Tom Jolliffe looks at the similarities between The Northman and Conan the Barbarian. Spoilers follow…
After success and masses of acclaim for his small scale masterworks The Witch and The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers went large scale in his third outing. The Northman is a big budget Viking revenge epic. In every way, it’s the prime example of old school blockbuster filmmaking. This isn’t an IP. This isn’t part of a cinematic universe. This isn’t under the Disney logo like the vast majority of successful tent-pole films these days. No, The Northman, whilst not particularly original, is that all too rare exercise in big budget spectacle which doesn’t have a genesis in Marvel or DC comics.
I’ve long championed Eggers, particularly since he nailed the landing so spectacularly with The Lighthouse, giving himself a two for two success rate. His films captured cult audiences and have grown since, even if they made tidy if unspectacular box office. This was the film to see this year for me. Did it deliver? Yes. In spades. The Northman is a savage, enthralling and guttural hit of Nordic mythology and Viking violence. In fact, the fantasy elements were more significant than I’d imagined but most certainly lent themselves to that unmistakable ‘Eggers’ feeling. As the film dives into flights of surrealism, Eggers is doing what he does best, and creating imaginative cinema that’s involving and loaded with the metaphysical and metaphorical. It doesn’t delve into his trademark oddness nearly as much as his previous film, but this has enough sequences of mysticism, and Vikings tripping balls to create some memorable imagery.
So, I’m in the cinema, watching this as it really, REALLY needs to be watched…on the big screen. It must be experienced in this glory, replete with a thumping cinema sound system that reverberates through your spine as the score pounds with Viking drums. As I watch, something becomes firmly clear in my mind. This was a feeling I’d pondered upon seeing the trailers, that the overall through line is essentially Conan the Barbarian. It’s a straight up revenge tale as a boy spends his whole life into adulthood building himself up to take revenge on the person who murdered his parents (or in the case of The Northman, absconded with his mother after killing his father). My feelings were not only solidified but it struck me throughout the run time of The Northman just how much Conan courses through the veins of Eggers’ picture.
Now this isn’t to belittle Eggers’ work. I love Conan the Barbarian. I oft cite it as an example of a film that has been sorely underrated for its artistry and its depth. The John Milius classic is a brutal, operatic and evocative masterpiece. It plays out so much with very little dialogue, letting the wonderful music of Basil Poledouris guide the emotions and aid in the story telling. From a visual perspective too, it’s stunningly shot. In many ways it might be the most ethereal, philosophical film of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s CV. He gives a performance that is often raw. Sometimes he really nails moments, others not quite, and where The Northman may well stand ahead is that Alexander Skarsgard is a more honed actor, well into his working life, whilst Arnold has had a career of some limitations, and this came at a time he was very rough around the edges. Still, do not tell me he doesn’t sell key moments within Conan the Barbarian. He really does. The pain of losing his love, the moment he attains a revenge that with it, removes his one propellant left in life. The benefit too, of the film being told so much through looks, shot composition and music, is that Arnold doesn’t have that much dialogue to gnaw on. He’s very good, but Skarsgard is sensational (as you would expect from a family member of such fine acting stock). The Northman bleeds Barbarian blood, that’s for sure, but that’s totally fine by me.
Interestingly Eggers has made no secret of his love of Conan in interviews he’s stated he intentionally avoided re-watching during the writing process so as not to be too drawn to evoking moments from the film. He did also admit there’s more Conan in his film than he probably realised when all was said and done (because having watched it so many times, it almost subconsciously guided him). Here’s the thing, films like Conan were never in fashion back when it came out. It was a cast off from a bygone era of B movie fantasy films which grew out of fashion in the early 60’s. As B movies (from the likes of Ray Harryhausen), they were seen as harmless escapism but not at all appreciated as important cinema. By the time Star Wars was revolutionising the fantasy and blockbuster world, Sword and Sorcery was making a comeback in the 80’s, attitudes hadn’t particularly changed. Lucas and Spielberg sort of transgressed those attitudes by gaining critical acclaim and some Oscar recognition with Star Wars and Indiana Jones for example, but largely, the atypical B picture material was still marginalised as far as intellectual cinema went. In many ways Conan is a film that would have been far more well received on its artistic merits if it was released today and slapped with an A24 label. It’s the kind of film that might waltz off with a tasty 90% rating and maybe a bit more Oscar recognition (certainly for score, cinematography, costumes etc). Conan deserves respect, and it deserves it arguably to a par that is currently being adorned on The Northman. Cinema is essentially being propelled by B movies now, and they’re almost in vogue over the old school idea of the ‘A’ picture.
The Northman’s similarities are quite striking in isolation. Beyond that basic outline of vengeful boy becoming vengeful warrior, there are a number of mirroring elements here. For one, the score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough is glorious. It’s bombastic, old fashioned and definitely operatic in places. In fact in a lot of moments, in the way it blends its percussion work with the other instruments that fears tribalistic and battle ready, it evokes so much of what Basil Poledouris conjured in Conan. Poledouris’ score might just be my favourite orchestral film score of all time. It’s a work of unbridled genius. There’s enough in the music of The Northman that skews into its own uniqueness, and credit to it, but for those moments where it does bring Poledouris to mind, that’s quite the compliment.
Conan’s rise is mirrored by Amleth (Skarsgard) in The Northman. Both are taken into slavery and then forced into combat. For Conan, his slavery starts with the wheel of pain sequence and then he is taken to perform in savage gladiatorial death matches (prior to going off into his quest), whilst Amleth’s wheel of pain sequence sees him transition from rowing his boat as he flees his home, to being an oarsman on a Viking ship. We see how that muscular frame is crafted. No death matches but Amleth becomes part of a front line expendable brute force, used to storm villages for a pillaging band of Vikings. Donning animal furs they mask themselves as wolves in the mist. That village storming sequence, much of which is shot in one take is superb, fully showcasing just what a physical monster Skarsgard is in the film.
There are an array of other sequences in The Northman, mirroring those of Conan. We have a tree of woe scene when Amleth is caught and captured by the object of his vengeful desire. He’s left strung up, whilst Conan was crucified and left for dead. A key component in Amleth’s quest is attaining a special sword (the draugyr). It’s foretold to be the tool for dishing out his revenge, part of his line of fate. He descends into an underground cave to retrieve the sword from a long dead warrior sat upon a throne. In Conan it’s not so much foretold by the spirits, but there’s a suggestion throughout that Conan is being guided by Crom (the God who Conan and his fellow Cimmereans worship). Amleth has to engage in a spiritual battle with the holder before he can then take it from the corpse (which then crumbles), whereas Conan simply takes the (Anlantean) sword, after a respectful moment.
Elsewhere there is plenty of foretelling in The Northman. Amleth visits a seer (Bjork) who sets him on his path and tells him off his fate, as well as a choice he will have to make between fulfilling his own revenge, or saving the lives of others. Conan has his own encounters with a Witch who helps get Conan on his way. Of course Conan goes all out and gives the Witch the old in out, but no such joy for Bjork. Along the way too, both films diverge from the revenge quest that consumes these men, and introduces a love interest. In both, but Conan particularly, so much of the love story is played through scenes with minimal dialogue. The Northman is given an added layer by the fact Amleth and Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) are conspiring against Feng (Claes Bang), when Amleth pitches up at the farm of his murderous uncle, slowly plotting for the fateful time he will take his revenge (at the gates of hell). It’s in the final acts and resolutions where the two films more noticeably diverge. Conan loses Valeria, who sacrifices herself for him. Thus after taking his revenge he’s left purposeless and with a Kingdom thrust upon him. Amleth on the other hand decides that he will defy fate and take both of the options previously put forth to him. He will save his kin and take his revenge. He has a resignation that he won’t escape his own fate too. That he won’t return from the gates of hell, but Amleth makes peace with going to Valhalla, knowing his bloodline will continue and a cycle of vengeance has been severed.
There are a few more moments throughout (including plenty of tripping out, and the blunt violence), but certainly enough of its own individual brilliance to make The Northman special. It’s not quite Conan special, because Crom laughs at your Norse mythology, but Eggers has crafted the film of the year so far. Much like Conan’s stellar supporting cast (James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, William Smith and Mako), The Northman is also blessed with its own sterling supporting line-up (all the aforementioned and a superb Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie).
What are your thoughts on The Northman? Does it compare to Conan the Barbarian? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.