"There on the margins between known and unknown, the male conquistadors, explorers and sailors become creatures of transition. As such, they were dangerous..." (Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather)
1: civilizational delirium
A village burned to the ground. Corpses stacked in heaps of ash and bone. Women shuddering, huddled together. Armed men, crusaders at the edge of Christendom, presiding over the post-slaughter. This landscape is one of the many nightmare settings of Nicholas Winding Refn's strange and obscurist film Valhalla Rising. Encountered by the film's mute protagonist One-Eye in the second chapter, the post-massacre village is significant because it is one of the only two settings in the film that references a settled and civilized stability, but a stability marked by absence––an erasure. It is also the only setting where women are depicted, however briefly, on camera.
trailer for Valhalla Rising (2009)
Having escaped and murdered the men who kept him as a slave––a caged animal used to fight other slaves in pit battles––One-Eye discovers the post-massacre village and the men responsible for its annihilation by accident. "Are you a Christian?" the lead murderer asks. And when the boy who serves as the mute One-Eye's interlocutor replies that they are, the man states, "You're lying."
These men are crusaders on the way to Jerusalem, already engaged in the holy war by burning pagan villages in Northern Europe. And though they do not believe that One-Eye is a Christian, they ahve no problem drafting him into their crusade. He is violence incarnate, a silent anthropomorphization of primordial destruction, and they recognize his use as a weapon for "God's own soldiers."
The first interaction between One-Eye and the crusaders is the motivating theme, if we can even speak of a theme, in Refn's obscure and dream-like meditation on violence. Valhalla Rising unfolds like a fever dream: events are linked together by the barest logic and the narrative flow relies more on hallucinatory imagery than the extremely sparse dialogue. The human body is often part of the landscape, covered in mud and viscera, blending into the wilderness and sky. The signs of stable civilization are always absent, marked only by erasure and death: in the the second chapter there is the village burned to the ground, its victims silenced; in the second to last chapter there is a cemetery at the edge of a forest. Otherwise the self-proclaimed bearers of civilization, these men with swords marching towards Jerusalem, are lost in the wilderness. We are shown no actual cities or villages, no stable and populated sites of life. The crusaders are that civilization which is death, those who assume they are civilization itself even as they stand on the bones of a civilized site they have burned to the ground. These are the "rude and fierce" men that Theodore Roosevelt praised in his racist treatise The Winning of the West: savage men who are not truly "savage" because their murders are "in the interests of mankind."
It is in contact with the crusaders that the silent protagonist receives the name One-Eye. Before this encounter, in the first chapter of the film, he was nameless violence who cannot respond to the question of identity. When he stares mutely at the sky, in the film's first chapter, one of his soon-to-be victims asks if he can see himself, recognize himself in blind nature. His identity is vague: they say he is from hell or across the sea, they speak of how he has only been owned for five years at most… But in the bones of an erased village, in an encounter with the self-proclaimed bearers of authentic civilization, he is named.
In a hallucinatory prefiguration of the colonization of the Americas, the crusaders are swept off course and arrive in what is now called Canada rather than Palestine. Here is where they will encounter the film's second symbol of civilizational stability: a cemetery belonging to a Western Hemisphere civilization. The crusaders recognize they have entered lands unknown to Christendom but their mandate remains the same: the leading crusader, after naming the as yet unseen inhabitants "primitive", expresses his desire to claim the land for his civilization. He speaks of raising cities and bringing women, strange claims for someone who burns cities and murders women––who spends his existence rambling about the greatness of his civilization in the midst of the wilderness. Strange references to that which the film has depicted only by absences and brief glimpses.
Here the film's already unstable logic deteriorates. The crusaders die, killed either by indigenous arrows or One-Eye. One crusader vanishes only to reappear in the warpaint of the offended Western Hemisphere civilization––though how he defected and became repatriated in a single day fits only the logic of a dream. One-Eye bows his head to the civilization that is repelling the crusading invaders, demanding death as if to apologize for the future event of colonialism and genocide that the crusaders represent.
2: confusion and silence
But like a dream Valhalla Rising's reflections on violence and civilization are confused. What are we to make of the absence of women, aside from a brief glimpse and a mention? Is their absence supposed to be parallel to civilization: is Refn claiming that men are closer to the state of nature? And what of this civilization-nature dialectic that sometimes intersects with a troubling Hobbesianism? The film can be read as claiming that men (and not women because they are absent) are by nature violent… although even this possibility jars with the unexpected act of sacrifice performed, at the end of the film, by the protagonist who was violence incarnate
There is something in Valhalla Rising that is similar to Cormac McCarthy's equally dream-like and equally violent Blood Meridian. McCarthy's novel, though beautifully written, is ultimately an aetheticization of politics, to reference Walter Benjamin, where a reactionary position is obscured in beautiful prose and narrative. In Blood Meridian man (again excluding woman) is by nature a wolf to man, and the colonized are just as vicious as the colonizer––the violence of both is considered equal except the colonized lack a voice. In Valhalla Rising the colonial encounter is marked by a similar problematic: the indigenous civilization appears only at the end to murder the silent protagonist.
But in Valhalla Rising, unlike Blood Meridian, the notion that humans are essentially petty killing machines is connected to a dialectic of expansionist civilization. The linking of the Western Hemisphere Contact with the Crusades is not simply a metaphor: it is an historical fact. The last chapter of the Crusades, after all, also marked the first chapter of modern colonialism. The conquistador Cortes, we must remember, was also a hero of Spain's Reconquest. And the crusaders in Valhalla Rising never tire of speaking of civilization, to riff off Fanon, even as they murder it in every encounter. The fact that One-Eye is murdered by these people at the end of the movie, as problematic as it may be, speaks more to the film's dream-like confusion than to a coherent reactionary principle. Just what was murdered? A murderous being as silent as the Western Hemisphere's natives: a murder of murder itself. Their appearance is as brief as civilization but, unlike these wolf-like men pursuing some vicious civilizational standard, they are still tied to one of the film's only signifiers of civilization stability. Even still the depiction is troublesome and, though not openly reactionary, speaks to a failure of Refn to properly understand the history behind modern colonialism––a history predicted by the crusaders' accidental encounter with a Western Hemisphere culture.
In the end Refn's film fails to communicate any message because, like its mute protagonist, it resists communication. Any attempt to interpret Valhalla Rising is like becoming One-Eye's adolescent interpreter, the boy who played the voice of the silent murderer. And as the viewer is never sure if the boy was making up the meaning of One-Eye's actions, we can never be sure if the film can be given any measure of meaning outside of confusion and contradiction.