shadows to a large extent. While he did not direct a great deal – just seven features between 1975 and 2015 – collectively they displayed a unique sensibility and a distinct comedic tone. His three Monty Python films – Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-directed by Terry Gilliam), The Life of Brian, and The Meaning of Life – are broadly regarded as comedy classics, and while none of his later films managed to quite capture their popularity they are all smart, effective, and deeply funny.
Erik the Viking was released in 1989, and shares a title (but not a plot, oddly) with his 1983 novel. It effectively combines Jones’ two great strength: comedy and history. There is an absurdity to the medieval mind-set that Jones excelled at presenting, and it was such a wonderfully subtle effect because of how little he needed to twist it to make it funny. Erik the Viking sees its titular protagonist – a viking that hates raping and pillaging – embarking on a quest to persuade his gods to call off the apocalypse.
It is a wonderful showcase for Tim Robbins, an American actor with an extraordinary handle on Jones’ particular brand of comedy. He is likeable and funny, and forms a wonderful anchor to which the film’s ensemble of viking warriors can attach themselves. A particular highlight is Blackadder‘s Tim McInnerny as Sven, a struggling berserker always cut off and criticised by his over-bearing father, but there is also Antony Sher’s untrustworthy Loki, Gary Cady’s Keitel Blacksmith, Freddie Jones as an exceptionally optimistic Christian missionary, and several others – strong comedic performances abound. The film also features a raft of starry cameos including John Cleese as a heartless crime lord, Mickey Rooney as Erik’s eccentric grandfather, Terry Jones himself as King Arnulf, and – most entertaining of all – Eartha Kitt as the mysterious seer Freya. All told, it is the most high profile cast with which Jones ever worked, and they are all marvellously entertaining.
The film’s narrative struggles a little, often taking its time to get from one set piece to the next and losing out on jokes and humour as it goes. A lot of critics of the time harshly slammed the film for this, but when viewed with the benefit of time it is nowhere near as flawed a story as those original reviews suggest. There is a general sense of whimsy about the film that works very well in its favour, and gives it that distinct Jones-esque tone that works so well in the likes of The Life of Brian and Labyrinth (which he wrote for director Jim Henson). It is also worth appreciating each succeeding chapter in a discrete form: individually they all work delightfully, but as a full narrative it does wind up feeling slightly episodic and unsatisfactory. That is Erik the Viking in a nutshell: taken as a whole it is a minor disappointment, but taken as a series of comic sketches it is regularly superb.