The 13th Warrior (1999)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review.

“A man might be thought wealthy if someone were to draw the story of his deeds, that he may be remembered.”

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan is made the ambassador from the Caliph of Bagdhad to the court of the King of the Bulgars. In 922 A.D. this is something on the order of an exile. Actually, his name is Ahmed ibn Fadlan ibn al-Abbas ibn Rasid ibn Hammad, but the clan of Scandinavian Rus who intercept him decide to call him simply “ibn” (which means “son of”) until he is accepted more affectionately as little brother. His experiences are recorded, with what some skeptics consider a bit of ‘flourish’, in a classic travelogue called The Risala. Michael Crichton, whose novel Eaters of the Dead is the basis for this film’s screenplay, refers in his appendix to the theory of a neanderthal survival into the middle ages, invents an encounter for the ambassador with the Swedish “hairy wild men” or “wendol”, and offers us a deconstructed version of Beowulf (with the wendol as the real monsters poetically represented by Grendel) intersecting this apocryphal account. The result, under John McTiernan’s brilliant direction, is an amazing cross-cultural viking epic called The 13th Warrior.

This is not merely an action film or adventure. From the opening scene of men in a longship tossed on the wild expanse of the giant sea, it is clear that we are witnessing the genuine epic format. The director makes that intention clear, beginning in this way with a scene from the middle. It grows familiar when the 13th of thirteen warriors must be a foreigner, and must go (with the others) to deliver King Hrothgar’s hall from an ancient evil, feared even in name.

In the film, Ibn (Antonio Banderas) and his escort are fleeing marauding Tartars, and so come upon an encampment of the Northmen (Norsemen). A funeral is underway, with the images and some of the dialogue right out of the Risala — the chronicle he begins to keep when it becomes clear he will not soon leave their company. As the king is set ablaze on a longship with his worldly goods for the journey to Valhalla, he is joined voluntarily by his wife. Ibn’s secretary, Melchisidek (no less than Omar Sharif), sets the historical tone, as though we are keeping the chronicle along with Ibn… “She will travel with him,” says Melchisidek, “You will not see this again.” It is the old way.

In fact, I was extremely pleased to see the film attend so much to historical accuracy. The germanic tradition is to divide an estate among the surviving male heirs. This leads to a struggle for succession upon the death of a chieftain or king, or else a division of properties, weakening the tribe until a strong leader conquers it all and begins the process of alternating centralization and decentralization all over again. The film captures this expectation simply, as one of the heirs suddenly and wordlessly attacks and is killed by the other at their father’s funeral. No one even blinks. No drinks are spilled. No one mourns. It was understood that this would happen. That’s the best way one could wish to have culture explained in a film.

What do you think the potentate of this encampment calls himself? the ambassador asks. Oh, ‘Emperor’… at the least. quips his companion.

One of the loveliest aspects of what Ibn calls “barbarians” is that they aren’t. It’s obvious from the moment one catches a glimpse of King Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich), magnificent to behold, and the others who stand valiantly to volunteer in one of the finest scenes of the movie. Even though most of the actors are unknowns, there isn’t a flat or dull performance by one of them. Dennis Storhoi as Herger, for example, is a superb comic foil. Kulich is no mindless Conan, either. His performance carries off both the warrior-king archetype and a civilized mirth. Actually, he’d make a good Conan. These superb actors are also given a muscular script, and the result is a sense of nobility, complexity, and genuine humanity.

Still, Ibn is in for a shock or two. When the community washbowl and snot repository is passed to him, or when boiled-down cow urine is used to keep infection from a cut… it is clear that he isn’t in Bagdhad anymore. And Ibn’s interactions with the Norsemen provide the film as much levity as there is action. He performs the amazing feat of learning the Norsemen’s language over the course of their journey, startling them when he catches them mocking his mother. “Where did you learn our language?” one demands. “I listened,” says Ibn, “You son of a…” His sleek Arabian steed, dwarfed by their huge native horses, earns the jest, “Only an Arab would bring his dog to war.”

The mocking soon becomes friendly teasing as Ibn, having learned to speak their language, is asked by Buliwyf to teach him to “draw words” in his own. As to language, hearing Herger speak Latin was fantastic. Later, when Ibn says he can’t lift the huge sword he’s been given, Herger just grins, “grow stronger!” Banderas, too, has his comic moments, but they are mostly in his actions rather than words… Showing them what his lovely dog (horse) can actually do, or how well he can handle a sword small enough that a Norsemen wants it for his daughter.

Perhaps the benchmarks of emotional sophistication in a film of this type are how it handles evil and how it handles sex. There is the obligatory going native scene. What would Captain Kirk have been without “love ’em and leave ’em” sex with an alien? Contemporary vampire hunters now enjoy discreet neck-nipping romps with the opposition. The thrill of the foreign is just too much to resist. But thankfully, Banderas doesn’t get intimate with a cave-dwelling cannibal. Instead, he shares comfort with a Norsewoman before their probable doom. In the morning he is teased, “Did she finish you, or bring you back to life?” The surprise is that it isn’t the usual emotionally shallow encounter, even if it is brief. As Ibn rides past his lover to join the search for the enemy, she touches his leg in the stirrup just briefly, without looking back. It is as if to the pain of parting she adds the salute “Go and be honorable.”

The evil in the film is clear enough. Someone who cuts off your head and eats your flesh is… well… evil. But the film looks deeper, into the particular kind of evil that uses fear as a weapon, that draws upon nightmarish archetypes and totems of violence for its fear. The struggle of Ibn is to realize and keep sight of the the real nature of his enemy. The struggle of the Norsemen is to learn the enemy’s nature, and strike at with wisdom rather than blind defense. It is the intersection of these two struggles against ‘the monster’ that offers the possibility of defeating it. That is a complexity that is so often lacking in battle-oriented films.

Interesting, also, is the treatment of fate. When Ibn asks Herger if he’s going to risk sleeping as they wait for the enemy, he says either way it will not change the moment of his death; It’s already fixed. On the one hand that’s the mentality of people who don’t wear seatbelts and say, If I die, I die. but still lock their doors as they leave. On the other, when outnumbered and without help, Herger can bravely smile, “it’s a small matter” — reminding me of the Klingon warrior’s maxim, “today is a good day to die.” Fate, here, is what lets the warrior be a warrior. So the significant undercurrent of Norse mythology in the film neither plays at shocking us, nor burdens us with mere cultural trivia. And both the recurring Norse prayer and the Muslim ones are superb examples of the liturgical attitude and soteriology of each. Still, a little more-detailed treatment of the religions and their distinctions wouldn’t have been boring. There’s a touch of syncretism contrived for modern ecumenical audiences as Ibn joins in the Valhalla prayer, but the viewer can choose whether to wave away incredulity by treating this as a poetic indulgence. Ibn’s concluding prayer is more authentic, and truer to the humility of the character.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is all right. It’s not something I’d own as a soundtrack, but the main theme for the film was certainly heroic and wonderful. The armor, swordsmithing, and costumery were all very fine, with Buliwyf getting the finest of everything. Barbarians? These could bring furs and metallic garments back in fashion! The propwork in general was exquisite, precisely because it was unnoticeable as such. The fertility totem of the enemy will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has examined stone-age artifacts. Even the CGI was kind of fun.

One quality of a superb film adaption is that it makes one want to read the book. That’s happened to me twice recently: Hearts in Atlantis made me want to read one bestselling author I’d ignored — Stephen King. The 13th Warrior interests me for the first time in Michael Crichton. And of course, taking on an adaption of Beowulf is a weighty matter. This film is truer to the spirit of the epic and far more exciting than the Beowulf from the same year which starred Christopher Lambert. It would be interesting to see a good undesconstructed uncontemporized unrevisionist Beowulf. But even that wouldn’t keep me from again viewing and recommending this excellent motion picture.

A site devoted to the film is here. There is a historical essay with excellent links for background information. The Virtual Institute of Cryptozoology has an article on the hairy wild men theory behind the film.

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