The 13th Warrior (1999)

D: John McTiernan
S: Antonio Banderas, Valdimir Kulich

Brutal adventure film from Michael Crichton's 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead concerning the exploits of Viking warriors pitted against semi-mythic beasts who are ravaging a Norse village. Yes, its the story of Beowulf, the Scandinavian epic known and not necessarily beloved to college students the world over. According to the 1992 introduction to the reprint of Eaters of the Dead, the novel arose out of a dare and a series of compelling self-assigned writing experiments. Crichton sought to strip Beowulf down to its core of human experience and attempt to tell the 'true' story (or speculate upon the 'real' events which might have inspired the epic itself). He also came up with the intriguing conceit that the Wendol, the creatures who plague the villagers and against whom the warriors do battle, were in fact a late remnant of Neanderthal Man: cave-dwelling hominids not too far distant from homo sapiens but usually classified as a different evolutionary strain which had not survived the beginnings of human history. It was a fascinating idea, as was the unique style Crichton adapted in telling the story, mimicing the writing of the actual Arab scholar Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, who wrote about the Vikings late in the first millennium. As a literary conceit, this kind of narrator is not unusual. He stands back from the action and observes, viewing the events through the filter of yet another culture and futilely attempts objectivity when it is obvious that his reactions are tempered by his own cultural conditioning and religious beliefs. All of this makes the novel a curious and thought-provoking little read, even if it is basically a bit of experimental academic whimsy.

John McTiernan (with two films on simultaneous release after The Thomas Crown Affair) and scriptwriters William Wisher and Warren Lewis have attempted to faithfully replicate Crichton's approach, but they have curiously neglected to add the appendix which explains the conceit of the Neanderthal (Crichton also included an amusing fictional academic debate on it). So we have the passive narrator and our 'central' characters are seen at two steps removed. There is plenty of observational material on the behavior of Vikings and the action is viewed not quite as a conventional narrative, but as a series of incidents which will, in time, we are assured, become the epic story itself. But though the makeup and set designs do suggest a troglodyte culture (and one with an evolved sense of stonework and even primitive art), it's not entirely clear that what is involved here is a struggle between two species for a habitat and not merely a war of conquest where a more technologically advanced and 'civilised' (not to mention patriarchal) culture triumphs over a less advanced and less civilised (not to mention matriarchal) one. This has problematic political implications, for while the Wendol are clearly the more aggressive of the two groups of combatants, it does rather come across like a racial war in which the tall blond warriors reign triumphant over the forces of darkness. It could also be interpreted as a bit of masculinist sabre rattling in the post-feminist age, which might not sit so well with certain segments of the audience. To balance things we have Banderas (a Spaniard in an American film portraying an Arab), whose disgust at Viking behavior eventually gives way to respect. His outsider's perspective helps to keep the film from degenerating into right wing propaganda, but it lurks not far beneath the surface and your will depend greatly on how you approach it. His performance is a little bit bewildered, but it is probably because of the sense that he is not quite as in control of his destiny as a conventional Hollywood hero that he doesn't emerge quite as developed as he could have been.

As a narrative the film is surprisingly weak. Given its basis in an heroic epic, it is odd that the story is muted and distant. What we would presume is the primary narrative (the quest itself) is really little more than a series of confrontations which reveal the Viking heart to Ibn Fahdlan. There are hints of missing sub-plots (the Norse prince who seeks to usurp his father's throne) and perhaps a suggestion that in the final edit, McTiernan sought to follow the age old dictum of 'show don't tell' and cut some dialogue scenes, because almost everything interesting is portrayed through physical action. In this sense it is a very cinematic film by the standards of contemporary American cinema. The characters are taciturn to the point of stoicism, yet each reveals themselves in combat and in their response to the challenge of the Wendol. Even Buliwyf, leader of the expedition, is a quiet and almost absent presence (played with dignity but no visible depth by Valdimir Kulich). He will later become a hero of epic stature, we presume, but here he is just a Viking warrior attempting to solve an immediate problem. In one sense, this is a nice touch, and it is certainly something to think about. It questions the basis of our mythologies of heroism and there's a touch of the revisionist which is pleasing if twenty years out of date. There's also an occasional Seven Samurai-ish feel about it, especially in its depiction of the villagers preparing fortifications under the direction of the warriors and in its particular insistence upon the "13 warriors" sequence in which Banderas finds himself drafted into service while on ambassadorial duties. Yet we don't quite 'get to know' our twelve Norsemen quite as well as we often do in such films, that is unless we're paying very close attention to how they stand and how they fight. There's also a whisper of a sub-plot involving an illicit relationship with a married woman which has Ibn Fahdlan exiled from Bhagdad and which might play itself out again, but his momentary liaison with a Norse lady seems to be treated with manly glee by the Vikings and the relationship itself does not pan out. It, like many other things, passes with a quiet gesture and a stony face which implies much, but explains little.

The 13th Warrior is not an uninteresting film, but it is not recommended for casual viewers or those in search of a spot of rollicking camp adventure with lots of bawdy beer bashing and skull cleaving. It's actually very much like the novel, a curious and maddeningly intriguiging set of ideas which somehow still seem more a doodle than a complete work of art. McTiernan is to be commended for his staging of the battle scenes, which capture an up close and personal brutality and sense of confusion which is most suitable in evoking a sense of a world in which the story is not a story, but 'real' events. Traditional adventure fans will not like the fact that most of them are in semi-darkness and Jerry Goldsmith's score is sombre and atmospheric rather than rousing and upbeat, making it more like Saving Private Ryan than the semiparodic excess of TV's Hercules or Xena: Warrior Princess.It is also interesting that he has dared to go with the peculiarly literary device of the passive narrator and not tried to beef up Banderas' role to meet mainstream expectations. Yet there is something disappointing in the lack of old fashioned storytelling, a sense that maybe a more conventional movie would have been more fun. But then there's no harm in being a bit different, not from the point of view of the evolution of cinema. It is unlikely that the gambit will pay dividends at the box office, and the experiment pay prove a commercial failure, but there are things to admire here and it is interesting if you have the frames of reference with which to debate it. It certainly won't work as a popcorn-muncher and it's not exactly an art house film either, so God knows just who is going to warm to it. My advice is to read the novel as well and treat the entire thing as a subject for discussion when you're in the mood and have some friends who share it. It is worth seeing, but just don't expect epic entertainment, because it's really about taking epics apart and seeing what makes them tick, which is never as much fun as just being one.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.