Was I Wrong?: The 13th Warrior
The heyday of once-heralded action director John McTiernan has faded into the misty night, like the last embers of an erstwhile firewyrm set to wreak magnificent hell upon the mortal world. Immortal McTiernan classics such as Predator and Die Hard gave way to arguably great fare (The Hunt for Red October), middling action-romance stuff (The Thomas Crown Affair) and absolute puke (Rollerball).
Towards the tail end of the 90’s, McTiernan graced the film-going public with the long-gestating, would-be Viking epic The 13th Warrior, starring an effete Antonio Banderas as the eponymous Warrior, alongside 12 hulking “Northmen”. Based on Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, the film version (filmed years before release, in the wake of other successful/not-so successful Crichton works like Jurassic Park and Sphere) makes some noble attempts to adapt a supposedly true account of an Arab scholar and his travels to the cold and harsh northern lands of Europe to face off against the forces of darkness.
When the movie was released in theaters, it was dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences. As a fan of the film, I have to ask Was I wrong about The 13th Warrior?
The 13th Warrior was filmed in 1997, deemed unwatchable, put through the editing/re-directing machine by Crichton himself, and unceremoniously released in 1999. Banderas plays an Arab who has an affair with a woman and thusly proceeds to get banished from the warm environs of the Middle East. By the fates and whimsies of gods and prophesy, he joins forces with a band of unwashed, brutish Vikings to do battle with an unspeakable force that’s been terrorizing villages and kingdoms alike.
(It should be noted that the whole thing is Crichton’s thinly-veiled attempt at writing Beowulf fan-fic, going so far as to call his primary hero Buliwyf. The villains are the Wendol (instead of Grendel). Clever readers/watchers should know straight away that any pedantic pretense of “true accounts” can be instantly discredited. The book is hilarious in its attempts to seem truly epistolary with footnotes for every other paragraph adding mock details to the proceedings.)
As a freshman in college I rented this, not long after having suffered through the abysmal bore of Play it to the Bone, Banderas and Woody Harrelson’s glacially-paced boxing rom-com. It was in and out of theaters so fast that I wasn’t surprised to see it on the shelf so quickly (this was in the VHS era, where it would typically take close to a year for a big movie to become available on the home video market). 19-year-old me watched it cautiously, and I found myself riveted. The action came fast and fiery, the good guys seemed equal parts bloodthirsty, cool-looking, fun, war-ready, and fraternal. If HBO were to produce a series based solely on the Viking characters and their misadventures, I’m on board, both then and now.
I was a bit lukewarm on the enemy; it was obvious to any sane person that these were savages dressed up as bears and not some supernatural monstrosities. But they were plenty menacing in the shadows, and there were hundreds (thousands?) of them against our paltry 13! So all the more bad-ass when the battles commenced. It reminded me of the sci-fi fantasy movie Krull, where a small band of misfit warriors had to square off against hordes of attackers. The same scenario arises in 13 Assassins, which is incredible. Hey, in a sense The Warriors did it, too! I love all these films, maybe that’s why I’m so partial to this one.
As the sum of its parts, the film works OK. Action/adventure yarns have been as good before and since. But the little standout moments are what truly make this one a winner. There’s a fight scene between an older Viking and a much bigger, flame-haired beast of a man that ends poorly, if not predictably, for one of the two. The leader of the Wendol is not some giant crazed alpha male, but a thin, quick, and beautiful ‘mother’ figure (haha, ‘mother’- she’s built like an SI swimsuit model). And the scene where Banderas slowly learns the Viking language is a thing of quiet beauty. It even makes the English that’s spoken throughout the remainder of the film almost acceptable.
So was I wrong to adore this? It’s undeniably a simple story; at 100 minutes, no one can call this a bloated movie. I can enjoy exposition and long stretches of dialogue, but these aren’t vital to a story about killin’ bear people. It wisely glossed over any unnecessary romantic elements, and even the shoehorned storyline with the girl is handled well enough (cow urine!) Banderas was an interesting and affable fish-out-of-water hero, the 12 Vikings were a joy to travel with (though some got more screentime than others, natch), the score was appropriately thunderous, the bleak cinematography was perfect for the story, and the actors seemed to be giving it their all. Plus, that awesome poem/speech that they give before the final battle was completely rapturous! Give me this grandiose, gritty blend of bombast and beauty over the pristine CGI rampaging monsters of, well, any epic adventure post-2000.
I wonder if this would have been well received if it had been released earlier and uncut, at the height of Crichton’s popularity and just as Banderas was coming off the always-fun Desperado. Probably not, but it likely would have made more of a splash in the cinematic world instead of plunging helmet-first into obscurity, going down in history as one of Hollywood’s most colossal bombs. As it is, I doubt it will ever escape its fate at the bottom of the $5 bin at Big Lots.
I say, I was never wrong, and this movie rules.
‘Lo, they do call me, they bid me take my place among them, in the halls of Valhalla, where the brave may live forever!’