Friday Essay: Viking Helmets Art of History

This past Tuesday being Leif Erikson Day, I was reminded of a movie I saw some years ago, a silent film called simply The Viking. Released in 1928,  The Viking is the first full-length Technicolor movie. This movie is mostly remembered for pioneering color-film technology, but in the process has received some good-natured ridicule for its portrayal of horn-helmed Vikings. Of course, this is a valid point – Vikings or Norsemen never wore such headgear – but I challenge whether it is a meaningful one.

Scene from "The Viking" (1928)

A scene from “The Viking” that displays the historically inaccurate horned-helmets.

Modern audiences seem extremely keen on having historically accurate movies and TV shows. It’s an admirable craving for authentic art and I personally love a good historical movie that seeks to be accurate. But I have two objections. First, it’s silly to believe movies today are somehow more historically accurate because they are darker and grittier. The History Channel’s Vikings may have more blood and gore and swearing than this old silent movie but it’s laughably inaccurate (especially in regards to the Christian Saxons). A dark color palette and a little dirt may give a movie an authentic feel but that is not the same as being historically accurate.

Second, not every film with a historical setting is striving for the same goal. The Viking is not an attempt at portraying historical events accurately or with authentic detail. It is fundamentally an opera and the opera in any genre has a different objective than what we typically consider historical fiction.  This is also seen in the difference between a Space Opera (Star Wars) and science fiction (The Martian). I would argue the Western genre died the day artists tried to blur the lines between “Horse Operas” and historical fiction in their grittier atmospheres.

Operas – Space, Horse or otherwise – are not gritty. They are highly stylized with tropes and high drama. Horned helmets like Stormtrooper armor exist not because they make sense but because quite frankly they provide a dramatic visual image and give an order to the elements in the production. You see a suit of white armor, you have a stormtrooper. You see a horned-helmet, you have a Viking. Besides being an easy visual reference, it employs the language of common perception. Yes, the horned helmets are inaccurate but guess what, the item is attached firmly to the Viking mythos since the 1800s.

Historical accuracy is a good thing, but let’s keep in mind that different genres have different purposes. And The Viking does not pretend to be historically accurate, it is a vivid adventure that just wants to have fun. I’m more disturbed by Vikings’ emasculation of Christian England and glorification of Viking barbarity than I am by The Viking‘s use of horned helmets because the former is made a channel literally called “The History Channel” and presents itself as an authentic depiction while the latter is simply an opera.

History and art have an important relationship, with art preserving much of history. But not all stories in a historic setting are intended as historical fiction, and in those cases, it’s best to let authenticity take a backseat to ones imagination.

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