Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Off the Shelf: Erik the Viking / Yellowbeard (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
Here's what some of the Monty Python guys were up to in the '80s.

Both Erik the Viking (1989) and Yellowbeard are expensive-looking period comedies from members of Monty Python: the former is written and directed by Terry Jones, while Yellowbeard is written by and starring the late Graham Chapman. Jones, Eric Idle and John Cleese all appear in one or both movies, making them almost unofficial Python films. Both are now out on Blu-ray from Olive Films.

Erik the Viking finds Erik, a viking (played by Tim Robbins), assembling a band of travelers to journey to Asgard so that he might ask the gods to end the age of Ragnarök, brought about when Fenrir the wolf swallowed the sun. Along the way, the men encounter an enormous dragon, rival vikings intent on stopping their mission and a kingdom built on an island that will sink if a single drop of blood is ever spilled upon it.
The plot of Erik the Viking is considerably more complicated and involves a good deal more secondary characters than that synopsis includes, mostly because it gets confusing when one starts throwing around names like Hy-Brasil and Keitel Blacksmith. Some of the names are funny, like Thorfinn Skullsplitter and Ivar the Boneless. Mostly, though, Erik the Viking takes Norse mythology totally seriously to the point that there are long stretches -- particularly later in the film -- when I'm not even sure what's meant to be played as comedy and what's meant to be played straight. There is a sweetness and a sincerity to the movie's final moments that would be particularly moving if the movie had earned it by being really funny the rest of the time. Instead, it's just sort of funny some of the time.

At its best, the movie has some of the same spirit as Time Bandits, another fantasy comedy directed by fellow Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam. There's a similar sense of adventure (mostly because both movies find the characters responding to danger with a collective "AAAAAAAGH!!") and a hand-made aesthetic to the sets, props, costumes and visual effects that is impossible not to love. Gilliam's is the far superior film -- it's more inventive, imaginative and better constructed -- and seems to have provided a reference point for Jones, who penned the screenplay for Viking based on a book he wrote for his son. There's a scene with a dragon that feels right out of Time Bandits, except the action isn't quite as well staged (and the dragon is constantly obscured by camera angles and fog, obviously a deliberate attempt to hide the limitations of the effect). Erik the Viking is at its best in moments like this -- when it really embraces the fantastic.
It doesn't do that often enough, and set pieces like the dragon sequence are bookended by long scenes of characters talking and killing time. Oddly enough, there aren't enough jokes in the movie, and Jones' script has difficulty choosing a comic angle at which to approach the material. The opening scene has promise, when Erik makes for a bad viking because he's not into raping and pillaging. Then there's a weird turn in which a woman is killed that's played as black comedy, but that somehow ends up playing a huge part in the rest of the movie. Sometimes it's an anachronistic comedy that stands back and looks at the life of a viking though a modern lens and finds things to laugh at. Sometimes it's just a straightforward story about a viking quest. There are inspired visual gags like an entire island sinking into the ocean while all of its inhabitants refuse to acknowledge what's happening (it's also an impressive stunt because they REALLY DID IT), but that makes for the first big laugh in a long, long time. It's so uneven.
Speaking of uneven, Graham Chapman's Yellowbeard is hitting Blu-ray the same day as Erik the Viking, also from Olive Films. It tries harder to be funny than Erik the Viking but works less a movie for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the title character isn't in the movie all that much. There is no center.

Chapman is the titular Yellowbeard, a pirate with a buried treasure who is thrown in prison for 20 years. Just as he's about to be released, the British Secret Service (led by Eric Idle) convinces him that more than 100 more years has been added to his sentence in the hopes that he will escape in desperation and lead them to his treasure, which is precisely what happens. With the help of his wife (Madeline Kahn, foxy as ever) and his son, Yellowbeard sets out to recover his treasure from the clutches of El Nebuloso (Tommy Chong) and his second in command (Cheech Marin).
With an impressive cast -- besides Chapman, Idle, Cheech and Chong, it includes Peter Cook, John Cleese, Marty Feldman (who died during filming and had to be written out), Peter Boyle, James Mason and even David Bowie -- and a huge scope, Yellowbeard is the kind of super ambitious comedy that went out of fashion at the end of the 1980s. Both this film and Erik the Viking feel very much like carry overs from the Monty Python days, with their period settings and their focus on detail and production design. The Python movies always felt stuffed, an adjective that's true of these films as well. Unfortunately, Yellowbeard lacks the absurdity and focus of Python's stuff. This is a messy, scattershot movie -- a child flailing in all directions hoping someone will notice. When it hits, it hits. More often, though, we only notice the flailing.

This is a movie that just feels out of control from the outset -- the cinematic manifestation of Yellowbeard, with his wild hair and bugging crazy eyes, running around the frame and mugging. The actors are all in different movies. The period stuff often threatens to swallow up an already thin script. It's not really a surprise, as Yellowbeard had a difficult birth and spent years bouncing around never finding it path. Rumor has it that it began as an idea from drummer Keith Moon, who was friends with Chapman and had plans to star in the movie but died before that ever came to pass. Harry Nilsson was going to write a soundtrack; that, too, was scrapped in its infancy. This is a film that had to be dragged to the screen and sometimes feels it.
And, yet, there's something about the spirit of Yellowbeard -- and of Erik the Viking -- that I admire. The two movies would make an excellent double feature, not just because of their roots in Python, not just because they represent a specific kind of '80s comedy but because the reach of both exceeds their grasp. They don't just tell stories; they build entire worlds in which to exist. Blu-ray provides a great way to see both of them, too, bringing out the best in the elaborate costuming and production design. Both of these movies feel very lived-in, which comes across in the HD transfers. These are ambitious, weird movies as much interested in being period comedies as they are in being genre parodies. That they don't totally work is beside the point. I'll take a messy comedy that tries to do too much over one that plays it safe and earns as many or fewer laughs.

Erik the Viking Blu-ray release date: May 26, 2015
107 minutes/1989/PG-13
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Bonus features: Trailer

Yellowbeard Blu-ray release date: May 26, 2015
96 minutes/1983/PG
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Bonus features: Trailer

Buy Erik the Viking from Olive Films here.

Buy Yellowbeard from Olive Films here.

3 comments:

  1. Finally the American cut of Erik is coming to Blu-ray. I have the Director's Son's Cut and British Cut, all shorter in length.

    Now we just need Nuns on the Run. :)

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  2. Unless there's another Monty Python movie with a sinking island that everyone's in denial of, I've apparently seen Erik the Viking, though unfortunately that's all I remember of it (though the woman being killed rings a bell...). It was quite hyped up by the dudes I watched it with but I didn't find it lived up to it. Then again, neither did Monty Python and the Holy Grail when I watched it almost 20 years ago, so I should probably give them both another shot!

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