Another severely underrated classic…
I must once again apologise for my lateness. It’s been a while since I last posted, and I don’t really have a good excuse between laziness and forgetfulness. However, I’m back up to speed now, and to kick off the new year properly, I thought I’d continue in the style of the last review and take a look at a film I loved growing up that has sadly been forgotten over the years, The Thirteenth Warrior. This is a film that I watched quite a lot growing up. My Grandmother had the DVD at her house and one of my favourite things to do whenever I went round, aside from cooking really bad cakes, was to pop it on and spend an enjoyable afternoon watching Antonio Banderas fighting alongside Viking warriors.
It wasn’t until I got a little older and looked up the history behind this film that I discovered how big a flop it had been on release. Arriving in 1999 to a lukewarm critical reaction, The Thirteenth warrior was a gigantic flop, possibly one of the worst flops in cinema history, dwarfing the returns of Waterworld, and making only 61 million of its 160-million-dollar budget back. I’m actually baffled that this film isn’t at all notorious. After all, Waterworld has often been labelled as a mega box office flop and that film almost made its money back. However, the film made a pittance, was largely ignored by critics, except for Roger Ebert who reviewed everything, and was promptly forgotten.
What amazes me is not the people didn’t like the film, after all taste is subjective, but the fact that this film is not more iconic than it is. It wasn’t marketed that widely at release, and it has never developed a substantial cult following (at least, not that I can find). However, this film apart from being a great watch, has some real talent behind it. For a start it was directed by John McTeirnan, who dominated the late 80’s and early 90’s with some fantastic action films, including Die Hard of all movies. If someone told me the guy who made Die Hard was making a Viking film, I would need no further convincing. On top of this, the story is based on an adaptation of Beowulf written by Michael Crichton. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the same author who wrote Jurassic Park. Already we can see some serious pedigree here, although where the film falls down is in the actors. Don’t get me wrong, the cast are all fantastic, even minor characters are immensely fun, but with the exception of Antonio Banderas, who was already reaching the end of his wave of popularity, the only other big star in the cast to draw people in was Omar Sharif. That isn’t much star power to interest the casual movie-goer, and Omar Sharif, although a brilliant classic actor, hadn’t ever been a huge box office draw.
However, despite the relatively unknown cast, this film has a lot going for it right out of the gate, and it makes me sad that its directing and writing talent haven’t managed to attract a strong cult following, because the film is worth seeing. It is a story loosely based on the historical figure Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who was a famous 10th century traveller from Baghdad. Ahmad is most recognised for his journeys with the Volga Vikings, or Varangians, and his witnessing first hand of their culture, even being present at a ship burial. Crichton used this character as a third party to retell the story of Beowulf, and this historical twist creates a slightly more believable and grounded take on the legend. Apart from a compelling story, watching a pampered Arab ambassador turn slowly into smart and capable warrior, the character arch is a joy too. Ahmad serves as a way for us to slowly become invested in the Varangians struggle to defend a vulnerable village. As he learns their culture and injects some of his own into their lives, we see a bond form between him and several of the key Vikings, as they learn to respect him and even accept him as one of their own. Ahmad is thrust into this situation because their soothsayer foretells that they need 13 men, one of whom must be no north-man. All through the film, Ahmad is forced to adapt to his surroundings, and this struggle is very relatable.
The action is quite visceral in this film to say the least. There are very few obvious special effects, which may be enough to bore some viewers, but there is something very appealing to me in watching regular humans do battle with real-looking weapons. People actually get tired and sloppy in this film, the battles, lit spectacularly by fire much of the time are exhilarating simply because the characters are often barely holding on, hopelessly outnumbered. I’m a sucker for a good sword fight, and this film has tons, including an entertaining duel midway through the film which shows off a nice bit of political intrigue. Visually this film is shot pretty well, although nothing special, and the set design is quite realistic and very creative. Most of the sets are historical, wooden halls and thatched huts, until we reach the layer of the villains, which is a gloriously over the top evil cave full of skulls and animal pelts. The costumes are for the most part pretty nice, although not very historically accurate. Several of the Vikings are wearing full plate armour, which was not widely used until several centuries later.
However, I don’t watch this film for action or even for the story, I watch it for the characters. To start with Ahmad is a great protagonist. His journey from disinterested ambassador to hardened warrior is engaging and gradual, allowing the viewer to grow with him. We watch this new culture through his eyes, and his willingness to engage with and even adopt aspects of the Vikings life is heart-warming and fun. It’s also interesting to see him add his own twist on their ways, such as when he grinds a heavy sword into a smaller scimitar. Obviously this would really make for a terrible sword in real life, but it serves as a perfect blend of Arabian and Viking fighting styles, the curved blade and Norse hilt working together. Omar Sharif, though he wasn’t a fan of the film, is nonetheless quite enjoyable for the small time he is onscreen, seeming quite dry-witted and sardonic. The villains are quite lacking in charisma, although very intimidating.
The team of 12 Viking warriors are an odd bunch, most of whom for the sake of time receive little screen time and die at various points in order to up the stakes. There are several stand outs who get more development, but the two main Norse characters are the leader Buliwyf played by Vladimir Kulich, and his right-hand man, Herger, played by Dennis Storhøi. Buliwyf as the son of a recently deceased king and leader of the band of warriors is given a backstory and a connection with Ahmad, who teaches him to write a little, and then promises to write his deeds down as a ballad. Vladimir Kulich is stoic and gruff as Buliwyf, mostly quite wooden and gloomy looking, although he has moments where his deadpan lines provide some wry humour. However, for me, the best character, and biggest reason to watch this movie is Herger. Dennis Storhøi injects this character with such pure glee, and completely sells some of the best lines in the film. He is a delight to watch from start to finish, revelling in the battles and genuinely enjoying himself in the midst of life-threatening situations. His smile and manic energy are contrast with occasional moments of deep reflection and sadness, such as when he kills a worthy adversary and regrets his death. Herger is given the closest friendship to Ahmad, even calling him “little brother”, and he teases the Arab with seemingly genuine warmth. It’s always refreshing to see a character that simply enjoys life.
A true pragmatist.
This film is a great time. It has stellar action and characters, and enough unique selling points for me to recommend it to anyone. I have always been confused as to why no-one has ever heard of this film, and why it has never received more attention, given who made it, and hopefully it will one day get a proper chance to shine. If you enjoy historical epics, Antonio Banderas or simply want to try something a bit different, I’d give this one a go!