The recent demise of both Terry Jones and Neil Innes provides an opportunity to consider one of the least beloved entries in the sub-Monty Python canon, 1989’s Erik the Viking. Although it re-unites Jones as writer/director with John Cleese, who replaced Jack Lemmon at short notice, Erik the Viking feels like a feature script developed by Jones as a Python project, but rejected by the others; Michael Palin’s diary suggests dissatisfaction with the script. Jones seems to have recast each role with name players, but unfortunately these are not like-for-like substitutions, and without the usual Python ability to work over a script to provide a variety of accomplished comic set-pieces, the results are patchy.
And yet Erik the Viking is infused with Jones’s ability to take his area of expertise (medieval history) and riff on it to comic effect, and the structure of the film is solid. Erik (Tim Robbins) is a Viking who rejects the carnal, violent excesses of his fellows warriors and seeks something higher. He sets off on a voyage that takes his crew to Valhalla and beyond, with a central stop-off on the island of Hy Brazil, ruled over by King Arnulf (Jones) where a developed spiritual philosophy means no killing is allowed. Erik and his crew are pursued by Hafdan the Black (Cleese), who has a spy in Erik’s camp in the form of Loki (Anthony Sher).
Norse legends provide some familiar set-ups, with Loki, the age of Ragnorok and the rainbow bridge all coming into play, but Jones neatly dodges clichés; the Vikings have no horns on their helmets, and Jones’s patented gift for giving medieval characters 20th century vocabulary and pre-occupations provides some laughs. The Vikings argue in petty fashion about who sits where on their boat, and one character witheringly notes ‘You don’t even believe in Asgard!’. The timing isn’t always what it should be; when you replace a comedy troupe with randoms like Eartha Kitt, Michey Rooney and John Gordon Sinclair, consistency of vision takes a nose-dive.
Erik the Viking kicks off with an unwise rape joke (involving Jim Broadbent and Jim Carter) that doesn’t sit well with the generally genial nature of the comedy; without the usual team, Jones seems to have over-reached in terms of tone and content here, and there’s a few tumble-weed moments as gags go awry. But with a few smart sequences, like how the Hy Brazilians argue philosophically but to no effect as their island sinks around them, there’s tantalising evidence of a potentially great Python film that never came to fruition. And Innes creates a splendid mock-heroic score that keeps the rather ramshackle proceedings on point.