Once Upon a Time in the North: Icelandic sagas reinterpreted as a brutal Spaghetti Western
After directing Iceland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 55th Academy Awards Hrafn Gunnlaugsson approached Swedish film producer Bo Jönsson and discussed the possibility of producing a film set in the Viking age. Disappointed with Hollywood attempts at representing the era the director was determined to present the most authentic depiction to date.
Initially planning to adapt a saga, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson also explored the possibility of bringing Halldór Laxness’ novel The Happy Warriors to the big screen before deciding to write an original story.
Considered by experts to be one of the most significant Viking era films The Raven Flies is the first instalment in a trilogy set around the time of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity. Despite being critically acclaimed throughout Scandinavia, the film was initially scorned by Iceland’s critics. In recent years it has been re-evaluated and is now regarded as pivotal moment in the“spring of Icelandic filmmaking” that occurred during the early 1980s.
Released when the nation’s film industry was finding its voice Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s motion picture drew inspiration from the revenge narratives contained within the family sagas and paid homage to Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and John Ford. This mixture of Icelandic literary heritage and Spaghetti Western tropes found a cult following in America when a re-edited version was released on video as Revenge of the Barbarians.
Brooding and mythic, The Raven Flies is a ferocious movie that made history as the Icelandic film industry’s first co-production with an international partner. Teaming up with a Swedish production company enabled the film and its director to qualify for the Guldbagge Awards. Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s award for Best Director and the film’s subsequently being voted one of the decade’s most outstanding films by the Tokyo International Film Festival provided an early indication of Icelandic filmmakers ambitions to become major players in the global marketplace.
Ostensibly a vengeance narrative. Vikings visit Ireland to plunder the lands and capture women. A young boy witnesses the murder of his parents and is unable to prevent his sister’s abduction. Twenty years later Gestur (Jakob Þór Einarsson) arrives on an Icelandic beach after several years searching Scandinavia for information about the raiders and his sister’s whereabouts.
Gestur exploits the raiders suspicions and sets blood-brothers on a path of mutually assured destruction.
Frequently compared to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Leone’s For a Fistful of Dollars, The Raven Flies reprises themes and plot points present in both films. The use of familiar reference points is a Trojan horse which enabled Hrafn Gunnlaugsson to exploit genre conventions and present a Saga inspired narrative in a format appealing to action movie fans.
A thrilling, impeccably researched blood-soaked epic, grittier than Viking age films produced by Hollywood up to that point. Single-minded in his determination to create the definitive Viking screen saga, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson studied artifacts in museums and visited the remains of a township. Costumes and props were intentionally designed to be authentic recreations of items worn and used by people in the late ninth century.
Atypically for the era, attempts to convey a sense of believability extended to action sequences. The director employed a Native American knife thrower to teach cast members how to accurately use the weapons.
Intensifying the feeling of brutality experienced on set, real blood supplied from a local slaughterhouse was used instead of more commonly applied substitutes.
Demonstrating the level of unshakable commitment to the project Hrafn Gunnlaugsson jeopardized his health by staying awake for six days at a time throughout the production to ensure his vision was successfully captured on celluloid.
Energetic, and visually striking, The Raven Flies brings the sagas to a new audience without philosophizing or excessive exposition. Redefining the screen image of Vikings its influence continues to be felt in Iceland and abroad.