I hadn’t planned on reviewing The 13th Warrior. I saw it as part of a crapfest my bad-movie buddy and I set out on over Labor Day weekend — we were just looking to have a good time with some Mystery Science Theater-ready pieces of cinematic junk food. The Astronaut’s Wife obliged nicely — I could have a ball trashing that one, and probably will when it comes to video. I fully expected The 13th Warrior to have satisfied that MST urge, too — it has been nearly universally panned by critics.
But damned if The 13th Warrior isn’t the best, most enthralling adventure movie I’ve seen in a good while. This one is sure to acquire a cult following on video, and that’s why I’m here now: to tell you that if you like this kind of film, go see it now while it’s still on the big screen. You’ll be sorry later if you don’t.
“This kind of film” needs to be defined, though.
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas: The Mask of Zorro) is an exiled Islamic poet travelling through central Europe when he encounters a band of marauding Vikings. When the Northmen, as Ibn Fahdlan calls them, are summoned by a Viking chieftain to come to the aid of his clan, a seer declaims that twelve warriors plus one outsider must answer the call. Ibn Fahdlan, natch, is chosen as that thirteenth warrior, and he journeys with the small band of Northmen to a Viking village under near-siege by mysterious and fearsome bearlike creatures who attack without warning, seem to eat their victims, and remove their own dead when they retreat. Most able-bodied men from the village are already dead, killed fighting the creatures, and now the thirteen warriors must find a way to save the village.
It doesn’t really sound all that exciting, does it? Reads like a fairly standard sword-and-sorcery quest flick that you’d expect to star Dolph Lundgren and go straight to video, right? But no verbal description can do this movie justice.
The 13th Warrior, brilliantly directed by John McTiernan (The Hunt for Red October), is the action/adventure movie boiled down to its purest form. This is storytelling at its most visual — this is what film should be doing. Everything not absolutely essential to telling the tale has been pared away. Some would say — have said — that too much has been pared away, that essential plot elements and backstory have been thrown away to the movie’s detriment. The 13th Warrior is based on Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, a book I have not read — and I suspect that’s part of why I don’t feel as if things that should be here are missing. I only saw what was on screen, and not what wasn’t.
Much does go unexplained in The 13th Warrior, but that’s part of why I was so fascinated by it. We are never told the year in which the events take place, for example, which I felt lent the film a mythic, timeless quality. For most of the film, we’re never quite sure if the warriors are facing an enemy that is actually supernatural — the creatures are “a hate from old times,” or more simply, “demons.” And when they are more fully revealed, it requires a bit of thought to appreciate them — in fact, it would have been unrealistic for the characters to have the kind of perspective that would allow them to explain for the audience who the enemy is.
The 13th Warrior will likely not appeal to the typical action movie lover because it does require more thought than the typical action movie. And for all its blood and violence — this is a gruesome and intense film — much that is creepy and thrilling can be found in its quieter sections, if the viewer isn’t just waiting for the next battle. A sun-dappled forest, its pine branches dripping icicles, becomes beautifully mystical and mysterious — and threatening — as the warriors examine the scene of a recent attack. The Viking villagers dread the “fireworm” — “a dragon?” Ibn Fahdlan wonders — and when we finally see this beast snake silently down from the mountain near the village, we share the villagers’ awe and horror. (The fireworm scene must be seen on a big screen.)
For a story that’s told with minimal dialogue, there’s a surprising depth to the characters and their interactions. The 13th Warrior is a story of culture clash: the refined, sophisticated, cosmopolitan Arab thrown in with a band of crude, coarse barbarians, or so Ibn Fahdlan sees them. (Banderas is especially effective early on, when he conveys his disdain and disgust with the Vikings’ behavior with a quick wave of his hand or a shake of his head.) And yet it’s the one area that’s usually most divisive between cultures — religion — that finally signals Ibn Fahdlan’s acceptance of his Viking comrades, when he joins in on a prayer with the Viking warriors just before a battle that will speed the dead to Valhalla. And I especially loved the almost wordless relationship Ibn Fahdlan develops with one of the Viking women — he and she clasp hands here, exchange a glance there to create a more genuine connection that you’ll see in most supposedly “romantic” movies.
What else is there to love? How about the first serious depiction of Vikings in a Hollywood film? (With a name like Johanson and a lot of ethnic pride, I’m delighted by this.) How about the first Hollywood depiction of a Moslem hero? How about the brutally gorgeous battle sequences lit only by torchlight?
I can’t think of a single film that truly compares with The 13th Warrior. In an arena of cookie-cutter movies and TV-show remakes, this is an original. I don’t think there’s a higher compliment one can give a movie these days than that.