When Astrid Lindgren’s dark fairy tale was first published in 1973, it’s been said that Ingmar Bergman expressed a desire to film it. Who better to turn themes of life, death and sorrow into unforgettable images? However, in the end Olle Hellbom accepted the challenge after having made 15 previous Lindgren adaptations. It became his most celebrated among critics even though many of his previous movies certainly had found wide audiences as well.
9-year-old Karl (Lars Söderdahl) knows all about death and doesn’t fear it any more. After being diagnosed with a terminal illness, his older brother Jonatan (Staffan Götestam) tells him about Nangijala, a place where everybody comes after dying. Some time later, Jonatan is killed in a fire after rescuing Karl. At the funeral, the priest refers to him as “the Lionheart” because of his bravery. Two months later, the deeply grieving Karl passes away from his illness – and arrives in Nangijala where he finds his brother fishing by a stream. Jonatan, who’s thrilled to see his younger brother again, tells him all about life in this place of green grass, blossoming cherry trees and friendly inhabitants.
Unfortunately, evil lurks behind the façade as the valley is controlled by a tyrannical knight called Tengil who keeps everybody in fear of a fire-breathing dragon, Katla. There is a resistance movement, which Jonatan is becoming involved with… but also a traitor.
Often comes across as dreamlike
The allegory here is hard to miss. Nangijala is not really heaven, but Purgatory, a place where your heart is tested before you move on to the ultimate destination. Raising the issue of death and grief in a children’s novel (and movie) is difficult, but both Lindgren and Hellbom do so in a way that is earnest and touching without wallowing in misery, which could have easily happened because there’s a lot of dying going on here, including a major battle near the end between Tengil’s forces and the resistance fighters. Older viewers might be annoyed by certain ingredients in the film that look like a renaissance fair, complete with knights, dragons and men in tights.
The actors vary in quality and Katla the dragon (which was created at Pinewood Studios) will startle only the very young. Still, the movie often comes across as dreamlike, starting with the sepia-toned portrayal of life on Earth in the beginning of the film (an approach reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz (1939)) and then moving on the bright, enchanting landscape of Nangijala, as shot in Denmark and southern Sweden by cinematographer Rune Ericson. The partly electronic music score has an ominous feel to it that fits the story like a glove.
The key performance in the film is delivered by young Söderdahl as Karl (also known as “Rusk”, a term of endearment coined by his brother). Our heart goes out to him when he loses Jonatan and because of his illness, and we root for him as he fights tyranny in the next world. He’s just a kid… but his gut reactions and instincts always go to the core of the story and what Lindgren was aiming for – explaining a few realities in a world that isn’t always so rosy.
The Brothers Lionheart 1977-Sweden. 108 min. Color. Produced by Olle Nordemar, Olle Hellbom. Directed by Olle Hellbom. Screenplay, Novel: Astrid Lindgren. Cinematography: Rune Ericson. Music: Björn Isfält, Lasse Dahlberg. Cast: Staffan Götestam (Jonatan Lejon), Lars Söderdahl (Karl Lejon), Allan Edwall (Mattias), Gunn Wållgren, Folke Hjort, Per Oscarsson… Tommy Johnson, Bertil Norström.
Trivia: Original title: Bröderna Lejonhjärta. Later edited into a TV series.