Oh, wow, a Viking movie! A real Viking movie, too, not one of there phony Hollywood concoctions which try to pass off Richard Widmark or Kirk Douglas as Vikings. When the Raven Flies has genuine Vikings (well, their Icelandic descendents, anyway) and a story rather more like material from Norse sagas than Romantic era notions of Vikings pumped through the bullshit injectors of big studios. Oddly, or not so oddly, the result is more like a Western than anything else. In fact, it's reminiscent of A Fistful of Dollars, a bit more than just reminiscent, really. And A Fistful of Dollars was a ripoff of Yojimbo. Talk about crosscultural borrowings: an Icelandic film utilizing Viking culture telling a story stolen from an Italian film about the American west in turn stolen from a Japanese film. Isn't international cinema wonderful?
(As an aside, the producers of A Fistful of Dollars were eventually taken to court by the owners of Yojimbo. The Italians lost and were required to pay a large sum of money to the Japanese because the court ruled that A Fistful of Dollars was obviously derived from Yojimbo. When the Raven Flies is even more shamefully stolen from A Fistful of Dollars so that, in the unlikely event that the Icelandic film makes a bundle, the Italians may be able to take it to court and recover some of the money lost to the Japanese. If there's anything more wonderful than international cinema, it's either the ways of film producers or international law.)
When the Raven Flies concerns the revenge a young Irishman takes on the Vikings who raided his home and killed his parents. The raiders are in disfavor with the ruling king of Norway, and have taken up residence in the unpopulated regions of Iceland. Our hero, Gest, seeks them out and destroys them by pitting them against each other. The theme is unending revenge (a good Nordic theme) and the method of the telling is heavy on action and violence and light on philosophy and moralizing. Director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson is a self-described disciple of Ford, Kurosawa, and Leone. Not unexpectedly, he is not up to the best of these directors in this outing, one of Gunnlaugsson's first. However, Ford and Leone have made worse movies, and Kurosawa duller ones, so perhaps there is hope for Gunnlaugsson. It certainly is interesting to see a Nordic director choose these filmmakers for his idols rather than Bergman, Sjostrom, and Dreyer.
The story is extremely close in most particulars to A Fistful of Dollars, with a few twists. Rather than being rivals, the two chieftains are close friends. One of them is married to the abducted sister of Gest, and has produced a son, Gest's nephew, to muddy the waters (Gunnlaugsson's most obvious John Ford tribute, borrowed from The Searchers). The constant references to Norse gods also is a bit different. The hero's method is the same, though, and numerous incidents are repeated with practically the only changes being in sets, costumes, props, and actors. I am beginning to get a bit tired of seeing this plot over and over again.
Gunnlaugsson certainly has energy, though, if nothing else. When the Raven Flies moves right along at a good clip. The frequent action sequences, mostly involving nasty, primative knives, are adequately staged, but do not have the visceral shocking power that Leone and Kurosawa achieve so easily. Gunnlaugsson's imagination flags towards the middle of the film, and there is a certain repetitiveness about the killings. One strength Gunnlaugsson does seem to have in common with Ford is his eye for scenery. Ford added immeasurably to his Westerns by brilliant choices of Monument Valley locales for the backdrops of his films. Gunnlaugsson establishes a strong sense of place in his use of the coastline of Iceland. He succeeds in showing us a landscape unlike any other I've seen on film. His integration of the effects of the land into the characters and story is not yet developed, but he makes some honorable efforts in that direction.
Jakob Thor Einarsson is strong, silent, and handsome as Gest, but doesn't have the dominating physical presence of Toshiro Mifune or Clint Eastwood, so Gest is not as mythic a figure. A more forceful actor might have helped here. Helgi Skulason plays the major foe of Gest. He is superb, a brooding leader reliant on a harsh, demanding god. This Viking isn't a mighty-thewed blond giant, but a tough, wiry, ruthless bandit; I suspect that this portrayal is much closer to the truth of the Vikings than Lee Majors, for instance, in The Norsemen. Gunnlaugsson might have done better to give him the lead.
Gunnlaugsson might also have done better to avoid quite so many obvious parallels to his cinematic heros. In particular, the score of When the Raven Flies is a great embarrassment. It sounds like Ennio Morricone's rejects plastered over with some shabby imitations of Jethro Tull and Eurythmics, and it detracts from every moment of the film. The cinematography is fine, though, showing the film's people and landscapes to good advantage.
When the Raven Flies is an adequate but unexceptional action film. It's certainly a cut above cheap Hollywood garbage, and deserves praise for its realistic evocation of a foreign time and place. It is not, however, up to even the average works of Gunnlaugsson's mentors. Whether Gunnlaugsson is just warming up or has already given us his best shot remains to be seen. I rather hope that he returns to more faithful borrowings from Icelandic sagas for his future films, for they represent a rich and largely untapped source of material, filled with action, drama, and tragedy. Since no other filmmaker has shown any inclination to work from them, I can but hope that Gunnlaugsson improves his techniques and finds the way to bring their interesting qualities to the screen. Pruning away some of his more conscious borrowings from the masters might be a good place to start.
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