Commitment to Historical Accuracy Helps Turn ‘The Northman’ Into a Masterpiece

Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features

The Northman is Robert Eggers’ biggest film yet. Coming off the success of his previous two features, The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers has now given us his most sprawling and ambitious project, an exploration of the world of Vikings in late 10th century Iceland. 

The Northman is loosely based on the story of Amleth, the same 13th century Norse tale that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Alexander Skarsgard stars as Prince Amleth, who seeks to avenge his uncle (Claes Bang) for the murder of his father, King Aurvadil (Ethan Hawke), and rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman) from his uncle’s clutches, with the help of an enslaved Slavic woman, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy).

The plot appears to be something we have seen a million times, but The Northman is not just another retelling of Hamlet. Nor is it a straightforward historical action film in the vein of Gladiator or Braveheart that one may have expected based on the trailers and initial promotions. Back when the film was still in test-screenings one viewer said, “you need a master’s degree in Viking history to understand it.” The final result is far more accessible but nonetheless just as focused on creating a historically accurate world on screen. It is this attention to historical accuracy that makes The Northman so special and unique. Eggers is able to paint a fascinating portrait of the cold and desolate Viking-era Iceland full of strange rituals, bizarre customs, and jarring perspectives. The Northman feels strange and foreign because it seeks to bring a sense of medieval authenticity, telling a story that would feel familiar not to a modern audience but to a medieval one.

Robert Eggers is famous for going the extra mile to ensure that his films accurately represent the period they are portraying. The Witch and The Lighthouse draw heavily on historical evidence and on the knowledge of experts to immerse their viewers. Both films expertly utilize historical research to shape the plot and set design, creating a captivating cinematic experience, while the language of both The Witch and The Lighthouse uses era appropriate sources to further develop a sense of authenticity. For the dialogue in The Witch, Eggers drew on the diaries of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and in The Lighthouse the late nineteenth century Maine dialect of Sarah Orne Jewett’s novels shaped the language of the screenplay.

The Northman is no different. Eggers consulted countless experts and constructed the most accurate sets and props to create the most authentic Norse experience possible. Neil Price, an archeologist at the University of Uppsala and author of Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, said that The Northman “might be the most accurate Viking movie ever made.” 

Historians have long been interested in researching the Amleth story, largely due to its connection to Hamlet. The story of Amleth was most likely present in Norse oral tradition before the use of writing was fully established in the area. Scraps of the story appeared in various manuscripts, but the most well-preserved and authoritative version of the Amleth story appears in the history of the Danes written by Saxo Grammaticus in the early 13th century. 

There was one immediate obstacle for Eggers and co-writer Sjon,(an Icelandic poet and novelist) in constructing a script accurate to the Viking era. Saxo Grammaticus was a Christian and wrote the Amleth story from a Christian perspective. More than forty Icelandic sagas have survived but they were all written in the medieval period after the Scandinavian region converted to Christianity. These sagas (including the story of Amleth) give detailed description of Viking life and attitude but they are all written from a Christian perspective in which the world of Amleth is foreign and archaic.

In an interview with Mashable, Eggers said, “I am interested in not just the physical world, but what’s inside the Viking age mind, I feel like I can’t express that honestly without seeing how they express themselves visually.

Due to the limitations of written texts, Eggers focused more on archeological knowledge of the Vikings and on the expertise of scholars like Price. Thus the film placed a substantial emphasis on the physical accuracy of the Viking world. For instance, in the film, Skarsgard wears only a single pair of boots, which costume designer Linda Muir repaired with strips of leather. Amleth’s uncle wears a Viking cloak called a verfeldr, which was made from tog, the course wool from the outer coat of Icelandic sheep. In an interview, Skarsgard talked about one scene in which a boat appears in the far-off distance; The boat is not even in focus and any kind of vessel would have worked in the scene, but Eggers insisted on using “an immaculately researched, museum-quality replica.”

The Northman uses details of its set design and costumes to recreate the ancient environment and reality, immersing viewers deeper into the Viking world. The film takes these background objects and pushes them into the foreground, which in turn creates a more captivating world. One scene features the Viking sport of “knattleirk,” which is essentially a cross between lacrosse and MMA. The scene where Amleth is being forced to partake in the vicious sport shows the brutality of the Viking world. This scene illustrates how the film utilizes historical accuracy and research to give insight on the Viking world in a way that is unique in the modern day but relevant to the time of Vikings. Most of the viewers do not have a firm knowledge whether the clothes, the ships, or the sports in the film are accurate to the Viking world, but, even without that knowledge, the world of The Northman feels more real than other Viking stories because it shows a world that is so foreign and different from what we are used to. 

One of the integral aspect of the film and its immersiveness is its near lack of exposition or explanation. Most of the material culture such as the bizarre rituals or the brutal sport are left unexplained, as are many of the characters’ behaviours. The Northman doesn’t even try to make the world, or its characters modernized or relatable. In one scene, before a raid on a Slavic village, Amleth and the rest of the berserker army are shown around a campfire dressed in animal skins; they engage in a strange battle ritual, howling, screaming, and moving like animals. The scene is quick, it’s accompanied with intense music, and absolutely no explanation is offered. According to Price, such rituals have been represented in Viking art and appear in writings from the Byzantine world by those who were fighting the Vikings. The audience is told nothing of the ritual nor its importance, but the scene is so immersive because the carefully researched history is allowed to stand on its own in an attempt to give the viewers an objective glimpse into a foreign world rather than to make it more understandable. The Viking world was already foreign when its stories were first written in the 13th century, and Eggers does not attempt to change that. Instead, he has tried to present this world in the most objective way possible.

While discussing the film with Mashable, Price outlined that, “[Eggers] has gone back to the source, but he’s also made it his own. He hasn’t just made an Amleth movie; he wanted to set it in a believable Viking Age, one that was also anchored in as much realism as he could give it.” Eggers achieved this through his focus on historical accuracy and his desire to let the history stand on its own with minimal context and explanations. Other historical epics that The Northman has been compared to, such as Braveheart and Gladiator, do the bare minimum to anchor their story within the respective eras. William Wallace could be changed to any revolutionary figure and much of Braveheart could remain the same. Rather than using history as merely a setting or a plot device like so many other historical epics, The Northman fully immerses viewers in its history, and that is what makes the film so unique and captivating. It is entirely tied to its Viking world. The film’s sets and props as well as its characters and their actions and motivations were all created with one question in mind, how can this be made to be as accurate as possible to the Viking era? 

A reaction that arose out of Eggers’ decision to create this accurate tale of Vikings is a critique that calls the film merely a macho celebration of toxic masculinity. Colleen Morissey of the Chicago Reader says, The Northman leans too much on Viking nostalgia and the male power fantasy.” Kyle Anderson of The Nerdist claims that, “the toxic masculinity feels both horribly destructive and unchecked.” These statements completely miss the main point of the film: to unearth the Viking world and not to tell the story from a modern perspective. Eggers does not celebrate this world (in fact, its toxic masculinity is what initially put him off making this film). He told the Observer, The macho stereotype of that history, along with, you know, the right-wing misappropriation of Viking culture, made me sort of allergic to it, and I just never wanted to go there.” 

Many members on the far-right have ignored Eggers’ intentions and taken a liking to The Northman, seeing it as a story that shows “real masculinity.” This is also a gross misreading of the film. Eggers makes it clear that Amleth’s path is horrific and destructive. He is a character fueled by hatred whose choices bring only death and carnage. Amleth is unable to see that his father was a plundering rapist, or that his uncle was already punished for his deeds and struggling in exile. He rejects a chance to settle down with Olga for what he sees as his fate, vengeance. Amleth refuses to let go of his hatred; he has to kill and enter Valhalla, anything less would be a tragedy and a failure to fulfill his expectation, yet in the end his actions result tragedy for all who surround him instead. Eggers shows the horror of this Viking world by allowing the story and the history behind it to speak for itself rather than spelling it out for the audience from a contemporary perspective. 

Another major critique of The Northman is that its basic plot appears to be just another Hamlet adaptation. Forbes’ Scott Mendleson calls the film, “a Lion King remake.” It is, however, the link this film creates between the familiar and foreign that makes it so fascinating. The familiar aspects of the Amleth story give viewers a foothold into the plot and provide a narrative framework, while the rest of the story and the meticulous historical accuracy immerse the viewers into the strange world of Viking ritual and violence. Eggers succeeds in connecting all these facets of the film together, creating one of the most immersive films in recent memory specifically because his use of historical accuracy enriches the story and does not talk down to the audience.

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