Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (2007)
By: Mr Intolerance on March 7, 2011  | 
Madman | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | Old Norse DD 5.1 | 104 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Tony Stone
Starring: Fiore Tedesco, Tony Stone, David Perry, Noelle Bailey, Gaby Hoffmann
Screenplay: Tony Stone
Country: USA
External Links
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Sometimes you watch a film and after it's finished, sit there in the dark and just say to yourself: "What the fuck was that about?" Severed Ways (subtitled "The Norse Discovery Of America") is such a film. On paper, this film should have rocked my world, with an attempt at authentically representing the times of the Vikings (to the point where the dialogue is delivered in Old Norse) and a predominantly Black Metal soundtrack – as a fan of the sagas and Black Metal, I should have been in hog-heaven; it's rare that I'm part of a target audience. But what I got was basically 107 minutes of two Viking dudes, Orn and Volnard walking through forests and fields in Newfoundland and Vermont, occasionally stopping to chop wood and build a lean-to.

What's particularly irritating is that the potential is present to create a film with some merit. If you go and have a read of The Vinland Sagas ("Vinland" being the Icelandic name for North America), there's all kind of action and adventure that could have been explored – but the opening scene begins the steady slide into a quagmire of disappointment; we see the aftermath of the battle with the Skraelings (a derogatory Viking term for the local population) that separated Orn and Volnard from the rest of their crew, rather than the battle itself, which would have been rather fun. And so the walking begins.

And so the potential for any kind of action or entertainment slowly starts to dissipate with every passing moment. There are far too many long takes with no dialogue and nothing more happening than walking through a forest. If the Skraelings are such a threat, why are they not present for the vast majority of the film? I get that the point of Severed Ways is more about survival than combat, but surely it could have been more interesting than this.

I guess no discussion of the film could be complete without mentioning its most notorious moment – answering the question, "does a Viking shit in the woods?" It was a question I didn't need to have answered, and I still cannot work out why the director felt the need to have himself filmed taking a great big dump, quite graphically. No stunt-poo for him! The best I can suppose is that it's a scene to make the film seem more realistic, or maybe in some odd way to make the travails Orn and Volnard face that bit more apparent. Don't know, and frankly I don't care, but to my mind it really wasn't all that necessary – after all, our super-duper pooper is an 11th century Viking; he's hardly going to be expecting a flushing toilet and a bidet. Similarly the scenes depicting a chicken's head being cut off. I know they eat the bird and all, but nonetheless it doesn't really add anything interesting, it just simply adds to the lethargic pace of the film.

The title of the film seems to work in a two-fold fashion: firstly the 'severed ways' of Orn and Volnard and the rest of their longship crew, and secondly, the 'severed ways' of the Viking people and their beliefs, some staying true to the worship of their own gods, versus the encroaching worship of the Christian god – the old ways and the new ways, basically. This is underscored by Volnard's flashback sequence where he confronts his sister and her lover about their Christian beliefs – and further along the way when he starts befriending a monk; although this is after he and Orn have already put one of the padre's mates to the sword and burnt down his rather modest mission. The scene in the flashback doesn't work out especially well for any of the three concerned. Nor does Volnard's attempt to befriend the priest, allowing himself to be lectured in the ways of the Christian faith, leading ultimately to our third 'severed ways' – the splitting up of the partnership of Orn and Volnard.

While Volnard has been fraternising with one enemy, Orn starts a little fraternising with another enemy, a young Skraeling lass who's taken a definite shine to him (and for some reason whenever we get a POV shot from her perspective, it's always with an odd kind of fish-eye lens, distorted kinda picture – I have no idea why except to make it obvious that it is indeed from her perspective), but as we all know, the course of true love never did run smooth, as their fraternising does seem to depend on her drugging him prior to her committing some 11th century date-rape upon him.

Volnard and Orn are reunited before the all-of-a-sudden race-to-the-finish-line ending, which given the snooze-inducing pace of the majority of the film comes quite out of left field. I've tried to omit as many spoilers as I could, just so that on the off-chance that something does actually happen, it might still retain a little bit of surprise.

From what I can understand, writer/director/actor Tony Stone seems to be trying his damndest to recreate an authentic looking picture of an episode of 11th century history – in that, I guess it's kind of successful. It's a reasonably picturesque film with some astonishing landscape shots, but the problem is that nothing much happens, and it happens all the time. I can count the moments where something actually does happen on one hand, without using all of my fingers. Further, despite the fact the film looks authentic, it doesn't sound terribly authentic, despite the fact that the dialogue is spoken in Old Norse – I'll lay dollars to donuts that Vikings didn't say things like "This fish is really killer", or "We're toast if we stay here". The dialogue is anachronistic, to say the least – or so I can judge from the sagas I've read, which is many of them.

Further still in the anachronism stakes is one of the film's selling points – its soundtrack. Even from the font that's used for the film's title on the promo art and the front cover of the DVD (and even moreso on their website), it's pretty apparent that Severed Ways is aimed at a Black Metal audience. If you're familiar with the genre, the second generation that came predominantly out of Norway had a long-standing devotion to their Viking past (go and have a look at some early LPs by Enslaved, Storm, Borknagar, Einherjer, early releases by Ulver and Satyricon, or more recently the Swedish Amon Amarth), and it was reflected in their artwork, and in the lyics, and to a certain extent in the music as well, which would at times take on some of the traditional folk elements of Norse music. Now when it does the latter here, it works. But during the church-burning scene when Orn and Volnard are running about to the tune of Dimmu Borgir's "In Death's Embrace", it's simply silly. So is the bit where we see Orn headbanging to the non-diegetic score that he can't even hear, in the forest. Worse still is the use of some of the non-BM music: I have no idea why Queens Of The Stone Age were present, and even less as to why Melissa Auf de Meer (the bass guitarist from Hole) was. Their contributions to the soundtrack added little, if anything to the mood or authenticity of the film.

I suppose the most controversial addition to the soundtrack would be that of Burzum, the one-man hate-machine that is Varg Vikernes. Vikernes was gaoled not only for murder, but also for arson, having burned down a number of historic stave churches in Norway. I wondered about the inclusion of Burzum on the soundtrack, and even moreso after I realised that the company responsible for the film is called "Heathen Films". Vikernes identified his music with Burzum as harking back to the beliefs of the Norsemen of the past, actively calling it heathen or pagan music. Correspondingly, from about the time of Filosofem (his last LP before gaol), the lyrics stopped being about The Lord Of The Rings, and more openly and explicitly about exploring the past, the mythology of the Vikings, and condemning the Christian cultural imperialism that overthrew Asataru (the worship of the old gods). All of these ideas are raised here in Severed Ways, and I think it's kind of telling that it's director Tony Stone's character Orn who's particularly unfriendly to Christians and states an emphatic and unswerving belief in Odin and Thor – and is a very keen participant in the burning down of the church, just like Varg. Is a political stance being played to the audience here? I think so, but I have no evidence apart from my own knowledge and understanding of both the Black Metal scene and Viking mythology and the sagas.
Apparently the film, which was shot on HD digital, was blown-up to 2.35:1. While I was researching this film I discovered that this process robbed the picture of information from the top and bottom of the screen. Now if that is indeed the case, I didn't notice it the first time around, so it shouldn't affect your understanding of what's going on, either. The colours are generally quite rich, emphasising the physical beauty of the landscape, although when we later move above the snowline, the danger of the landscape is equally apparent. And it is an anamorphic presentation, by the way, and lovingly presented to you in shaky-cam for the majority of the film. The subs are burnt in, but that's not too much of a hassle, as I'm guessing there aren't too many people out there kickin' it in Old Norse.
Up to scratch for the job at hand, although the Black Metal soundtrack is at times intrusive, and jars you out of the film – the more ambient tracks are more successful in conveying the tone of the film. The 5.1 channel is pretty redundant, unless you really like the sound of leaves crunching underfoot.
Extra Features
There are trailers for Animal Kingdom, Sin Nombre, In The Loop (the most entertaining thing I saw on the whole disc), Samson and Delilah, and both theatrical trailers for Severed Ways, both of which made it look a lot more entertaining than it actually was. Aside from that, there are a few deleted scenes, none of which would add anything to the film on their reinsertion, except to its duration. And that's yer lot. A pretty lacklustre selection.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Severed Ways is a lost opportunity. It's a turgid, drawn out production with little appeal beyond the occasional moments of visual beauty in terms of the landscape. The acting is rudimentary, the script poor, the story line could be summed up in one sentence. I look for more in an historical epic, which this is clearly trying to be (albeit on an admittedly personal scale), and simply throwing in a couple of tunes I don't mind doesn't make up for failing entirely to entertain me.

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