Issue 57 (2017)

Andrei Kravchuk: The Viking (Viking, 2016)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2017

vikingThe Viking is the latest in a series of Russian patriotic blockbusters that pluck actual historical figures from the dustbin of history to reincarnate them as super-heroes. The “Viking” of the title is Vladimir Sviatoslavovich, the warrior saint of Kievan Rus’, who was Prince of Kiev ca. 980-1015 and adopted Orthodoxy as the state religion. Vladimir is a historical film director’s dream because so little is known about him and what is known comes from notoriously fanciful medieval sources. Kravchuk therefore had free rein to refashion Vladimir’s rise to power, without fearing that pedantic historians (like me) would criticize his facts or interpretations too harshly (as I did in my KinoKultura review of his last historical biopic, The Admiral).

vikingThe “real” Vladimir was born ca. 958 to Sviatoslav, Prince of Kiev, and one of his Derevlian slaves. Before his death in 972, Sviatoslav had given the city of Novgorod to the boy, who fled to Norse lands ca. 977, after his eldest brother Iaropolk murdered their brother Oleg to consolidate Iaropolk’s power as the sole ruler of Rus’. Vladimir probably thought he would be Iaropolk’s next victim and sought the protection of King Haakon Sigurdsson of Norway, who may have been a relative. Vladimir returned to Rus’ the following year, accompanied by a large Viking force generously donated by Haakon. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, composed a century after Vladimir’s death, Vladimir headed for Polotsk, ostensibly to seek the hand of Prince Rogvolod’s daughter, Ragveda. Rogvolod refused him, so Vladimir’s forces took the town, killed the prince, and seized Ragveda as one of his wives. A talented military commander, Vladimir conquered Kiev in 980, eliminating his brother Iaropolk in the process. For the next eight years, Vladimir consolidated his reputation as a ruthless warrior who greatly expanded his domain and as a lover, reputedly taking on many wives and hundreds of concubines. By 988, he had attracted the wary attention of Basil II, the Byzantine emperor, who on the one hand feared Vladimir but on the other hand needed Vladimir’s help to defeat a rebellion in Basil’s own army. According to contemporaneous Arab sources, Basil had a prize to offer Vladimir in exchange for military support: his sister Anna. Although Basil had refused proposals for Anna’s hand from princes before, including Roman Catholics, he now thought it prudent to offer her to Vladimir on the condition that he abandon paganism (and his many women) for Orthodoxy. Vladimir agreed to be baptized, embracing Christianity (and Anna) to gain a potentially valuable political and military relationship with Byzantium. (The Russian Primary Chronicle tells the story of Vladimir’s conversion differently, claiming that when Vladimir wanted to establish a state religion, he interviewed representatives from the monotheistic religions and chose the “best” among them: Orthodoxy.) Regardless of Vladimir’s reasons for rejecting paganism in favor of Orthodox Christianity, Orthodoxy was his lasting legacy to Russia. Although it is not clear how and when he was canonized, within 40 years after his death, the Church considered him a saint.
vikingThe Viking dramatizes the period 978-988, from Vladimir’s conquest of Polotsk to his baptism, a choice that allows Kravchuk to portray Vladimir as a warrior, not a saint-in-making, in a seemingly endless orgy of graphic violence stitched together by a primitive narrative.  The film is so dark (presumably to underscore that these were the “dark ages”) that one can barely see the actors, the confusion over who is who enhanced by the fact that they all look alike: brutish, bearded, bloodied, and filthy. This is even true of Vladimir, played by the popular heartthrob Danila Kozlovskii, a casting choice undoubtedly intended to boost the film’s box office appeal. Kozlovskii’s fans were likely disappointed, since he is almost unrecognizable with lank greasy hair and a full beard obscuring his handsome face. Furthermore, there is little to endear this Vladimir to the audience, except that he exhibits a bit of conscience when, surrounded by a jeering, cheering horde of Viking, he seems reluctant to rape Princess Rogveda. The ravaged young woman almost immediately falls in love with her rapist, a particularly repellent example of Kravchuk’s macho fantasizing in this film, which harks back to Hollywood historical epics of the 1950s and 1960s, like David and Bathsheba. These were grim and violent times, to be sure, but there is absolutely no historical evidence that abused women, whether in Rus’ or elsewhere, “fell in love with” their captors.  Indeed, there is ample evidence that the Byzantine Princess Anna fought with her brother against being forced to marry Vladimir, whom she regarded as a savage, his putative conversion notwithstanding.

vikingKravchuk appears to be channeling Game of Thrones in The Viking, without being able to match its strong narrative, visuals and high production values. By contrast, the visual style of The Viking is, to be charitable, a pretentious muddle characterized by dizzying close-ups, followed by long shots of hordes of CGI warriors. It makes one pine for Sergei Bondarchuk’s masterfully staged battle scenes in War and Peace and Waterloo, not to mention Sergei Eisenstein’s in Alexander Nevsky. The Viking resembles nothing so much as a Stalin-era historical epic (like Minin and Pozharsky) fueled on methamphetamines and tricked out with CGI.

vikingThe Viking marks a new low in Kravchuk’s career. He showed great promise in his second film The Italian (Italianets, 2005), which toured European film festivals, charming judges and audiences alike. Kravchuk’s next film, The Admiral (2008), turned the brutal anti-semite and Supreme Commander of the White forces in Siberia, Alexander Kolchak, into an icon for conservative Christians, but at least the film was visually splendid and competently made. For its part, The Viking received mainly poor reviews from Russian critics, and some Orthodox Christians were offended by Kravchuk’s depiction of their saint. Additionally, many Russian cinephiles did not like it either, expressing their astonishment on online chat sites that 1.25 billion rubles (only about $22 million, but expensive by Russian filmmaking standards) had been wasted on such a poorly made film. However, unlike many self-proclaimed Russian blockbusters, The Viking did recoup its production costs and, according to the box office information on the website, returned a 22 percent net profit, probably due to Danila Kozlovskii’s star power.

Kravchuk’s motives for making this film may be construed as “patriotic.” He undoubtedly sought to reclaim St. Vladimir from Ukraine, and newly reoccupied Crimea provided many of the sites for location shooting. It is hard to write a serious evaluation of such a bad film, but I will close by posing two questions. Does the Putin regime actually want to identify itself with this version of Vladimir? Or could The Viking possibly be considered a bizarre critique of Russia’s current leadership?

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont

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The Viking, 2016
Color, 133 minutes (18+); 128 minutes (12+)
Director: Andrei Kravchuk
Screenplay: Andrei Kravchuk, Johan Melin, Andrei Rubanov, Viktor Smirnov
Cinematography: Igor Griniakin
Sound: Pavel Doreiuli
Editing: Il’ia Lebedev
Producers: Leonid Vereshchagin, Konstantin Ernst, Anatolii Maksimov
Music: Dean Valentine
Production Design: Sergei Agin
Visual Effects: Aleksei Andreev
Cast: Danila Kozlovskii, Aleksandra Bortich, Andrei Smoliakov, Aleksandr Ustiugov, Anton Adasinskii, Aleksandr Armer

Andrei Kravchuk: The Viking (Viking, 2016)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2017

Updated: 09 Jul 17