The 13th Warrior was completed over a year ago, with a
budget rumored to have broken the $100 million mark. Directed by John McTiernan
and produced by McTiernan and Michael Crichton, who wrote the novel the film is
based on, the film is a mediocre medieval action film that could have been much,
Based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead (a much more
provocative title), the film is about an Arab ambassador to the Tartars who gets
mixed up with a bunch of Vikings. Crichton began the novel by translating the
parts of the historical narrative of Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan related to the Vikings;
he then left the boundaries of non-fiction by extrapolating a tale loosely based
on the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. Actually, Crichton had an
intriguing idea – provide a historical basis for the epic poem, like the
historical Trojan War that inspired Homer’s romanticized Iliad. And Beowulf
is indeed steeped in as much Scandinavian tradition as Anglo-Saxon.
Unfortunately, the film does not explore this idea very much, particularly since
the audience is distracted by the superfluous presence of Fahdlan (Antonio
Banderas). In the end, the film seems more the story of Fahdlan than Buliwyf
(Vladimir Kulich), the "Beowulf" of the story; which would be fine, if
the film didn’t suffer from schizophrenia between the two roles for most of the
The plot is relatively simple. While journeying to Asia, Fahdlan
and his servant, Melchisidek (Omar Sharif in a well-performed cameo), come
across a group of Vikings. They take some time to relax with the huge men from
the North, giving Fahdlan a chance to be disgusted by their hygenic habits. Then
another Viking vessel arrives, telling their king, Buliwyf, that an ancient evil
is menacing the kingdom of King Hrothgar (a name identical to that of the king
menaced by the monster Grendel in Beowulf). A Norse soothsayer says that
13 warriors must go to fight this menace; but the last must be a foreigner.
Looking rather diminutive against the huge Vikings, Fahdlan reluctantly agrees
to join them.
The rest of the film consists mostly of bloody medieval combat,
with the occasional clever moment of culture shock, such as when Banderas finds
himself unable to wield a gigantic Norse broadsword. He shaves the blade down
into a scimitar, and after displaying his prowess with the weapon, a bemused
Viking asks him, "When you die, can I give that to my daughter?"
Overall, however, the film seems rather scattershot, and
there are lots of area that could use work, both in production and plot. There
are breathtaking scenes of mountains and valleys in the bright sun which shift
abruptly to deep-orange hues that color the entire scene. There are night and
cavern scenes so dark it’s often difficult to discern what’s going on – who was
killed, who killed them, etc. Fahdlan teaches Buliwyf to write "There is
one God, and Muhammad is his prophet," but Buliwyf makes not comment on
this monotheistic statement, quite different from his own religion’s tenets.
King Hrothgar’s son, a disgruntled prince, tromps about with a seeming intention
to gum up Buliwyf’s efforts, but after the other Vikings teach him a lesson by
killing one of his lackeys, he disappears from the plot.
In terms of acting, the performances are adequate, though not
outstanding. Banderas doesn’t seem to have as much fun with this role as he has
with other action films – but the sense of seriousness, of a pseudo-historical
epic, that pervades the film may be partly responsible. Kulich, in the only
other role of note as Buliwyf, is decent, but doesn’t seem a strong enough actor
(at least not yet) to anchor a major blockbuster – which causes a problem when
the plot focuses on him rather than Banderas’ Fahdlan.
But is the film entertaining? Yes and no. Whenever Fahdlan is
trying to deal with the strangeness of Viking society, the film has a light tone
that works well with Banderas. But when the Vikings grimly theorize about their
enemies and how to deal with them, the plot drags. Plus, at least two of the
three major battle scenes of the film take place in pitch-black darkness, making
them nothing but a confusing jumble of shadows to the viewer.
Finally, there’s the main question: is Banderas convincing as an
Arab? Not particularly, since he’s barely managed to eliminate the Spanish
accent out of his English. Now he’s trying to speak English with an Arabian
accent. Add the fact that his good looks just aren’t at all Arabian, and you’ve
simply got to suspend your disbelief. It would be forgivable if Sharif wasn’t so
excellent by comparison.
Overall, The 13th Warrior was an intriguing concept gone
rather wrong. While entertaining at points, it’s not something that must be seen
at the theater. If you’re into Vikings or Beowulf, rent it in a few