Hammer of the Gods (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

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It is 870 AD. The Viking king Bagsecg (James Cosmo) has summoned his youngest son Steinar (Charlie Brewley) to the shores of England to help fight against the strengthening Saxon armies. Steinar finds a gravely battle-wounded Bagsecg lying on his deathbed, and looking for a worthy successor. He has doubts about his scheming middle son Harald (Finlay Robertson) and his cowardly bastard son Vali (Theo Barklem-Biggs), so he sends his youngest, the untested Steinar, on an urgent mission to find the eldest Hakan (Elliott Cowan), banished years before, and to “return with a king who will lead us to victory.”

Bagsecg was an actual if somewhat shadowy figure, defeated and killed in 871 AD while fighting the future King Alfred at the Battle of Ashdown – but beyond placing the Viking king in Britain, this big-screen debut from experienced TV director Farren Blackburn shows little interest in the specificities of real history, instead creating a semi-alternative universe of historical genre fantasy to host a Lear-like succession drama and a mystic coming-of-age quest, with lots of sweary badinage, fireside campiness and ‘shroom consumption – and of course plenty of vicious fighting between long-tressed heathens and fanatical Christians, epically framed against thunder and lightning.

Steinar himself, however, cuts a very different figure from his comrades-in-arms. With a neat goatee and close-cropped hair to match the relative shortness of his stature, he is, at least at first, a new man in changing times – educated, compassionate, and wielding a fierce rationalism that sets him apart from pagan and Christian alike. When his best friend Hagen (Clive Standen) suggests that “dark times call for dark deeds,” Steinar insists that rather “they call for light” – but if he is to take up his father’s crown, he must first embrace his inner savagery.

Hammer of the Gods tempers the existential intensity of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (which its screenwriter Matthew Read had also helped pen) with much Monty Python silliness, but its main influence and intertext is, rather bizarrely, Apocalypse Now (1979). For while there may be no helicopters, no napalm and no gunboat here, Steinar’s journey through hostile territory to locate a mysterious figure variously labelled ‘insane’ and ‘a god’ is modelled closely on Willard’s search for Kurtz (Hakan even has a fawning ‘chronicler’ to match Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist). So Hammer of the Gods is that most unexpected and unlikely of films, a Viking Apocalypse Then – but while it is an enjoyable enough romp, trying to out-hammer the impact of Coppola’s masterpiece is as foolhardy as challenging the gods themselves. Fictional Steinar may be the man who would be king, but no matter how hard he stares into the heart of darkness, history suggests that in the end the Saxons will win anyway. Here cocky hubris is all – and the fields of England will, we suspect, become Steinar’s Vietnam.

Anton Bitel