Lee Majors was an awesome bionic man, and a great Fall Guy (not to mention a really good Heath Barkley), but as a Viking, he doesn’t quite cut it.
I’ve been wanting to see Charles B. Pierce’s The Norseman (1978) since it was originally released — I mean, just look at that poster art and tell me a 14-year-old kid wouldn’t wanna see that flick. It’s been an extremely elusive movie, however; I was never able to find it on VHS and as far as I know, it isn’t on DVD. However, the movie turned up recently on Netflix streaming, and that’s how I spent my Friday night.
Pierce, as any good fan of trashy movies should know, is the man who brought us The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), one of my all-time favorite flicks — and along with Joy N. Houck Jr.’s Creature From Black Lake (1976), one of the two best Bigfoot movies ever made (and before anyone decides to call me on it, yes, I know Boggy Creek is technically about the Fouke Monster, but three toes aside, he might as well be Bigfoot). Pierce also directed two other movies I really like, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) and The Evictors (1979) (and wrote the story for Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact), so I went into The Norseman hoping for the best.
The movie opens with our intrepid Viking crew rowing through a storm, all of ’em sporting horned helmets that look like they were plucked off the shelves at Vikings R Us. Pierce was a huge fan of narration, and he employs it again here — this time, the flick is narrated in flashback by the (never seen) adult version of “Young Eric,” the teenage brother of Lee Majors’ Thorvald the Bold. Eric is played by Pierce’s son, Chuck, who delivers all his dialogue with an obvious southern drawl. Thanks to the booming score (by Pierce regular Jaime Mendoza-Nava), it’s difficult to make out some of the narration, but apparently the Vikings are on a quest to find the missing King Eurich, father of Thorvald and Eric, who never returned from his voyage to the new world.
We meet our principles here, including Cornel Wilde as Ragnar, Jimmy Clem as Olaf (which is the way everyone says it in the movie, but it’s spelled “Olif” in the credits), and — wait for it — Deacon Jones as Thrall. Some of you may remember that Deacon Jones is, in fact, black, which makes him an odd choice to play a Viking. The narrator sort of explains it away by telling us that Olaf (I’m going with “Olaf,” I don’t care what the credits say) had his tongue cut out during a raid on the African Coast, and that Thrall is the guy who cut it out. All I can figure is Olaf must have bored the hell out of everyone with endless tales of his D & D adventures, and the other Vikings were so happy to see his tongue lopped off they rewarded Thrall by bringing him along. Apparently, part of Olaf’s brain was in his tongue as well, because Clem plays him as if semi-retarded. As for Deacon, he gets one line of dialogue, and as an actor, he’s a terrific Defensive End.
As they approach land, Thorvald goes below deck (the Viking ship is TARDIS-like, larger on the inside than on the outside) to consult with “Death Dreamer,” a wizard played by Jack Elam with a pillow stuffed up the back of his robe. Dramatically, Thorvald removes his neato superhero-esque Viking helmet (it comes equipped with a built-in black leather mask) and tells the wizard to spin his spells, but somehow Lee Majors’ midwestern accent and 70s porno mustache make the whole scene come off like Viking Dinner Theatre.
The Vikings come ashore the next morning and are immediately attacked by Indians, who kill one of the Vikings. Somewhere in here, Lee Majors says “Praise be to our god Odin” and manages to make it sound like he’s ordering some fries. Another Viking reports that he’s found the mouth of a large river, along with “the sweetest grapes I’ve ever tasted.” Impressed, Lee Majors says “It will be written that this new land… will be called Vineland.” Then they all hop back on the Viking ship and start rowing up the river, in a long sequence that won’t remind you of Apocalypse Now in the least, because shit actually happened in Apocalypse Now.
Eventually, Lee spots Susie Coelho (a.k.a. the 3rd Mrs. Sonny Bono), an Indian maiden, on the bank of the river. Susie runs back to the Indian camp to report in, and we meet “Old Indian Woman,” played by Kathleen Freeman, who you’ll recognize from a million TV shows and movies (including Singin’ In The Rain).
Some of these Indians are pretty dang tubby, so I’m guessing those guys have names like “Dances With Cheetos” and “Sedentary Bear.”
We discover that the Indians have a secret cave full of blind Vikings wearing bad wigs and phony beards, and they force the Vikings to push a big styrofoam wheel around to grind their corn.
Of course, these are the missing Vikings, including Thorvald and Eric’s pop, King Eurich (Mel Ferrer, in the phoniest wig and beard of them all). In flashback, we learn that they were getting along great with the Indians until Susie started making out with one of the Vikings, which pissed off the Chief, who blinded the Vikings with a smoldering stick.
The rest of the movie is essentially a bunch of scenes of the Vikings duking it out with the Indians before finally realizing that some sort of actual plan might help. I doubt I’d be giving much away to mention that this plan is helped along greatly when Susie teams up with Thorvald and his men. One great moment occurs during the final battle, when Olaf decides to sacrifice himself in order to hold the Indians at bay long enough for Thorvald and the others to reach the ship: Thorvald raises his sword in tribute and says “It will be written… that the name of Olaf… shall live on in the land of the Norse.” Nice call, Thorvald.
I suspect I’m making The Norseman sound a lot more entertaining than it really is — to be honest, it’s pretty lackluster, which is very disappointing considering how much I enjoyed The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Evictors. Somehow, Pierce’s lack of any real filmmaking style is one of the things that made Boggy Creek work so well, but The Norseman is an action movie, and Pierce delivers some of the most inept action sequences imaginable, the overuse of slow motion only adding to the half-assededness (although to be fair, in one battle scene, Pierce tried for a little Sam Peckinpah-style editing, but didn’t quite pull it off). Lee Majors’ bland performance doesn’t help (and for Pete’s sake, why does he insist on pronouncing the word “Norsemen” as “Norzzmen?”), and while Cornel Wilde, Jack Elam and Mel Ferrer lend the proceedings a little heft, the dialogue they spout is pretty atrocious.
The flick is worth checking out if you’ve got some beer handy and maybe a couple friends to help poke fun at it, but otherwise you’d be better off watching Marcus Nispel’s Pathfinder (2007), an underrated and pretty enjoyable movie which also features Vikings and Indians slugging it out. One thing, though — the name “Thorvald the Bold” got me thinking: if we gave Viking-like names to people nowadays, what would they be? “Steve the Joystick-Proficient?” “Curt, Guardian of the Sacred Eco-Petition?” Or maybe “Gary the Bong-Hitter?”
Check out my book Unsafe On Any Screen for more trashy movie reviews:
Unsafe On Any Screen in paperback at Amazon.com
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Unsafe On Any Screen ePub edition
(also available for the iPad, but I don’t know how to link to the iBookstore)
The trailer for The Norseman:
A scene from Viking Dinner Theatre:
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