Erik The Viking (1989), directed by Terry Jones, starring John Cleese, Tim Robbins, Jim Broadbent and Eartha Kitt had a lot to live up to. Any film starring two Pythons from the legendary Flying Circus, which spawned such classics as Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1974), Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983), automatically sets the bar pretty high. Comparisons with these giants of British comedy are inevitable for viewers of Erik The Viking, and unfortunately this pseudo Norse adventure is a puny affair by comparison.
Although the bar is high, Terry Gilliam, responsible for most of the iconic artwork associated with The Flying Circus, has made a string of imaginative films such as Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and more recently The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). Ok, so Gilliam may be losing his edge as time goes by, but he has broken away from the legendary off the wall humour of the Monty Python outfit and succeeded in creating films in their own right.
Erik the Viking seems to cling to a pale, watered down version of the sublime wit that has delighted audiences worldwide for decades. The lines fall flat. The contemporary dialogue jars with the Norse mythology, that is being hacked to death with clumsy metaphorical swords marked PARODY. So when Erik gathers some boorish brutes together for a silly quest, the initial impression that this is Monty Python diluted, is only confirmed by the misfiring humour and uninteresting characters. There are only so many times anyone can enjoy the same joke about how violent the Vikings were supposed to have been. For most people, twice is already too much, and that’s assuming the joke was funny in the first place.
John Cleese tries to inject some sardonic humour, but the whole project is sinking around him like King Arnulf, a mad monarch played by Terry Jones himself, appropriately enough. This is not to have a go at Terry Jones who has made a marvellous contribution to belly laughs around the world. It’s just that some things work and others fall flat on their face. There are a couple of gags likely to raise a smile, but the experience of watching this film is like the palpable embarrassment in the air at the gig of a mediocre stand-up comedian. Erik the Viking is a lesson in comedy: if you fail, you fail badly.
There was an intriguing issue which plagued Rhythm Circus throughout the film however, which was the question of whether Tim Robbins can act or whether he just says things and moves his face in approximations of human emotions?
Avid Monty Python fans may feel duty bound to watch this film, and there is the novelty value of a 75 minute Director’s Son’s Cut (happily 15 minutes shorter than the original) in the Erik the Complete Viking set being released by Arrow Video on 10 October.