Determined to create the first authentic Viking film, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson wrote and directed “When the Raven Flies,” a movie now available on DVD which is his seminal work and the first in a series of movies dubbed “The Viking Trilogy.” “When the Raven Flies” is a classic revenge tale with a twist. The film has been compared to Westerns like Hang ‘Em High, and in many respects it very much resembles the formula: the protagonist is wronged by a group of people, and he hunts them down to kill them. But instead of simply picking off enemies one by one, as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name might do, Gunnlaugsson’s protagonist uses wit and cunning to pit one half of the Viking group against the other.
The story begins in Ireland in the 9th century. A family is outside, enjoying a beautiful day: the father is reading the Bible, a young boy and young girl are playing, and the mother is picking flowers. This idyllic scene is broken up by a group of Viking raiders, who kill the father and kidnap the mother and young girl. One of the Vikings tells another to kill the young boy, but he is instead released. This would prove to be a big mistake, as he grows up and travels to Iceland, determined to exact his revenge.
The protagonist goes by the name Gestur, meaning “guest,” the kind of play on words the Icelanders adore, and which is employed often in the film. Gestur arrives in Iceland with three Vikings from Norway, twenty years after his family was broken apart. The story Gestur gives is he has silver to personally deliver to Thord, a Viking already living in Iceland. Five minutes later, the three Vikings are dead, felled by Gestur’s staff, which contains a hidden blade, and his seemingly endless supply of throwing knives. He summarily deposits the bodies in the sheep shed of another Viking, Erik. As the men Gestur killed were working for Thord, Erik is implicated in the murder. This set-up is fortuitous – Vikings were apparently a trifle paranoid – and the cycle of killing and revenge amongst the Vikings begins, with Gestur pulling their strings from the sidelines throughout most of the movie.
While this is a refreshing device to add to the revenge movie formula, the movie takes an odd turn when Gestur discovers that Thord’s wife is none other than Gestur’s sister. To complicate matters, she has a child by Thord, a young boy named Einar. Gestur reveals himself to his sister, and says that he wants to take her back to Ireland, putting his sister in the position of having to choose between her child and her brother. She opts for the former, despite the fact that Thord has announced his plans to sacrifice their son to Odin. As can be expected, more bloodshed ensues.
The authenticity Gunnlaugsson was aiming for is greatly achieved – the wardrobe was designed by renowned costume designer Karl Júliússon and the setting, filmed mostly in the south of Iceland, captures very well the dark and brutal mood the film requires. The newly-released DVD is loaded with extras, too: there are numerous language choices, both in subtitles and dubbing, the musical score can be played by itself, (not recommended), as well as several interviews, behind the scenes footage, and award ceremonies.
More than just an excellent souvenir from Iceland that’s well worth the investment, “When the Raven Flies” is an exceptional re-working of the revenge movie formula, and stands up to the test of time 22 years after its release.
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