The 13th Warrior (1999)

The Thirteenth WarriorStarring Antonio Banderas, Dennis Storhøi, Vladimir Kulich, Diane Venora, Maria Bonnevie, Omar Sharif.
Written by Michael Crichton based on his novel Eaters of the Dead..
Directed by John McTiernan and Michael Crichton.

Grade: C+

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

Let me confess up front that I've got a soft spot for epic fantasy. I consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings two of the most important works of literature of the 20th century, and today scores of writers stock bookstore shelves with their tales of the mystical and magical. However, these stories have not often translated well to the silver screen. Fantasy films have for the most part been atrocious (Clash of the Titans, anyone? Kull the Conqueror? Red Sonja? How about The Beastmaster?) or made with children in mind (e.g., Willow, The Princess Bride). While few, if any, of the swords & sorcery films made for adults are outstanding, every once in awhile one comes along that doesn't suck. Ladyhawke was such a movie. Excalibur. Some enjoyed Conan the Barbarian. To these, we can now add The 13th Warrior, a pseudo-historical adventure tale that falls squarely within the fantasy genre even though there is technically nothing supernatural about it.

Antonio Banderas plays Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, an Arabian nobleman exiled from Baghdad at the height of the Muslim Empire early this millenium. The exile takes the form of an ambassadorship to the Nordic people (the Vikings), who at the time maintained a prosperous trade route through Russia to the Middle East–a key fact not explained in the movie. Banderas, whose performance is strangely reminiscent of Omar Sharif–or perhaps not so strangely, considering that Omar Sharif is sitting right beside him for the first twenty minutes of the movie–makes contact with a Scandinavian tribe and soon finds himself drafted into an expedition to the far north to fight a mysterious evil that has been terrorizing a primitive town.Antonio Banderas

One of my favorite scenes in the film depicts how Banderas learns the Nordic language. As he listens to conversations around the campfire night after night, concentrating on his companions' conversations, English words begin to become discernible in their guttural speech. Slowly the actors sprinkle in more and more English, as Banderas's understanding of their language grows. He still learns their language in an implausibly short period of time–I would have preferred it if the device had been sustained for longer–but the scene is nicely done nonetheless.

Still, when the best scene in an adventure movie is that of a guy learning a strange language, it's a problem. Director John McTiernan, who didn't sustain much excitement in The Thomas Crown Affair, or Medicine Man, or the Die Hard sequels, fails again here. He hasn't really succeeded in pulling us to the edge of our seats since the first Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. To be fair, the lack of nail-biting excitement may not be entirely McTiernan's fault, as "creative differences" with the screenwriter, Michael Critchton, drove McTiernan to quit before the film was finished, with Critchton taking over as director. (Critchton also directed Coma, The Great Train Robbery and a handful of other films.) Details about their disagreement are sketchy, but perhaps someone will one day write a tell-all book. They could call it When Hacks Collide!

I guess I've just revealed another bias: I don't care much for Michael Crichton. To me, he embodies the worst traits of a popular fiction author: He comes up with an admittedly clever concept, does some rapid research during which he learns just enough about a particular subject to make a fool of himself, and cranks out a novel with two-dimensional characters and a sloppy ending (the best example of this is probably Sphere). Six months later, he moves on to another project.Vladimir Kulich

In the case of The 13th Warrior, based on Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, Crichton evidently noted the odd fact that the Arabs and Norsemen traded with one another and found the contrast interesting. Supposedly the rest of the tale is based on Viking folklore, but I don't buy Crichton's interpretation of the legends. His villains, who are reminiscent of a Celtic tribe with their painted faces and mother goddess, are at least a thousand years out of place. His stereotypical demonization of the mother goddess is particularly ignorant, but perhaps one can excuse Crichton on the grounds that he is just creating an unusually savage tribe specific unto itself, rather than  making a statement about pre-Christian religion in general. In any case, a group of wandering Mongols who took a wrong turn somewhere in Russia would have made a far less anachronistic enemy.

The actors keep the film from becoming too stupid. The acting is much better than average for this sort of film. (Of course, that's not saying much.) Dennis Storhøi enthusiasticly portrays Ahmed's closest friend among the Norsemen, and Vladimir Kulich gives a quiet dignity to his performance as the leader of the Thirteen. As for Banderas himself--well, he was born to swashbuckle, so he does just fine. There are a handful of scenes that reminded me of a Monty Python sketch--the encounter with the old soothsayer in particular--but on the whole, The 13th Warrior doesn't strike out. Call it a bunt single.

Review © September 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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