“The Last King”: Norwegian History on a Budget

1206, Norway is troubled by civil war. The tyrannical hands of Christianity possess an unrelenting stranglehold on the country and the church and its faction of Norwegian aristocracy, known as the Baglers, is deceitfully wielding its way through Norway’s heirarchy in an attempt to obtain power . Norway’s king has been poisoned, and in his final throws of agony, Haakon Sverresson musters his final words: “My son Haakon Haakonson…shall inherit the throne.” The king sent two of his Birkebeinerne (warriors that were sworn to protect the Norwegian throne) to escort and guard the two-year-old Haakonsson to the northern town of Ă˜sterdalen where he is to be raised in seclusion and safety, and then, when the child is of age, be announced as king. However, word of the bastard child spreads through the Bagler faction and an ensemble of assassins is dispatched to dispose of the illegitimate child. A chase through icy mountain terrain and dense Norwegian forests ensues upon cross country skis as Haakonson and his Birkebeinerne protectors are hunted before they can reach the capitol city of Nidaros to announce the existence of Norway’s last king.

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Birkebeinerne cross country ski with Haakon Haakanson in The Last King

The Last King is an epic film done on a modest budget. Its story is based on actual events, a historical incident that Norwegians are proud to share, and includes all the makings of a tremendous epic adventure film: breathtaking landscapes and vistas, sword swashbuckling and chases, heartfelt drama and treachery. The images are beautiful, reminiscent of 13th century paintings filled with dramatic golden streams of light and soft ethereal textures of snow covered mountains, all filmed on location in different regions of the Scandinavian countryside. The Last King transports the viewer to a different land and a different era. We know the characters from decades past of storytelling: the steadfast and loyal warriors, the meek and cunning younger brother that desperately wants to be king, the murderous thug sent to assassinate an innocent child, and the helpless and adorable child king whose destined to rule and bring peace to a country. The Last King is filmmaking from a bygone era, when special effects and performances needed to be done in-camera and on location, and when there was no “faking it”. For example, when our stout Birkebeinerne warriors cross country ski through an icy blizzard, they are actually cross country skiing through a blizzard. The Birkebeinerne were resilient, therefore the actors Kristofer Hivju and Jakob Oftebro, as well as the filmmaking crew, need to be equally resilient.

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Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child (c.1868) by Knud Bergslien

Historical genre films excite me as much as science fiction or fantasy films because they transport us to a different era and allow us to observe cultures that once existed. We’ve seen many films based around major historical events involving the United States, but we’ve never seen a film based on an event in Scandinavian history. The Last King is a Norwegian production, funded by grants and donations from Norway, Denmark, and Ireland, and it makes sense that this project would get funded because it tells an informative story about an era in Norwegian culture that actually existed. It’s educational, as well as entertaining. I consider The Last King to be a non profit film, especially since it’s budget was estimated at $45 million, yet the film only grossed $9,000 during its box office release. It was released in June 2016, but I did not learn of the film’s existence until a couple weeks ago (November 2016), when I was perusing the shelves at Best Buy. No matter, I’m glad I spent the $15 to purchase a copy of The Last King, and I’m especially glad that the film managed to see its way to the United States.

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