Though it all paid off in the end, the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was a trying ordeal. Lousy weather, lousy locations, and Graham Chapman’s booze-addled breakdowns all took their toll, but those problems would have likely been easier to deal with had the Python’s two Terrys, Jones and Gilliam, not decided to co-direct, leading to confusion as to who was in charge and what responsibilities were whose. Both were relatively inexperienced, but the rest of the group preferred Jones’ approach, which focused more on performance and delivery, as opposed to Gilliam’s attention to technical detail, and it was decided that Jones’ hand would be on the helm for their next two features. Then, both must have seen it as a mandate on their directorial futures, but time has a funny way of turning things on their head. In 1988, Gilliam released The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, garnering four Oscar nominations and solidifying his reputation as a major talent; just a year later, Jones’ Erik the Viking, also a lighthearted historical fantasy, proved to be something of a disaster, fit only for diehard Python fans and movie masochists (good thing I’m here).
Tim Robbins stars as the titular Viking, who finds himself questioning the purpose of all the looting and pillaging his brothers seem to love so much, an epiphany inspired, within the film’s first few minutes, by a woman he’s having a hard time raping (what classic comedy doesn’t start with an attempted rape?), and who he accidentally kills shortly thereafter. It’s a little hard to tell from Robbins’ wooden performance, but Erik is supposedly wracked with guilt over the whole affair, and is advised by the goddess Freya, played by a hammy Eartha Kitt, to travel to the mythical realm of Valhalla to bring the woman back to the land of the living, and in the process stop Ragnarök, the Norse end of days, and return the sun to the sky (or something). He immediately begins enlisting his fellow Vikings, who, like the audience, seem to have only a flimsy grasp on what the whole point of this epic quest is, but set out on it anyway. Standing in the way of their goal is the scheming Loki, who may or may not be the Norse god, and the ruthless Halfdan the Black, a fictionalized version of a real king played by a squandered John Cleese.
Jones based the film on a children’s book he had written for his son entitled, The Saga of Erik the Viking, but overhauled the plot almost completely. In the end though, he probably should have gone through a few more drafts; the vast majority of the comedy is deeply uninspired and the promise of adventure on the high seas mostly comes to a brief battle with an incredibly cheap looking dragon. No one was expecting another Holy Grail, but the critical reaction to the film ranged from unconvincingly complimentary to downright disgusted. The New York times Vincent Canby sounded generous when he praised the film despite “the occasional gags that do not work and dialogue that is sometimes obscured by sound effects”, while Rita Kempley of the Washington Post ended her ostensibly positive review by noting, “As expected, this Scandinavian sea-roving satire is heavier than Thor’s hammer and broader the Brunhild’s behind.” If all that sounds like damning by faint praise, the films detractors were considerably more direct.
“As the quest finally nears Valhalla, one character intones, gravely, "We're going where only the dead have gone before"--a sentiment likely to be echoed in many theaters where Erik the Viking unspools to an eerie hush,” wrote Chris Willman in the Los Angeles Times, dramatically pointing out the fact that even the film’s funniest moments, including a racist Chinese slave-driver, the attempted rape scene (Jesus Christ, the rape scene is one of the funniest, that’s just messed up), and Terry Jones’ own appearance as the king of Hy Brasil, who denies his legendary island is sinking even as he disappears below the water, might inspire a smirk or two, but nothing approaching audible laughter. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, spared the poetry, calling the film, “An utterly worthless exercise in waste and wretched excess, uninformed by the slightest spark of humor, wit or coherence.” Ebert did take a time out from savaging the film to acknowledge that Jones was capable of turning out decent work post-Python, pointing to 1987’s well-received Personal Services, and hoping “that he will be back among the competent in no time at all.”
He did return to competency, but not in “no time at all”. It took a full seven years for him to release The Wind in the Willows (also known as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), co-starring his Python cohorts Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin as Kenneth Grahame’s anthropomorphic animals, and though the film failed to become a comedy classic, it was at least liked. Since then, Jones has more or less been out of the directing game, as far as major motion pictures are concerned anyway. He occasionally tackles a short or an episode of a TV series, but he’s mostly turned his attention to writing, penning everything from political editorials to fantasy stories and the kind of humorous historical TV documentaries he’s found a well-fitting, if unspectacular, second career hosting. All that may soon change however, with the recent announcement that Jones is co-writing and directing a new film,Absolutely Anything, a “sci-fi farce” involving all of the surviving Pythons (even Gilliam) as well as Benedict Cumberbatch of the BBC series Sherlock. The film is reportedly about a teacher who develops super powers after an encounter with extra-terrestrials and is set to begin filming this year.
Whether it will end up another Erik the Viking remains to be seen of course, but that would seem to be a tough travesty to top. At the end of the day, the fact that Jones won the job as the Python’s de facto director only to watch Gilliam become a celebrated filmmaker is more just a strange historical irony, an interesting footnote to the careers of two men who happen to have the same first name, neither of whom have done too shabby for himself. Even the similarities between Erik the Viking and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (including, as Chris Willman points out, “nearly identical scenes in the two movies in which giant sea monsters are made to sneeze away ships with actor Charles McKeown aboard!”), which invite all of these unfortunate comparisons between Jones at his worst and Gilliam, arguably, at the top of his game, seem more like the result of coincidence than some kind of competition. Not that any of that makes Erik the Viking, ill-conceived medieval train-wreck that it is, any easier to endure.