Pathfinder

pathfind posterWith “Pathfinder,” horror Director Marcus Nispel, (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Friday the 13th, Killer Cut”) attempts to branch out into the historical epic/adventure genre.

Nispel Does deserve kudos for at least one thing with this movie: venturing into a part of history where Hollywood has feared to tread. Much like his characters, he is blazing uncharted territory.

We know that Vikings began to explore North America somewhere between A.D. 900 and 1200. We also know that there were already people there. What happened next must have been a fascinating clash of cultures, and could have made for a really interesting movie. Sadly, Pathfinder never transcends a level of shallowness reminiscent of 1940s propaganda.

The first thing we see in Pathfinder is a montage of Vikings mercilessly slaughtering and enslaving Native Americans. The Vikings don’t even appear human, their horned helmets (which Vikings did not wear) hiding their faces, and they shake the very ground on their horses (which Vikings did not ride).

The text on the screen reads: “600 years before Columbus, North America was invaded by a brutal people bent on settling there. Something stopped them. This is the legend.”

In the scenes that follow, a Native American woman happens upon a wrecked dragon boat, and finds that a Viking boy, 12 years of age, is the sole survivor. She takes him to her village, where the natives in this movie, remarkably ungrizzled by thousands of winters, spout the same humanistic rhetoric as contemporary Hollywood liberals. The boy, now named “Ghost,” is allowed not only to live with the tribe, but also to retain possession of a number of artifacts of the civilization that is slaughtering his hosts, most notably a Viking sword.

Fast forward 10 years. Ghost (Karl Urban) is now a man; a loyal brave of his tribe, although someone (it’s anyone’s guess who) has apparently taught him swordplay and other Viking tactics. Things seem peaceful until another army of Vikings makes landfall nearby and begins raiding villages and killing natives. This time, however, they face a strangely pale-skinned native, who is familiar with their weapons and tactics, and once they’ve killed his adoptive parents, he wages a one-man war against them. One has to wonder how so many men and horses could fit into a few dragon boats, but at least there’s plenty of fodder for Nispel’s next gore fest. Really, the movie is less deserving of ink than the real story.

Karl Urban takes up the sword in "Pathfinder."

Karl Urban takes up the sword in "Pathfinder."

Firstly, while no one could ever call the Vikings humanitarians, there was more to them than sacking and pillaging. The ones who came to the Americas were aspiring not to raiding, or “viking,” but to a quiet life of settled farming. (see  www.mnh.si.edu/vikings) What’s more, the Viking raids of European towns were motivated by a desire for precious metals and stones. Needless to say, native American villages wouldn’t have had these, although there still would have been conflicts over land and resources. It is also worth noting that European scholars recorded that Vikings were actually quite hygienic for their time. (Lost Civilizations: Vikings, Thomas H. Flaherty, 1993) The story of their colonization of Greenland is one of remarkable courage. A Viking skeleton has been found there of a man who dislocated his arm during farm work. With no medical care available, he worked with that arm for several more years until he actually wore a new socket in the scapula! (Lost Civ, Faherty, ’93)

As for what “stopped them,” the harder question would be what didn’t. The ships Vikings had were glorified canoes, and the journey – some 3,000 miles across the violent north Altlantic – would have been exceedingly difficult for seasoned sailors, let alone women, children and livestock.

The land that far north was only slightly more hospitable. (www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook) The Vikings might have made it had they learned from the Inuit, who subsisted entirely on seals and fish. The farming lifestyle that Vikings knew would have been extremely difficult in a part of the world reputed to have “10 months of winter and two months of bad sledding.” A combination of rough seas, brutal winters and starvation are much more likely to have “stopped” the invaders than a guy with a slingshot (not to spoil the end or anything).

It also needs to be said that native Americans were far from gentle when it came to dealing with captured enemies. The Iriquoi, whom the Vikings would have encountered, made a habit of torturing prisoners. The accounts of some of their activities are enough to chill the blood. (The Jesuite Relations, Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1791) This wasn’t because they were any less civilized than anyone else, but because they were hardened by a daily fight for survival. Hollywood humanism didn’t exist yet, and a child of an enemy tribe, native or European, probably would have been ignored, if he were lucky.

It’s not that I expect movies to be 100% realistic. It’s just that this could have been a great film. The Vikings and the various native tribes of the northeast were fascinating peoples. Doubtless there was bravery, passion, and at times great evil on both sides. “Pathfinder” cheapens both sides almost beyond recognition. And all for the sake of turning our brains off for battle-action that’s too gruesome to enjoy anyway.

Last 5 posts by Seth H.

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Comments

  1. Good grief

    I understand that storytellers have to take liberties with history sometimes, but this movie seems to bypass history altogether. *sigh* You would think if they were going to spend time and money on a project like this, they could have at least tried to get some of the historical aspects right.

  2. I think you’re giving the filmmakers at work here a bit too much credit when you use the word propaganda, Seth. Propaganda implies a political motive; exactly what is to be gained politically by discrediting a long-dead race of glorified pirates? :)

    Are the Hollywood westerns of the 1950s propaganda because they paint their Native Americans as pure evil? Or are they simply trying to give the audience a cheap, popcorn-munching thrill by giving some (fictional) Impossibly Bad Dudes their well-deserved comeuppance? If the latter is the case, than what is the distinction here, other than the proverbial shoe being on the other foot?

    You seem to be someone who judges films harshly by how faithful they are to their source material; I won’t hold that against you (though I tend to think that such debates tend to be without merit). It may have been a valid point with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but here you seem to be flagellating an (admittedly bad) film for failing to hit a target that it never really aimed for.

  3. Movie Seal says:

    I wasn’t calling “Pathfinder.” Propaganda. I was saying that it had that level of depth. I guess I should have made that more clear, but I was already 400 words over the quota. Point taken, though.@Luke H.

  4. Movie Seal says:

    Oh, and you’re right; a lot of old westerns had the same level of depth. Recent westerns, like 3:10 to Yuma and The Missing have been more two-sided, though.

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