How The Northman Pulled Off That Incredible One-Shot Battle Scene

Robert Eggers is known for his attention to historical authenticity in his films, and "The Northman" is no exception to that: Eggers brought in experts like an archeologist, a folklorist, and a Viking historian as consultants. In one notable scene, the movie puts the viewer on the ground with a band of berserkers for a village raid that eschews the usual Hollywood camera trickery in favor of one-take period immersion.

"The Northman" reunites Eggers with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who lensed his first two films, "The Lighthouse" and "The Witch." Blaschke was instrumental in orchestrating the village battle, which begins with Viking Hamlet, aka Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), and his fellow raiders outside the walls. A spear is thrown their way, but as seen in the trailer for "The Northman," Amleth catches the spear and throws it back. He then throws off his animal pelt and charges forward with his battle ax, scaling the wall and knocking riders off their horses inside the village.

Through it all, the camera is there with Amleth, maintaining its own Viking POV for the audience. Instead of piecing together shots from multiple character perspectives like a mosaic, Eggers and Blaschke went for a more seamless, first-person approach. Speaking to Indiewire, Blaschke said:

"Sometimes I wonder if my approach comes out of inexperience. The conventional way to shoot that kind of scene feels almost like a military operation, where you're just covering things and describing what's going on rather than designing a sequence. It's easier for my brain to see things unfold in a shot that's like a ribbon, or a scroll — it might just be naivete, or my simplistic mind, but I don't see things as a mosaic."

'We really wanted to maximize the set'

During the village battle, "The Northman" employs cinematography that is somewhat reminiscent of other long-take movie marvels like "1917" or "Children of Men" (the latter of which was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who has spoken highly of Eggers' film and is thanked in the credits). The logistics of the scene were complex, but apparently, likening it to "a military operation" wasn't an idle comparison for Blaschke, who actually did "plan it out on a map with little soldier figurines." He explained:

"We really wanted to maximize the set. To do that you put the camera at one side and use the maximum amount of depth, so that you're showing everything — there's really no village behind the camera. You plan it out on a map with little soldier figurines, and work it out like a puzzle, one kill and one layer at a time. ... There are so many things you think of that you want to try that you're just not able to, so eventually you have a backlog of ideas and you think, 'Someday, someday, someday.' There was stuff I wanted to try for a long time that we finally had the resources for and that happened to be appropriate for the movie."

While "The Northman" remained well south of its estimated at $60 million budget on opening weekend, this may be one of those movies that finds its legs more as word-of-mouth grows and it eventually makes its way to home media and the global streaming market. However, the village raid in "The Northman" is one of those visceral scenes that almost demands to be seen on the big screen.

"The Northman" is in theaters now.