The 13th Warrior (1999)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

  

There have been many adaptations of the oldest known Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, but interestingly enough, going into this film I was unaware that it was "loosely inspired" by the work and so failed to make the immediate connection.

 

Ahmed (Antonio Banderas) has been appointed as an Arab ambassador to the Vikings in the year AD 922. His presence in their encampment along with his interpreter Melchisidek (Omar Sharif) coincides with the arrival of a child prince from a distant colony that is being threatened by flesh-eating monsters. His pleas for the Vikings to assist them in this most desperate hour of need inspire courage in the men and at the suggestion of their oracle, who promises them success in their endeavor, twelve of them volunteer for the position, including Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich), their leader. The oracle warns them that the thirteenth warrior must be a foreigner, and so Ahmed is pressed into a situation he is unprepared for. He does not speak their language, nor know how to handle a broadsword, and their amusement at his "tiny horse" makes him something of an outcast.

 

On the journey, Ahmed listens to them speak until he starts to understand their dialect and by the time they reach foreign shores, is able to communicate with them enough that he makes a friend in Herger (Dennis Storhoi). They arrive to find the kingdom ill-defended against an adversary that is thought to be demons from the underworld. They come only at night when the mist arises and their dead simply vanish. They are also known for taking the severed heads of their fallen adversaries. The locals are frightened and the Vikings determined but uneasy... that night, the main hold is attacked and two of them slain. It is on the second fatal assault that Ahmad discerns that their rivals are not unholy creatures of hell but flesh and blood... which means they can be killed.

 

Though a more "realistic" approach to the source material and quite different in various respects from most adaptations of the ancient poem, The 13th Warrior is an interesting and epic tale full of interesting characters and exciting battle sequences. It was a box office failure and I can kind of understand why -- though Banderas is well known, most of his costars are not and there is a quality to the production that hints at its limited budget. The first twenty minutes or so suffer from moving slowly but then the pace picks up and we get to see some gorgeous cinematography. The acting is quite good and the filmmakers were clever in particular in allowing the audience to comprehend along with Ahmed what his companions are saying. It is enjoyable in spite of its faults but I did have a hard time emotionally connecting with most of the characters, which means there are not too many smaller moments to illustrate their different personalities (humorous instances in which Ahmed defends his beautiful white Arabian against their jeers notwithstanding). The style of filming is impressive and the costumes are quite good. It also captures very well the gritty, difficult circumstances of that era.

 

There is not much romance to speak of (although Ahmed does have some sweet scenes with a Viking girl) but my curiosity toward their enemies and my hope that everyone would survive kept me watching. It is a movie that might be too brutal for some female viewers but that most guys would probably enjoy, if they like the genre of historical epics. For the material, the content was handled fairly well and it's a decent approach to a story that has been told many times, but never quite with this much realism. Making the monster flesh and blood rather than a distant, tormented creature was a stroke of genius.

 

  

Sexual Content:

The villains are an ancient, cannibal race that worship a buxom, headless female goddess, whose statue we see several times. Ahmed sleeps with a woman in his arms one night (the audience is uncertain if anything happened). A naked child is shown from a distance running across a field; we see part of his nudity when he is wrapped in a blanket and put on a horse.

  

Language:

None.

  

Violence:

Early on, Ahmed discovers the remains of peasants slaughtered by their enemies -- blood drenches the floor and a headless body is shown partially eaten; he moves a blanket and a severed arm falls to the ground. This isn't the end of the gore, either -- a dozen or so times we see heads being severed from bodies, with spurts of blood (sometimes bare hands are used; in other instances individuals are decapitated by swords). Other bodies missing their heads are revealed. Many people are impaled with arrows and pikes, some of them multiple times. Others are stabbed and/or sliced open with swords (mostly implied, but occasionally shown). Blood spatters those involved and onlookers. Animal lovers will be disconcerted by a scene in which a dozen or more horses are impaled on spikes (to throw their riders) and are shown writhing around on the ground. In the lair of their enemy, our band of heroes discover a cave full of bleached bones. Human skulls in various stages of decomposition are entwined in vines hanging in a cavern.

 

Other:

Two other oracles are shown casting bones to foretell events. The Vikings make one or two references to their "many gods"; Ahmed is heard often repeating his belief that there is one god, and Mohammad is his prophet; he is shown praying before going into battle, and wishing blessings at the end on his "heathen brethren."

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