"We raised the cross, now we bring the sword!"
Part 1 Precursor
Often after I watch a film that either interests me or possibly gives me something meaty to chew on in either a positive or negative way, I'll take a peak at what other people across that vast universe known as the internet think. I like to get an idea of what others like or dislike about a film that I myself either like, dislike or am not fully sure about yet. While this is clearly a mistake as IMDB is mostly a cesspool for idiots (only to be outshined by YouTube), I still find myself checking out a few of their user reviews (both positive and negative), which can be a way of getting the average film fan's thoughts, as opposed to the cult/genre geek who may be too well aligned with my wavelength to get a solid differing opinion.
Part 2 The Issue
This would happen most recently with Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising, a film that, for me, cements Refn as one of the most visually present and thought provokingly interesting filmmakers working today. Soon after I finished the film and processed my thoughts for a few moments, I took to the net, did some research (interviews with Refn, etc.), then read a few quick reviews. One of the recurring negative complaints about Valhalla Rising that stuck out like a sore dick was the proclamation that the film is all style and absolutely no substance.
Now, in my experience with his work (and I have seen most of his films), I find that Refn is a virtual beast when it comes to what he presents on screen. Refn has an ability create astounding visuals; he commands powerful, next level performances from his actors; he captures a Neanderthalian brutality with a ferocity that simply pummels the audience; and most importantly for the sake of this piece, Refn delivers deep subtext in a way that doesn't stick its ass out at the audience.
Part 3 We're On A Mission From God
As for the film's story, Wikipedia describes Valhalla Rising's plot as such: "The film takes place in 1000 AD and follows a Norse warrior named One-Eye and a boy named Are as they travel with a band of Christian Crusaders in pursuit of a Crusade. Instead they find themselves in an unknown and unfamiliar land."
Valhalla Rising is very simplistic as far as the characters' physical journey goes, yet, it is the intricacies of what lie just at the surface that give it incredible depth. You read that description and you know this band of Christian Crusaders are on a Crusade, but it is what they are Crusading for that brings about the film's connotations; the overbearingly high-handed religious connotations that litter the film from front to back. High-handed religious connotations that greatly reflect many of the biggest challenges faced by mankind in the world in which we live today.
Their Crusade is for one thing and one thing only, to go back to Jerusalem and take back their land in the name of God. Their God.
For as long as mankind has dwelled upon this earth, (some) people have, do and will put themselves in positions of power by sending false messages of superiority. They use faith as a way of gaining trust as well as instilling fear in those who are without the ability to think for themselves. Those who are led to believe that if they follow the flock and fight for their God, they will be ensuring themselves a spot in heaven, safe and happy, while all those that dare to follow the wrong beliefs rot in hell. Or worse, a 9-to-5 job without benefits. Yikes.
Part 4 Driven by Fear
These Crusaders are only slightly more naïve than many who comb our Earth in present day and every day between now and the time in which Valhalla Rising is set. Their idealistic beliefs cause them to, deep down, fear those who do not share in their faith, and as the wise old Yoda once said, "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering" In this case, the suffering is meant for those who do not support, who do not follow and who dare to stand opposed to a certain belief.
The symbolism is as simple as the line, "We Raised the cross, now we bring the sword!," when referring to the strange foreign land in which the Crusaders now inhabit and plan to overtake. Filled with unseen, indigenous natives who must be eradicated because they are not them. They are not Christians. They are not Crusaders of God.
And they wipe with leaves. Gross.
The symbolism is as simple as one character holding up two short swords to form the most iconic of Christian symbols: the cross. Using weapons of destruction as a representation of faith; the very same weapons that are also meant to take down those who oppose their ideology. Brandishing these instruments of death in such a way is reflective of the misguidance and lack of understanding that some people have for religion. They also represent the one choice that is given to anyone who comes within their reach. You're either with us, or against us, and if you're against us, well, we brought the sword if that should answer your question.
Part 5 The Lamb
The vastly more obvious religious undertones come specifically from the character of One-Eye himself (played with a silent brilliance by Mads Mikkelsen of the Pusher films), as he is presented in a Christ-like fashion. However, while his character is used to represent a specific event for a specific religion, he represents sacrifice in a way that is not selfish, a way that is not driven by fear, greed, power, or a specific belief – but driven by faith, period. His sacrifice is propelled by selflessness, which is what many religions can easily preach, yet, it always seems so difficult for people such as the Crusaders to actually live like those who inspired their beliefs. In fact, they do the exact opposite, and I guess that's just human nature for you.
Part 6 Resolution
I can see not enjoying Valhalla Rising because it's not what you want from a Viking film, but if it were just what you wanted, it would be no different from what has already been done in other Viking movies. If someone were to say to me they do not enjoy Valhalla Rising because it's too slow (and it is very slowly paced), or that they just aren't into any of this underlying, and possibly pretentious to some, subject matter that I have gone over here, then that's certainly fine by me. To each his own, and that is what subjection is all about. On the other hand, to classify Valhalla Rising as having no substance is completely and totally off the mark, as there is much more substance than one can easily see on the surface, if only they bothered to focus on something other than what is directly in front of them.