Home > Action, Adventure, Fantasy > The 13th Warrior (1999)

The 13th Warrior (1999)

It is said that Beowulf is the oldest known piece of written literature. It is also said (frequently by English majors) to be mind-numbingly boring. Michael Crichton disagreed, and set out to breathe new life into the Anglo-Saxon epic poem with his novel The Eaters of the Dead. As Crichton’s popularity increased in the wake of Jurassic Park, Eaters started to get kicked around the movie studios for a while as moviemakers tried to adapt it for the big screen, until finally the script was re-edited (several times) and the title changed to The 13th Warrior. The result is… uh, this.

The 13th Warrior is a fantasy action film directed by John McTiernan and based on The Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, itself loosely based on Beowulf. It stars Antonio Banderas, Vladimir Kulich, Dennis Storhoi, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, and Omar Sharif.

In a long, proud tradition of one ambiguously brown ethnicity playing another, Antonio Banderas plays Achmed ibn Fadlan, a former court poet to the Caliph of Baghdad until an illicit dalliance with the wife of an influential noble leaves Achmed exiled reassigned as an ambassador to the Northern barbarians. As he travels with Melchisidek, he is saved from one group of barbarians (the Tartars) by the arrival of another group of barbarians (the Norsemen), who offer them refuge at their settlement on the Volga River. While they are there, the Norsemen’s new king Buliwyf is approached by a youth who requests his clan’s help: a Norse kingdom far to the north is being beseiged by an evil so terrifying that even the bravest warriors dare no speak its name. A local oracle proclaims that this mission will be successful if undertaken by thirteen warriors, the thirteenth of which must not be a Norseman. Achmed finds himself recruited for the role, fighting to gain respect and balance amongst the Norsemen and their cruder ways, while trying to unlock the secret to defeating the scourge of beastmen laying waste to the kingdom.

Antonio Banderas is a good actor. Since breaking into English-language films, he has played a mariachi gunslinger, a vampire, a swashbuckling hero, a superspy dad, an assassin, and an ogre-slaying cat. He fares relatively well here as a Muslim Arab in the land of the Vikings, and is easily the best-known name in the cast. The rest of the cast fare well as the boisterous Vikings facing off against an unknown, possibly supernatural danger, and the little historical and cultural details were nice, such as the relative scale of Achmed’s horse compared to the horses used by the Norse (leading the Norse to dub the Arabian horse a “dog”) and the use of distilled cow’s urine to treat wounds in a land where clean water is hard to come by. When Achmed prays to Allah just before the final battle, he even kicks off his boots and kneels (presumably facing the Holy Land), touching his forehead to the ground as a Muslim might pray).

However, while the acting and history are well-crafted, overall the story falls slightly flat. The concept was intriguing, with a group of Viking warriors and their “fish-out-of-water” Arab companion facing down against savage beastmen that eat human flesh, but in actual execution, this was mostly just another mindless action-adventure flick – good once, but not a lot of rewatchability.

If you’re a Michael Crichton completist or enjoy Viking adventures, The 13th Warrior might be good for a rent if you happen to see it on the shelf. Ultimately, though, it falls short of the Beowulf revamp it was meant to be. Read the book instead.

  1. Mars
    01/25/2012 at 6:55 am

    “A local oracle proclaims that this mission will be successful if undertaken by thirteen warriors, the thirteenth of which must not be a Norseman.” – gotta love those oracles! if it fails, just claim that “you stupid bastards, the thirteenth WAS a norseman! you put the strange guy in tenth!”

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