- Directed by John McTiernan
- August 27, 1999
A scholar is banished by the sultan of his homeland and finds himself involved in a fight to destroy a strange enemy in a distant place.
The 13th Warrior is an Antonio Banderas vehicle that as I recall languished in development hell before finally getting made and released. It’s based on a book by Michael Crichton and directed by John McTiernan. In my humble opinion this is a great piece of action oriented historical fiction.
Despite some of its trappings and the unusual nature of events of the film, The 13th Warrior is not a fantasy film but rather a reality based film. When I first saw this many years ago, I went in believing it was most likely going to be realistic but also with the expectation that they would do a switcheroo and dump in some last minute fantasy stuff. Mercifully I was wrong. I love fantasy films but a well done action story grounded in reality can be just as good.
The 13th Warrior is also definitely a guy movie. I don’t mean that in an 80s testosterone driven action film way but rather these are all strong male characters. They aren’t overly macho but they are strong and good if imperfect men. They live and die by the rules of their assorted cultures and those rules can be pretty rough at times.
Banderas is reluctant ambassador Ahmad ibn Fadlan banished to the Norse country who bonds with these foreigners that have a very different culture than he. And Banderas does a good job of conveying the characters discomfort and unfamiliarity with things. Ahmad ibn Fadlan is by no means a tough guy or capable soldier, but he is a character who eventually rises to the occasion.
Ahmad doesn’t know the language but his father’s old friend Melchisidek (played by the legendary Omar Sharif) acts as translator by using the commonly understood Greek yet all the while Ahmad is paying attention and trying to learn. For the purposes of the viewing audience Ahmad and Melchisidek speak to one another in English (yes the characters are Arabic but this is made for an English-speaking audience) while the Norsemen speak to one another in their native tongue. You get an idea of what they’re saying and how they’re feeling based on the acting but exactly what they’re saying is lost to the viewer.
One of the better moments in this movie is when Ahmad starts to achieve an understanding of the local language. He’s reading their lips and repeating their words and trying to put things together and as time goes on a little bit of the dialogue jumps to English and then back to the other language until finally you hear it all in English and Ahmad responds much to their shock. This scene also serves as one of the first bonding moments for the assorted characters.
Ahmad shortly after arriving finds himself in the midst of a of a quest to take on a mysterious enemy that is plaguing the people. After the initial encounter a völva (wisewoman) is consulted. She determines the mission must be conducted by thirteen warriors and the thirteenth must not be a Norseman so Ahmad is forced to join.
The locals think they are dealing with some kind of mythological beast. This is not because this is a fantasy film but it’s the best possible understanding these people have of an enemy few of them have survived encountering and whom they thought was no longer really a threat. The twist in this whole story is that this supernatural appearing threat that is hinted at being something not human is rather some very savage people called the Wendol who while being human have divorced themselves from the things we would take as human behavior and thus not really being human.
I’m not sure if Ahmad ever actually learns any of their names nor does the audience. Now that I think about it I don’t think they address each other by name on screen other than a misunderstanding involving Ahmad’s name. If names were given they were done so very much in passing. That is unusual as well.
The 13th Warrior is very atmospheric. You get an authentic sense of the world in which these characters inhabit. This looks like a primitive settlement. They are deep in the woods. It’s not a place with a few urns and a wooden roof. The best way to I can put it is that the costuming looks authentic though what the hell do I know? I guess what I’m saying is that this is not the type of fantasy where you might find in her in but something more like what you might find in a draw in an image in a scholarly textbook.
The two sides in this story are polar opposites. Ahmad and the others are civilized and have a culture that while we may not like the rules their rules we can understand and possibly function within. The Wendol are just this side of animals. They act and function as perhaps a bear would which is in part how this group deals with them. They disembowel and savagely attack people and anything that gets in their way.
I know this movie didn’t do too well at the box office and perhaps it’s the feeling that some people had it was a bait and switch. I know a few people who went expecting a fantasy film of some type and were disappointed that it wasn’t. Others that went in expecting a fantasy film work quite pleased that it didn’t come out that way.
The story of The 13th Warrior is told a bit like an epic tale of old as it should since it is in part inspired by the tale of Beowulf. That feeling grows throughout until the ending when Ahmad is writing the tale down for the leader who has fallen in battle.
The 13th Warrior is a strong film from John McTiernan that got passed by when it first came out. It’s a unique story with interesting characters that I highly recommend!