• Film

Gunnar Vikene on “War Sailor”: “I wrote the script in anger”

It was a situation in his home country of Norway that triggered Gunnar Vikene to write the script for War Sailor. He was baffled that a rich and privileged country like Norway was discussing how many war refugees the country could take and that the discussion came down to money.

“I thought that it is very important that we do not forget that we have experienced exactly the same thing,” says Vikene on a Zoom call from his home in Bergen, Norway about sympathizing with civilian victims of war. “So I wrote the script in anger. I dropped everything I had and spent one and a half months writing the script, and it was kind of cathartic because I had spent so many years thinking about the project.”

Vikene had started the project even before he knew he was going to be a filmmaker. While working as a painter with his father as a 13-year-old boy, he had an experience with a war sailor who was balancing on a silo 60 meters high, not caring whether he would fall or not. “He was laughing,” he recalls, explaining that the man was very drunk. “I was so shocked and I could not understand why a human being could play with his own life like that. I was silent in the car afterwards and my father noticed and said, ‘He was in the war. He was torpedoed twice and spent forty days on a raft, so he had the nerves.’ Those were the words he used.”

This experience started an interest in the war sailors’ lives and their experiences during the Second World War, especially in how they were treated after the war. He started collecting stories of Norwegian men who had sailed on commercial ships and were dragged into the war without any military training and without the glorification that soldiers experienced after the war had ended. “I had been collecting all these stories for so many years, so I just needed to get it out of my head and down on the paper,” he says about writing the script to War Sailor.

“I gave it to my producer Maria fully aware that we had agreed never to make a Second World War movie, and then she called me back after three hours and said: ‘This is not a Second World War movie, this is an anti-war movie and I would love to produce it.’”

War Sailor is set mainly from 1939 to 1947 and follows two Norwegian sailors: Alfred (Kristoffer Joner), who is married and the father of three kids, and the free-spirited single man Sigbjørn (Pål Sverre Hagen). They both sign up for merchant marine work in 1939 just a few months before the Nazis occupied Norway. Aware that it could be dangerous to work at sea, they are, however, not prepared to be in the middle of the fight and to work for the Allied Forces. 


“Since I am a working-class guy, I thought about the fact that you never heard about the working class perspective of the war,” says Vikene about focusing his narrative on how the war influenced the war sailors’ lives. “I could not understand why we have made so many films about the Second World War but there are none from the working class perspective.”

The film ends in 1972 when it becomes clear what the sailors who were caught up in the war sacrificed during this period and how they were treated in Norwegian society after the war. “The last scene was the first I wrote because in that scene is the emotional key to me,” explains Vikene. “I could emotionally understand everything in that film after I wrote that scene, even though I have never been to war. To me, the last scene reflects on the sadness over everything that could have been but never was.”

To this day, Vikene is still upset that the war sailors never got the credit they deserved. “They were never mentioned in relation to the war. They did not fit into the idea of the war hero. They did not have uniforms or guns or medals or anything. But at the same time, no one meant more for the result. Without them, the Allies would have lost the war. Period. There is no historian who does not agree with that.”

War Sailor is the most expensive Norwegian feature film production in history with a budget of nearly $11.1 million. Vikene is happy that his film got made but his anger has not disappeared. “These men were vital and they got no credit. Having met so many of them and seen how society has treated them has made me angry for years. It still does. As it does when we discuss how many Syrian or Ukrainian refugees we can afford to have. It makes me mad as hell. We should be better and we can be better. It is very personal to me. I am angry.”