THE 13TH WARRIOR sounds like a pretty badass thing to be, but let’s be clear: Ahmed ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) is number thirteen out of thirteen. In other words, the last guy to be picked.
Well, I guess it’s not exactly a nerd-in-gym-class scenario, they do want him. He’s drafted against his wishes. But not like he’s some John McClane type reluctant hero. He doesn’t want to go because he’s unqualified. He’s not a warrior, he’s an Arab poet who got too flirty with some caliph’s girl or something so they made him an ambassador and sent him packing, the poet equivalent of the alternate ending of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. where he gets transferred to Alaska. Ahmad ends up hanging out with these “Northmen,” or vikings. Their king has just died and gone to Valhalla to kick it V.I.P. (vikings in paradise) style, but Ahmed is taken in by the heir apparent Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich), shown some of their ways and pushed into service with this dirty baker’s dozen on a mission to protect a village that’s been attacked by monsters that come from the fog, ravage villages and tear off people’s heads. And they take the heads with them when they leave. Choppers keepers.
Well, like the monsters in The Rock’s version of HERCULES that’s just the superstitious interpretation of the events. When we see them they’re hidden in shadow but it’s immediately obvious that they’re not beast men, they’re just dudes wearing bear skins. And we can guess that they probly don’t really ride in on a giant glow worm or fire dragon like the rumors have it.
But they’re definitely a threat. Savage bastards. There are a high number of prop body parts, especially for a studio movie. To give you an idea, DUDLEY DO-RIGHT starring Brendan Fraser came out on the same day and could not have much more than half or 2/3 as many.
The way it deals with the language barrier is interesting to me. “Little Brother,” as the Northmen call Ahmed, speaks English, which I think we should assume represents him speaking some form of Arabic. When nobody understands what he’s saying he gets Omar Sharif (yeah, he’s in this briefly as his translator) to speak to them in Greek. It starts to get tedious that every single thing has to be said in Greek and then translated for Ahmed. But once he’s sent on the mission with them they just speak their native language and we don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s a montage of the warriors telling stories and laughing at the campfire and Little Brother watching their mouths closely until suddenly they’re speaking English. You know, as a metaphor for him starting to understand their language and then speak to them in it.
It’s clever, but it’s kinda funny because they’re going so out of their way to acknowledge that everybody speaks different languages, as if realism is important to them. But the idea that he can learn a language just by listening to some guys shoot the shit one night is so ridiculous that it takes you out of the movie more than if they just had everybody speak English from the beginning and assumed you would be okay with it. Or if they had them speaking their real languages and just subtitled it. But this was before PASSION OF THE CHRIST made that semi-acceptable again.
Yeah, I know it’s weird that Banderas, a Spaniard, is playing an Arab. But at least it is a positive portrayal of Arab culture, showing them as the advanced civilization fascinated by these backwards others. In fact, this type of story would usually have an uptight British guy learning about the other culture. Oh shit, in fact this is like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, except it’s AHMED OF VOLGA.
There’s actually less of him sharing his culture with them than you would expect, but he doesn’t go LAST SAMURAI and try to become one of them. He holds onto his ways and they make fun of him for it but soon learn that he knows things they don’t. For example they make fun of his Arabian horse for being smaller than what they’re used to. They call it a dog. But then they see that the horse can jump over fences and shit. Their big ass horses couldn’t jump over a croquet wicket. Viking horses are bullshit.
They give him a sword and he complains about it, says it’s too heavy for him to lift. And it’s true, when he tries to swing it he falls over. Seems like a total sissy. But then we find out it’s not his non-warrior background – it’s a culture difference. He gets the idea to borrow the blacksmith’s equipment and refashion the sword into a scimitar. And they make fun of that too (“If you die can I give that to me daughter?”) but they can tell he knows how to handle it. I think it’s a respectful ribbing.
It’s got this weird thing that it’s kinda the story of Beowulf, but not exactly. You notice there’s a guy whose name is similar to Beowulf, and the bad guys “the Wendol” are kinda like multiple Grendels, and there’s a reference to the dragon and stuff. At the end it’s mentioned that Buliwyf could be a legend if someone would put his story in writing, and Ahmed starts working on composing a poem about him, so you can assume this movie is supposed to be the story of the author of Beowulf – that would be Roger Avary I believe – and how it was actually Inspired By Actual Events. But they never actually come out and say that he writes the poem or that it spreads the legend or anything. But I kinda like that. I think this premise is a little ahead of its time, ’cause now a decade and a half later we have “the real story” of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Hercules and etc.
I like the gore and the overall “Okay fine, I’ll go on an adventure with you” feel. Ahmed does alot of figuring out stuff for the team, and they do alot of the barbarian shit: building spiked walls, killing the biggest guy from the village before anybody gets ideas about fucking with them, etc. But like alot of these big sword battle movies there’s more chaos than choreography in the action. And the story feels slightly out of whack – in the end I wasn’t sure what was added by having it be Ahmed’s point-of-view instead of just a story about some badass vikings and one of them happens to be this Arab poet little brother guy. He might’ve been more impressive as a supporting character than as a clumsy protagonist who watches the other guys do most of the heroism but then appears alone on the poster.
So it kinda made sense when I read the history of the thing. I knew it had first been advertised as EATERS OF THE DEAD, same as the Michael Crichton source novel. I did not know that Crichton, in his capacity as producer, had pulled a PAYBACK on it. The studio got cold feet after poor test screenings, decided it need to be re-edited. According to this article from Yahoo Movies UK, McTiernan quit after hearing the studio demands. Crichton (who had actually directed the same number of movies as McT at that point) took over as director to do reshoots, re-edited the entire thing and even ditched the score by Graeme Revell and replaced it with a Jerry Goldsmith.
In the movie they have to kill “the Mother of the Wendol” to defeat these eaters of the dead. In McT’s version apparently it was a real old lady, which is both weirder and more logical than the younger lady that Crichton replaced her with because he was worried that people didn’t like seeing something unusual like an old lady getting killed by the good guys.
Later the Yahoo article seems to contradict the idea of Crichton taking over only after McT quit. It seems crazy, but Vladimir Kulich, the guy that played Buliwyf, says he was shooting for both of their versions at the same time:
“I was doing one ending with McTiernan and another ending with Crichton. We shot it on the same lot at Warner Bros. I would go from one studio set to the other studio set, and one guy would say, ‘Don’t tell the other guy what you’re doing here.’ It was a little bit tragic, because Crichton said to me: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do over there. Because I have final cut.’ Here I am getting my big break, and these guys are acting like children.”
Things that I’ve read were lost from EATERS OF THE DEAD include more than just a narrated montage of Ahmed in his natural setting, a longer journey to the caves and a delineation of the fighting specialties of each of the warriors. This sounds like the sorts of things that would make the story flow better. That said, it doesn’t feel like a total mess, it’s surprisingly together for a movie with such a traumatic birth. And it’s possible that the other version really wasn’t working and needed to be salvaged.
On the other hand, imagine if Stephen King had been able to pull that “I have final cut” shit on THE SHINING. Sometimes the author is the worst person to ask about the adaptation. Though I reserve the right to be politely opinionated when my books get turned into movies.
THE 13TH WARRIOR might not always be right in the groove, but there definitely are times when it is. One scene I loved is the one where they’ve been investigating the bloody scene of an attack, and they’re outside discussing their next step. Ahmed sees something and says, “Gentlemen. Gentlemen!” Getting their attention. They all go into emergency mode as they look where he’s looking. It’s way off in the distance, tiny, we can’t even make out what he sees at first, but it’s a small child, crying, covered in blood, running away from some horrible incident further up the road. Creepy, and so cinematic. Good job, McT. Not enough movies look off into the distance, they stay right in people’s faces.
Another good use of a non-closeup is when he’s having trouble chopping wood and starts asking where there’s a metal worker. When one is pointed out he runs over to him, but the camera stays where it is, watching him, not able to hear him from over here. It’s like the camera is curious. What the fuck is he doing over there?
This is not the full-blooded viking masterpiece we’d hope for from McT, it’s not the helmet and ax equivalent of a DIE HARD or a PREDATOR. But it’s pretty good, certainly didn’t deserve to be ignored like it was. They had so little faith they didn’t even give it a premiere, and of course it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s apparently the biggest flop ever if you adjust for inflation.
Luckily McTiernan had already moved on to THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, which actually came out earlier in the same August that 13TH WARRIOR did. But I can’t help but figure the failure of the warrior movie hurt his career. The only things he’s done since then were ROLLERBALL and BASIC.
Banderas isn’t truly what I consider an action star, but this on top of his two MARIACHIs and two ZORROs and one ASSASSINS… plus he’s in HAYWIRE, though in a non-action capacity. Anyway, I can see why they made him an Expendable. Not a bad resume there.