Einar’s funeral scene remains one of the most memorable and influential filmic death-scenes from any Hollywood historic adventure film. His body is processed aloft on a bier whilst the entire army watch, before being loaded onto a longship and sent out to sea from a rocky coastline flanked by torch-bearing warriors. A single flaming arrow is shot at the longship whilst it is still beside the coast, setting fire to the mast. Next, a group of warriors fire a salvo of comparable flaming arrows, some hitting the ship, others the water, as the vessel mysteriously moves out over the calm still sea. We see a close-up of Einar with flames around him, and then, the ship alone and burning, drifting to who knows where into the west as the sun sets.
Kirk Douglas says The Vikings was in reaction to the trend towards serious ‘problem pictures’, and The Vikings is a fable that allows people to go to a theatre and forget their own problems for a few hours. He says: ‘if you look at history, you will always find things much more exciting and much more dramatic than you can imagine… adventure pictures are just as important as any other form of pictures’.
Well, while Kirk reflections in his interview from 1958 makes the case that no matter what the story, the background must be incidental to the characters themselves, even in adventure pictures, this scene shows that this is often not the case for funerals. For in The Vikings the funeral’s historical authenticity is less important than its use of the setting to create a dramatic farewell to one of the lead characters, who died in combat and is dispatched with ‘Viking’ honour. I think this is the key ingredient regarding why this merging of character with setting in death has influenced multiple genres of filmic and televisual representations of Norse funerals, including those in the History Channel’s Vikings – and I will discuss a fresh re-imagining of Einar’s funeral for a lead character in Season 6 of the show in due course. Moreover, Einar’s funeral has also directed the popular imagination regarding what is a Viking funeral, and what pre-modern cremation practices might be more broadly, ever since. This extends to the desire and behaviour for some who wish to conduct their own ‘Viking’ funerals.
RIP Kirk and farewell Einar!