Monday 1 February 2010

Thoughts on Mel Gibson's Vikings

Matthias Ammon writes:

News emerged recently that Mel Gibson will turn to 'the Vikings' for his next directing venture, following Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. Details of the project are scarce as yet, though it has been confirmed that Leonardo DiCaprio is going to star. According to some media sources, DiCaprio 'has long been fascinated by Viking culture', and he will feature in a storyline as 'unsparing' as Gibson's earlier films. Given the director's interest in 'violence in any society' (as stated in a recent interview with Total Film magazine), one is inclined to assume that he will not focus on the cultural impact of the Vikings in the British Isles.

William Monahan, the screenwriter who also penned Ridley Scott's crusade-drama Kingdom of Heaven, is writing the script for the as-yet-untitled film. KoH, like Braveheart, was not exactly acclaimed for its historical accuracy by academic critics, though Gibson has pledged that he will follow his use of Aramaic (in Passion) and Mayan (in Apocalypto) with Old English and Old Norse: 'I think it's going to be English - the English that would have been spoken back then - and Old Norse. Whatever the ninth century had to offer. I'm going to give you real.' Gibson, who has claimed to have been studying Old Norse at the age of 16, when he first had the idea of making a Viking movie, said he wants to 'see somebody who I have never seen before speaking low guttural German who scares the living shit out of me coming up to my house' in order to recreate the terror of the Viking attacks on England.

Mel Gibson, Braveheart

If this comment is anything to go by, it remains to be seen whether Gibson's striving for authenticity will extend to the philological rigour of reconstructing ninth-century Old English and Old Norse. The standard versions of both languages as taught to undergraduates around the world are both later and confined to a relatively distinct geographical area: late West Saxon of the tenth and eleventh century for Old English; Norwegian and Icelandic from c. 1150-1350 for Old Norse. There are of course very few written sources dating from earlier than these time periods, and reconstruction is notoriously difficult. Furthermore, this is the period in Old English where at least the written language becomes standardised, though the spoken language probably would have retained the often very significant dialectial varieties exhibited in earlier stages of the language. One wonders just how 'real' Gibson is going to give us: will a ninth-century Mercian be attempting to converse by speaking eleventh-century West Saxon to a Norwegian speaking thirteenth-century Old Norse? On the other hand, while the extent of mutual intelligibility between speakers of Old English and Old Norse is still a matter for discussion, one imagines that their language - which an Anglo-Saxon would probably have recognised and may partly have understood - would have been one of the less terrifying aspects of a raiding party or an invading army, even if it had been 'low and guttural'.

Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that Gibson's film will be an improvement on Hollywood's recent 'Viking' offerings, Pathfinder and Outlander. And while the effect of Holywood blockbusters such as Gladiator and (whisper it) Lord of the Rings on university applications has not yet been studied, it is also to be hoped that Gibson's Viking movie might engender some interest in medieval English and Scandinavian language and culture. Surely that would be worth overlooking the odd anachronism for? Just as long as there are no horned helmets ...

Incidentally, this film seems to have taken the place of two other Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic-related film projects that have been mooted in recent years. Leonardo DiCaprio had been slated to play Irish king Brian Boru in Freedom within the Heart (co-starring Vinnie Jones), but this seems to have died in development, as has Last Battle Dreamer, supposed to feature Sean Bean as the ninth-century Viking Hakon, Ryan Philippe as his brother Thorfinn and Abbie Cornish as Thorfinn's Anglo-Saxon love interest.


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  2. hehe! I just wrote something to be posted dealing with a similar theme, but more general and film-focused. Unfortunately I hadn't read this before writing and the idea that language-wise we could have two characters speaking dialects two centuries apart and from the wrong regions wasn't considered. Still, nobody's perfect, and perhaps we shouldn't be too demanding of Gibson. The fact that he's willing to use and/or reconstruct 'dead' languages is quite incredible in cinema in general, let alone studio-backed projects. Everything's got to start somewhere, and who knows? maybe Gibson will give birth to a trend...