Published August 14, 2014
In September 1942 the inhabitants of Reykjavík had breakfast in a state of shock. They were reading an article in Morgunblaðið newspaper about a new Hollywood film set in their city, starring the world famous Norwegian figure skater and movie star Sonja Henie. The headline read “An absurd film set in Reykjavík” and the news lead to a public outcry. Subsequently the US government received a complaint from the Icelandic government.
Today Iceland is a natural movie set frequented by famous directors. The makers of big projects like ‘Prometheus,’ ‘Noah’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ have all used it to film distant planets or imaginary worlds.
But this is something that Icelanders have only recently gotten used to. A few decades ago the country and its inhabitants were almost never seen on TV or on the big screen. And when it happened, it was long remembered afterwards.
In 1990, when the first episodes of the legendary television series ‘Twin Peaks’ were being broadcast, rumours quickly spread among the Icelandic public. It was said that “the nation” would be given a role in the series and therefore Iceland’s name would be “promoted” to an international television audience.
When the Icelanders finally appeared in ‘Twin Peaks,’ these rumours proved to be inaccurate. The Icelandic characters were a group of eccentric alcoholic businessmen, whose horrid singing of patriotic verses prevented FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper from sleeping. Cooper cursed them. It wasn’t a majestic appearance for Iceland.
Many in Iceland were bitter and felt betrayed, thinking ‘is this how the rest of the world sees us?’ But there was no real outcry and nobody wanted to ‘do something about it.’
Icelanders Not Okay With “Iceland”
A few decades earlier, however, Icelanders had been much more sensitive.
The film the newspaper article in September 1942 referred to was “Iceland,” a musical film produced by 20th Century Fox. The film was set in Reykjavík, and starred the skater Sonja Henie as a native girl and John Payne as a U.S. marine posted in Iceland during World War II.
Romantic relationships between native women and soldiers were a recurring topic in film and literature during and after the war.
“Iceland” featured all the typical clichés regarding that. The native boys were portrayed as dorky and clumsy losers, while the “sweet and innocent” girls couldn’t resist the charms of well-groomed military men.
This is spelled out in almost every scene. One of the songs in the film is “You Can’t Say No to a Soldier.”
“Iceland” is a seriously inaccurate portrayal of the country. The film was supposed to take place in July, but the pond in central Reykjavík has ice on it and the whole place seemed like a weather station in the Antarctic. Hotel Borg—back then the biggest hotel in town—was called “Hotel Jorg,” which has no meaning in Icelandic. The few details given on Iceland and the few scenes that showed Reykjavík, both its buildings and general atmosphere, were in almost every way totally mistaken. The Icelanders themselves were stingy and cold, servile and opportunistic.
“This film will not serve anything but to give those who see it and have never been here an extremely wrong idea about the country and its people,” the furious piece in Morgunblaðið said. This was a serious offence as nothing was as damaging to the country’s image as “stupid films.”
This anger was not limited to journalists and the general public. The government of Iceland made a formal complaint to the US government. The argument was that the Icelandic state had spent substantial resources in promoting the country, and that work could turn out to be worthless if the film was a success.
And after a few months Iceland’s wish was fulfilled. The producers were forced to change the name of the film and remove any reference from it that indicated that it was set in Iceland.
By then the film had already premiered, but it hadn’t been a success. It got mediocre reviews in the American newspapers, if not negative ones. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote: “[T]here is no denying that ‘Iceland’ is no tribute to any one’s wits. And it is only fair entertainment, at best.”
In 1999 the historian Eggert Þór Bernharðsson examined the Icelandic reaction to the film: “Of course they were hurt by the misrepresentation and the nonsense. […] Icelanders had nonetheless extremely overestimated the influence of a single film on the world’s opinion of them. Maybe that had to with the influence of films over their own views.”