It looks like a Monty Python movie; it sounds like a Monty Python movie; it’s got two Monty Python members in it. But Erik the Viking (1989) – starring Tim Robbins, John Cleese, Mickey Rooney – is no Monty Python movie. Once you get past that, Terry Jones’ fantasy adventure is actually quite fun.
Erik (Robbins) is a Viking, but he doesn’t like pillaging or killing. He really doesn’t like raping. He’d much rather form an emotional connection based on mutual respect. “Have you done this sort of thing before?”, Samantha Bond’s wench asks. It’s an awfully Pythonesque opening to a romp that never quite gets a smooth rhythm going. Jumping from silly sketches to serious conversations, the tone is all over the place, as Jones can’t decide if his script should be straight fantasy or mythical farce.
But while you suspect that Terry Gilliam might have made better work of such a disjointed premise, Jones proves he has the chops to direct epic set pieces on a budget. Sinking cities and giant dragons all impress, and even Asgard doesn’t look too dated when compared to Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011).
As the hero, Tim Robbins leads his crew to end the snowy Age of Ragnorok with enough confidence to sell the mixed tone. His soft facial expressions offset his intimidating height, and he’s as comfortable stumbling through nervous speeches as he is throwing out one-liners. “Where’s the cloak of invisibility? I can’t see it!” he flusters, before tap-dancing across an enemy’s ship, merrily swinging a sword. It’s a great chance to see a different side to the Shawshank Redemption (1994) star.
The supporting cast is decent, too, with John Cleese’s villain standing out with a silly string of overly polite threats: “I really can’t give you a third chance, I’m so sorry. Behead him, would you please?” Tim McInnerny also pops up as the amusingly angry son of an overbearing father. One scene sees him head-butting a shed with all the manic energy of a young Michael Palin.
Unfortunately, Terry Jones is the weak link, as his uncomfortable cameo heralds a crowd singing out of tune and shouting in unison, which comes across as a deleted scene from Life of Brian (1979). It’s these moments that undermine the whole venture. “There is no edge of the world; it’s just fantasy”, recites one Christian cleric, repeatedly disbelieving everything on screen. If Erik the Viking is going to work as a fairy tale, it needs to convince the audience that it’s real, not make wisecracks about its special effects.
But this new DVD release has a secret weapon: Terry’s son, Bill. Expressing his unhappiness with the original version during his director’s commentary, Terry gets his son to re-edit the whole thing. The result is a 73-minute ‘Director’s Son’s cut’ that not only makes more sense as a story, but also gives the film’s pace a much-needed boost.
The bonus interview with Terry about Bill’s changes could be more in-depth and the solid ‘Making Of’ documentary is lazily spliced into featurettes to create the illusion of extra content, but Erik the Viking’s strength lies in the stuff that’s been left out. In its new leaner form, it’s a flawed but fun family adventure. Just don’t open the box set to get out disc 2 – unless you’re planning to replace it with a Python DVD.