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Pathfinder (Unrated Edition) (2007)

A movie directed by Marcus Nispel

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  • Nov 1, 2007
I almost never totally pan films or books I take in, but this one is a deserving exception. I have never seen such a lousy interpretation of history as this film hands us and, as the author of an historical novel about Vikings and Indians in North America circa 1050 AD (The King of Vinland's Saga), I am particularly qualified to comment.

I spent a decade researching the Norse incursions into North America before undertaking my novel and can say with confidence that there is absolutely no reason to imagine any of the kind of horrific, horror film stuff portrayed in this movie was ever perpetrated by vikings on American shores. Setting aside for a second that all the evidence about the Norse suggests they did not wear horned helmets, as they are shown doing here, the film has them riding huge mounted steeds as they run down the hapless Indians.

Considering how hard it was to get over to North America, even from nearby Greenland, in the small open ships they relied on, there is absolutely no reason to believe (let alone evidence) that they came here with horses. Indeed, even in the heyday of the vikings (which is actually MUCH earlier than the events portrayed here), the Norse, Danes and Swedes rarely sailed with horses at all. Sometimes they carried livestock, possibly including horses, in their knorrs (wide beamed trading vessels quite unlike their feared dragon ships) for settlement purposes, but viking raiders never brought their horses along for battle. Period. And they didn't fight from horseback either but, rather, dismounted and fought on foot in the much vaunted shield wall (among other formations).

The vikings portrayed in this film are inhuman monsters who appear like ferocious automatons and whose sole aim is to exterminate the natives in the area so they can "colonize" the country -- it's someone's nightmarish view of ethnic cleansing circa the tenth or eleventh centuries. This, too is patently absurd. The real Norse who came here tried to trade and otherwise get on with the native population according to the actual saga record. Unfortunately, misunderstandings soon led to violence and the overwhelming numeric superiority of the natives made the difference as the locals drove them out. The Norse settlers were certainly guilty of contempt for the human beings they found living on American shores at times, and some of them were callously brutal (as in Thorvald Eiricsson's visit in the wake of his brother, Leif's, earlier expedition). But the idea of killing off the locals was unthinkable. There were way too few Norse out of Greenland (a very small outpost on the edge of the known European world) for them to even hope to accomplish that, let alone to need such a removal in order to make room for themselves.

The Indians in this movie, too, are portrayed abominably. They are invariably shown as kind hearted, gentle souls who fall prey to the ferocity of the relentless viking monsters invading their shores. The poor Indians are taken entirely unawares by the cruelty and savagery of these invaders (who, as mentioned by others elsewhere, seem more like Klingons, or even Borg, from Star Trek episodes than they do actual Norsemen from the outer edges of Europe). There is not even a hint that the Indians were themselves quite formidable hunters and fighters, more than a match on their own turf for Europeans in an age before gunpowder. Steel swords and shields were an advantage for the Norse, to be sure, but not nearly as much as guns and cannon later proved to be.

Moreover, we know from the record that many of the Indian tribes were quite fierce themselves and that those in the Iroquois/Pawnee/Aztec family (who appear to have been linguistically and culturally related despite the distances between them), for instance, were not averse to torturing and killing helpless enemies. They also engaged in slaving as readily as the Europeans who ultimately overran them in later times and were themselves often prone to a little "ethnic cleansing". The Europeans didn't have a monopoly on that and they certainly weren't horned helmeted humanoids looking to eradicate lesser species as this film makes the Norse out to have been.

Overall this movie, though it is certainly fast-paced, is an utterly false and misleading interpretation of history. Though the cinematography is nice, despite its unrealistic nightmarish quality, the whole thing looks and feels like little more than a comic book come to life. Well, maybe that is what the filmmakers intended. But that is still no excuse to propagate such an impoverished and misleading view of actual history or to give us characters without any inner dimension at all.

I spent years getting the facts for my novel right and, frankly, I was looking forward to this film when I first heard about it, especially because of the subject matter. But the dark, nightmarish, blood drenched vision it presents completely distorts history with a story that even lacks the semblance of reality as the Karl Urban character teaches himself the highest level of swordsmanship after having been separated from his "Norse" heritage for some 15 years since having been discovered as a boy, the lone survivor of his ship, by a sensitive, caring native American woman. In the boy's nightmarish recollections, he recalls his brutal viking father beating him mercilessly because he refused to use his sword to slay an Indian child as commanded. This too is simply nuts as the Norse loved and cherished their children no less than any other people. There's little reason to think that a Norse father, having brought his son along on a raid (even if raids on the North American coast like this weren't anachronisms, at best), would have then nearly beat him to death for failing to do his bidding. Or that the leader of the later expedition would kill one of his own men out of pique some 15 years later. Indeed, the number of vikings in his crew seem, on screen, to be inexhaustible so there's no reason for him to worry about killing a few if they get under his skin. But, of course, in reality that is ridiculous since, in a foreign land, far from home, the numbers you've got with you count. Moreover, Norse crews were notoriously democratic and followed their leaders not from fear but from a committment to common goals or personal loyalty. It's not easy to be loyal to a leader who murders his own men at the drop of a hat.

Were there brutal Norsemen? Certainly. Were the vikings fierce and fearsome raiders? This is well known. But vikings never actually raided the coast of North America because there was nothing here to take, only land to settle, and vikings weren't settlers. When the Norse actually found North America it was, in fact, at the tail end of the viking age, the people who came here being farmers looking for better land than they had available in Greenland. The odds that any of them had had any real experience as sea raiding vikings were minute. This film does an injustice to the memory of the Norse and to those seeing it today because of its historic distortions and hopelessly thin storyline. I'm glad I missed it in the movies. I should have skipped it in DVD, too.


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More Pathfinder reviews
review by . January 31, 2012
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Pathfinder (Legend of the Ghost warrior) is a film that I have to say would have to be an acquired taste. Loosely based on the Graphic novel published by Dark Hose comics, upon its production, it was intended to be a "straight to DVD" feature. However, with the success of Frank Miller's "300"(another comic based epic), the studio decided to capitalize and gave it a shot in theaters. "Pathfinder" didn't enjoy the success of "300" though. This is a review …
review by . March 15, 2010
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A Violent, Brutal Wonder
When "Pathfinder" hit theaters a few years ago, I wanted to see it very badly. Unfortunately for me, it quietly came and went before I had the chance to see it. I heard almost nothing about it after it left theaters and began to lose interest in viewing it. Luckily for me, I managed to catch it on HBO awhile back and was instantly hooked. I sought out a copy of the DVD (which I had actually skimmed over for a long time thinking that it wasn't worth it), and was happy to find an unrated …
About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky ()
Ranked #303
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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Pathfinder is a curious, cross-genre movie with elements of horror, sword-clanging fantasy, historical fiction, and Native American mysticism. A classic story of an outsider-hero, Pathfinder is set approximately five centuries before Columbus’ arrival in the New World, a time when Vikings were claiming real estate in Greenland and eastern North America. A young Norse boy is abandoned by his disapproving, conqueror-father and adopted by an aboriginal tribe. He grows up to become Ghost (Karl Urban), almost-but-not-entirely accepted by natives, yet a fierce swordsman and defender of Indians after a terrible assault on those whom he loves best. Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption) plays the fiercest of the invaders, a merciless leader who tangles with Ghost’s inherent prowess as a fighter, and engages in a psychological as well as physical struggle with him in the film’s final third, which involves a harrowing journey through an avalanche-prone mountain path. Russell Means (The Last of the Mohicans) is a typically comforting presence as the all-wise Pathfinder, leader of a tribal nation and Ghost’s supporter, while Moon Bloodgood (Eight Below) is outstanding as a love interest with nerves of steel. Marcus Nispel (who directed the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) guides the brutal if often exhilarating action as if it were amplified history. He makes the point for a contemporary audience that Vikings were as terrifying a danger to those whom ...

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Director: Marcus Nispel
Screen Writer: Laeta Kalogridis, Nils Gaup
DVD Release Date: July 31, 2007
Runtime: 99 minutes
Studio: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
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