There is something about the strange and perverse mind of director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson that makes him ideally suited to deal with the strangeness and perversity of bygone times. Although his 1984 film ‘Hrafninn flýgur’ (“When The Raven Flies”) is not as perverse or strange as his arguably undervalued 2000 film ‘Myrkrahöfðinginn’ (“Lord of Darkness”), it has stood the test of time as his most famous film to date.
It takes place in Iceland at around the time of settlement. Yes, this is the Viking Age, and we get many scenes of big men trotting around the stunning scenery on comically small horses. The plot is deceptively simple. An Irishman with sharp knives, but little in the way of personality, watches his family massacred by Vikings and sets about doing them in one by one. Sure, you’ve heard this kind of story many times before, but there are a couple of twists here that makes it revisionist, almost revolutionary, historically speaking.
First of all, our hero is an Irishman, and we are supposed to cheer for him while he slaughters our raping, pillaging, slave-holding forefathers. They may have had it coming, but have you ever seen a movie about, say, a runaway slave getting back at abusive founding fathers in the American South? Didn’t think so.
The founding fathers here have a healthy distaste for their new foster land and would like nothing more than to return to Norway. This is evident when our hero frees a group of slaves and tells them to go settle the land. Thus, we are descendants of both slaves and chieftains—neither of which really wanted to be here in the first place.
Second, the revenge itself allows no simple solutions. Whereas the Hollywood hero routinely kills everyone who has wronged him and then rides off into the sunset, having restored peace, this hero’s revenge only breeds more revenge and the stage is set for the incessant murders that doomed the Icelandic Medieval Commonwealth.
‘When The Raven Flies’ has aged well and though Hrafn attempted more complex takes on the Viking Age in later epics, he never did it better. Anyone with an interest in Icelandic cinema (or Vikings) needs to go see this. Hrafn himself will present the film at a special screening in his own home on September 30. It costs 1,000 ISK, but even just a visit to his house itself, no less a work of art than his films, is worth the price of admission.