Entertainment & Arts

Danish duo saddle up for western 'homage' The Salvation

Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen in The Salvation Image copyright Zentropa
Image caption The Salvation reunites Mikkelsen with his Casino Royale co-star Eva Green (left)

Horses, gunfights, spurs and Stetsons: The Salvation has everything you'd expect from a western. What sets it apart is that both its director and leading man hail from Denmark and the fact it was shot in South Africa.

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen and his countryman, the film-maker Kristian Levring, may not be the first people one would think of were one to consider making an old-school western in the classic Hollywood tradition.

According to Levring, however, he and his fellow Europeans have as much right as anyone to take on this archetypal cinematic genre - and maybe even more so.

"It was important to find a way in, which for me was the whole thing about Europeans," says Levring, whose film tells of a Danish immigrant eking out a hard-scrabble existence in 1870s America.

"They all went out there and became Americans, on the frontier, where you had very harsh, almost Third World conditions for human beings to survive in."

"It made sense to me," says Mikkelsen, best known as the villain in Bond film Casino Royale and for playing the title role in TV series Hannibal. "This is what America was, full of French people and Swedes and Belgians.

Image copyright Zentropa
Image caption Eva Green (centre) plays a mute woman whose husband is killed by Mads Mikkelsen's character

"That was what created America. In many ways, we have a right to make a western and the Americans don't!"

The Salvation certainly takes this credo to heart, casting the likes of France's Eva Green, her compatriot Eric Cantona and Welshman Jonathan Pryce in supporting roles.

Levring, however, says his European heritage also played a part in the film's story, a tale of remorseless revenge that begins with Mikkelsen's character Jon losing his wife and child to a couple of stagecoach-hijacking scoundrels.

'Rawness and roughness'

"In the Scandinavian sagas you have a lot of killing, which is something we went back to," says the director, one of the original signatories of the 'Dogme 95' manifesto that sought to promulgate a stripped-down, back-to-basics style of film-making.

"There's a primitiveness and a rawness and a roughness in the storytelling, which we reproduced in our story."

"I looked at it as a drama, rather than as a genre," says Mikkelsen of a film he calls "a loving homage". "Something terrible happens to a man, his hope is gone, and he has to get up again.

"That story could be in a contemporary drama as well. The difference here is we have to ride horses."

Image copyright Zentropa
Image caption South Africa doubles for the Old West in the $11.5m (£7.7m) production

First screened at last year's Cannes Film Festival, The Salvation has an unusual look and texture that was partly the result of it being shot in South Africa.

"We didn't have enough money to do it in the US," admits Levring, who also shot his 2000 'Dogme film' The King is Alive on the African continent. "They sent us budgets and it was way above what we could afford."

With admirable resourcefulness, the director used a well-known computer mapping application to find "places that could believably look like America".

"I looked in a few places, like Australia and Croatia," he explains. "But South Africa had a tax break which helped us finance the film, and it also has a film industry."

'A little Kafka'

"It was everything we wanted it to be, if a little Kafka," says Mikkelsen, referring to a European writer well-known for his disorienting, psychologically complex fictions.

"We were doing this classic western, with predominantly white people, and the whole crew were black. It was like two different worlds."

With Green playing a vengeful mute and former Manchester United footballer Cantona appearing as a gun-toting heavy, The Salvation makes some interesting choices that could see it embraced by both mainstream and arthouse audiences.

"If there's no cliches, there's no western," says Levring. "But you have to play with the cliches, to make it interesting."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Levring (left) says he and Anders Thomas Jensen wrote the script with Mikkelsen (right) in mind

As far as the director is concerned, however, the themes of the film are as old as the Old West itself - the cyclical nature of vengeance and the cost of seeking retribution.

"The point I wanted to make is that killing a man leaves a scar on the man who does the killing," he explains. "When you get your revenge, what do you actually get?

"Do you become a better person? Do you feel better? Revenge is not always the right solution."

"It's a moral story about what taking vengeance will do to you," says Mikkelsen. "What happens to people when they kill other people?

"I could have been Jon, and I can't imagine I wouldn't have done the same as what he does. But you never know unless you're in the same situation."

The Salvation is out in the UK and Ireland on 17 April.

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