The 13th Warrior (1999)

Antonio Banderas stars in this exciting, but rather rushed Viking adventure film, based on a Michael Crichton book. Touchstone R1 USA.

The Film

Vikings have been popular in fiction since the mid-19th Century, and pretty soon all of the classic Viking Sagas and tales had been told, so instead, writer Michael Crichton (Jurrasic Park) looked to an Arabic text - the records of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's trip into modern day Russia, and his encounters with Norsemen - for inspiration for this very different Viking tale. Similarly, by the 1990s, film-makers had already produced a variety of movies about the Vikings, their conquests in Britain and their day-to-day existance and feuds in Scandinavia - and looking for something different, found the Crichton book, Eaters of the Dead.

Ahmad ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) is a courtier in an Arabian Palace, but when he falls into forbidden love, he is dispatched as an ambassador to the Bulgars. On the way his party run into a Viking funeral service where they are welcomed, although with reservation. During their stay, a boy arrives with a message from the Viking's home lands, telling them that the great evil from the mist has returning. Consulting their shaman, the Vikings learn that they must send 13 men, but one must not be a Viking - although never trained as a warrior, Ahmad quickly finds himself riding with the Norsemen back to Scandinavia where they must defend a village from the mysterious and possibly supernatural attackers....

The screenplay is well adapted from the novel, with only a few minor changes (unsurprising, considering that Crichton himself was actively involved in the film production) and there are some very clever touches - notably the fact that Ahmed cannot understand the Vikings at first, but his friend communicates with them in Latin, and eventually he starts to pick up odd words, so that by the end of the voyage has learnt to speak to them. The story itself is exciting and quite original, with the idea of warriors battling an unknown presence being attributed by Crichton to both Beowulf and H.P. Lovecraft, and film manages to capture a good atmosphere of this fear of the unknown. As far as historical accuracy goes, the Vikings really did travel deep into Eastern Europe, and villages really were remote and unconnected - but with the film being a self-confessed fantasy, most of the historical elements can be passed over (although anyone who knows horses should spot the obvious error of Ahmed's horse being considerably shorter than the Viking's creatures - made more obvious by the continual references to this throughout the film).

Unfortunately there are some glaring problems - the story starts off on a bad foot at the very beginning with an unnecessary use of flashback - the sequence could just have easily been shown as part of the film - and from the very start the incredibly fast pacing is evident, with Ahmed's exile being covered in 30 seconds, when it could have lasted up to 30 minutes from some filmmakers - while this does mean that the story does not get bogged down with unncessary material, it denies us a good chance to see how the Ahmed character lived before-hand which would have really helped to build his character (all we know is that he is nervous about using a weapon, but seems to learn amazingly fast). This incessantly quick pacing continues throughout and the film seems to bypass some important plot developments - a big deal is made about one of the King's sons being trecharous, and we are treated to a lengthy duel between on the Warriors, and the son's servant, but after that he is never mentioned again, while the origins of the creatures themselves are barely explored, nor why no-one has ever considered attacking them before (something that is partially covered in the book). Although the film does manage to build up some good and sometimes quite scary atmosphere in scenes, it never quite suceeds in retaining it - by the end it has become a generic action film, with the final battle being very anti-climactic. Fortunately despite all these problems, it does remain entertaining (and certainly never drags), it just misses out on becoming a "good" movie in the process.

Fortunately the film looks good throughout, with the exception of a few glaring CGI shots, including one that opens the film (again, getting the film off to a bad start). Although filmed in Canada, it does have an authentic Scandinavian appearance, and some incredible stand-out scenes include the Viking Longboat moving through the mist, and the creature's firey attack on the village (although the quick pacing means we don't see enough of these). Frequent use is made of hand held cameras, but not the overuse that marrs many modern films. There are some particularly gory special effects all of which work well, and the look of the "creatures" is impressively done. The soundtrack, by Hollywood legend Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen (1976)) is good in places, but often reverts to a generic action movie score.

Antonio Banderas would seem to be rather odd casting as the Islamic Ahmad ibn Fadlan, but he actually manages to pull the role off very well - his Iberian looks contrasting well with the rest of the cast who are distinctly North European. He also manages to convince as someone who is less than familiar with his weapon, compared to his usually very self-assured character. Omar Sharif (Doctor Zhivago (1965)) gives a brief appearance as a friend of Ahmad in Arabia, and was apparently so fed up with movie-making after this, that he took two years away from the business. The rest of the cast are lesser known but solid actors who give generally good performances all round.

The production problems on the film have become quite notorious, with director John McTiernan's final 2 hour cut being rejected, and over the next two years, being substantually re-edited, rescored and even certain scenes being re-shot by Michael Crichton. The film did suffer from these changes, loosing a very distinctive Graeme Ravell score, with Lisa Gerrard vocals, in favour of the more generic Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack and with the cut in runtime creating breakneck pacing that destroys a lot of the atmosphere and skips over key elements of the storyline - but fortunately the solid direction and acting, combined with the few clever script elements that remain, do come together to make a decent and very enjoyable film, but it really had the potential to be a lot more.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Antonio Banderas - the Spanish born action movie star, best known for his El Mariachi character.
Directed by anyone interesting? John McTiernan - best known for the very popular action movies Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988), he also filmed the enjoyable remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Any gore or violence ? Several very gory death scenes and lots of fighting.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Who is it for? Fans of action movies should enjoy this above average film, but don't expect anything too good.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour
The print is very good, with strong colours, and not a hint of print damage.
Some very mild compression during fog scenes, not too noticable, and a common feature on SD transfers.
Audio English and French 5.1 Surround tracks - sound is very strong, with good use made of the surround features.
Subtitles English HOH.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Original theatrical trailer.
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Other regions? Available on DVD in most countries, including the UK and Australia - similar disc, but without the trailer. The French R2 DVD has the best set of extras, including interviews and documentaries.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut - original theatrical version. The print used is English language.
A completely different cut of the film, John McTiernan's original version, does exist, but has never been released.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 7th August 2007.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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