The 13th Warrior

The 13th Warrior
The 13th Warrior. Touchstone

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Note: This review was originally posted in September, 1999.

As a film buff and a history fanatic, I approach historical films with a simple philosophy: I expect them to be riddled with inaccuracies. Thus, I'm seldom disappointed, and occasionally I'm pleasantly surprised. I wasn't disappointed by Michael Crichton's The 13th Warrior, but alas, there were few surprises here. As an action-adventure it was fun; as a representation of 10th-century Scandinavia, it left something to be desired.

Rated 'R' for Violence

If you have yet to see this adventure, be warned: the blood and carnage are extreme. The film is rated R for violence and it is something parents should take to heart; children--indeed, anyone with a weak stomach--should not see this movie. In its defense, the violence is there for a purpose: to see the atrocities committed by the mysterious invaders is to hate and fear them immediately. Even so, some might consider the gore to be taken too far. There is at least one graphic decapitation . . . without the use of a sword.

Keep in mind that the title of Crichton's book was Eaters of the Dead, and you'll get a good idea of the horrors the film has in store for you.

For all that, I can still recommend The 13th Warrior as a gripping, heart-pounding adventure. I can also hope that seeing it will prompt viewers to learn more about Scandinavian culture during the Viking age, the Beowulf poem, and the Arab chronicler portrayed in the film.

Roots in Historical Fact

The character played by Antonio Banderas is based on an actual historical figure, Ahmed Ibn Fadlan. In the early 10th century, the real Ibn Fadlan was sent as an ambassador from Baghdad to the King of the Bulgars, and in this capacity he encountered the Scandinavian Rus as traders.

Ibn Fadlan wrote a chronicle, The Risala, in which he recorded his experiences as ambassador and included an extensive description of the physical attributes and cultural makeup of the Rus. Some of the customs ascribed to the Rus in The Risala were used in the depiction of the Scandinavians in The 13th Warrior.

As an educated member of a civilized society, Ibn Fadlan serves as the audience's window to an alien culture. It is through his eyes that we see and react to traditions we find primitive, harsh, or even downright revolting. However, it's not always possible to take the details recorded in The Risala as fact; they are colored by Ibn Fadlan's background and may even have been exaggerated to impress his intended audience. The cinematic device is effective, but the onscreen result is at best a skewed version of events.

Inspired by Literature

The adventure that takes place in the film is not part of The Risala; rather, it is a product of Chricton's fertile imagination, unmistakably influenced by the Beowulf saga. Those of you familiar with the Old English poem will recognize certain elements, beginning with the warrior-chief hearing of the danger that threatens a nearby king and assembling a group of brave fighters to travel there and face it with him.

There is a besieged hall, an underwater cavern, and even a "mother" to kill. However, instead of dealing with a pair of ogres, Buliwyf and his hardy band must defeat a huge number of primitive creatures similar to the Morlocks of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.

The film has both historical and cinematic shortcomings, but there are compensations. The ships are largely realistic reproductions, and the all-too-brief voyage through the storm is dizzying. Most of the weapons are accurate (the notable exception being what Fadlan does to a perfectly good Viking sword). The "fire snake" has a clever explanation that is nicely realized. There's also stunning scenery captured in tight cinematography, heart-stopping battles, and a horrifying descent into the enemy's lair that will leave you breathless.

So enjoy The 13th Warrior. Then discover the real world of the 10th century here on the web.


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