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There is something about the feel of authenticity that give many ‘historical’ movies a pass, the attention to detail that allow viewers to become so entrenched in the story that we might overlook some missteps in the truth in order to better enjoy the vision of the filmmakers. Many films have stretched or outright bent the past in the name of entertainment, and while few audiences truly care, the movies that do it right are often the ones that make for better experiences.
While The 13th Warrior, a film based on a book called ‘Eaters of the Dead,’ by Michael Crichton, doesn’t exactly get it all right, it does do much very well by avoiding most of the tropes and misconceptions of Viking life, incorporating many details from the very real accounts of a man named Ibn Fadlan (Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān ibn al-ʿAbbās ibn Rāšid ibn Ḥammād), a 10th-century Arab traveler who wrote of his time as an ambassador among the Volga Vikings. It is this treasured historical document that provides the backdrop and inspiration for the story, giving the north people in the tale some much-need accuracy in how they ought to be portrayed.
THE STORY: Directed by John McTiernan, the story is loosely based on the Beowulf tale, mixing in the addition of Ibn Fadlan and follows him as he, after being banished for catching the eye of a richer man’s wife, is sent to travel with the Norsemen, becoming enlisted in band of warriors requested to come to the aid of kingdom under attack by an ancient evil called the “Wendol” that has the isolated village in a state of constant terror as the beings look like beasts and feast on the fallen.
Antonio Banderas plays Ibn, the ’13th warrior’ called into action, a man with no real combat experience, who doesn’t even know the language (yet) but is drawn into the fight for survival when they reach the desperate village. What they find there is an enemy of immense numbers and power that seem almost supernatural with a bear-like appearance and a savagery untold before. Of course, what is legend and what is real are blurred as the fighting gets close, and Ibn learns that to defeat what is thought to be un-killable will take more than waiting for them to attack.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: While there is a lot about the story that is compelling, especially in the moments between the fighting where McTiernan does best building almost unbearable tension and atmosphere, keep an eye on the setting and costumes, all of which add great depth to the film. There is a messy, earthy feel about it that lends a great deal of authenticity to the story.
Furthermore, watch Banderas, who does great work as Ibn, equal parts good humor and urgency, acting as the conduit for the viewer to stay close to the story, his ears and eyes the way through the often heavy narrative. He is less the hero of the film than an everyman and despite the movie’s box office failure and near obscurity, is some of his best work on screen. In many ways, he’s like Bilbo Baggins traveling with the dwarves to plunder Smaug in Tolkien’s genre-defining story of the Hobbit.
Also very good are Vladimir Kulich and Dennis Storhøi as leaders of the Viking warriors, though the entire cast convinces, even if the film has its flaws in some pacing and editing. What does work very well is the outstanding script (by William Wisher Jr.) with some delicious dialogue throughout, delivered with great theatrical flare.
A GREAT MOMENT: The movie is essentially a siege film with the tiny rain-soaked hamlet trying to defend itself against great waves of evil. McTiernan stages some terrific moments of action–especially after a rocky start–in the last half and while most of it is wrung dry for emotional impact, it’s nonetheless effective.
Perhaps best though is the continuing relationship between Ibn and Herger (Storhøi), men of differing cultures brought together under the darkest of times. As the Vikings don’t quite accept the Arab at first, Herger sees potential and is the most willing to let their fellow warrior join their ranks.
He is also Ibn’s teacher of sorts (even calling him “little brother”), revealing to him much about the ways of the north-people, especially once they reach the distant village and must establish their value when rumors spread that they have come not to fight the Wendol but to overthrow the king and take the throne.
This leads Herger to volunteer himself to set an example, by way of personal combat, taunting one of the largest men in the town until drawn into a duel where they face each other with swords and shields. As the fight begins, it seems Herger is destined to be killed, and indeed, this is exactly what Ibn believes will happen, but there is a scheme at play, and to spoil it would ruin the best part, but it’s a lengthy yet satisfying moment that earns praise.
THE TALLY: The 13th Warrior came out in the middle of a period of epic battlefield movies, and while it doesn’t quite compare with a few of those films, it stands up to most, and as the years pass, impresses more with second and third viewings. It’s a technical marvel in many respects and McTiernan’s direction is subtle yet emotive, bringing his cameras in close while still giving the lands and story a terrific sense of space. While Viking traditions have continued to keep audiences interested in television and movies since, their popularity reaching a new high these days as myths and falsehoods about them are shed, now is a good time to revisit this lost classic. It’s what to watch.