The 13th Warrior is a fantasy/action movie that has none of the trappings of the usual modern action movies. There are no snappy insults, no romantic subplots, no comic sidekicks, and no gratuitous pop songs blaring over the film or the credits. None of them were missed.
It’s worth mentioning that the two producers of this film were the story’s author (Michael Crichton) and the director. Perhaps it is because the people close to the story had control, that the film didn’t become watered down. If so, it’s a pairing I hope to see more of.
Quest for Fire, 1982, Jean-Jacques Annaud, set much earlier than The 13th Warrior, but with some equally good-looking northern settings.
Antonio Banderas plays Ahmed, an Arab poet. He is caught in a compromising affair with a young princess and banished, along with his teacher (Omar Sharif). The two head north out of the city.
Later, fleeing some bandits, the two invite themselves into the hospitality of a tribe of Vikings who have wandered south. The next day, a boy arrives from farther north, asking for help back in his home village. The Viking fates decree that 13 warriors must go help, and that the 13th man be not a northman. Ahmed the poet is drafted and his teacher is sent back home.
The thirteen arrive at the besieged village to find almost no men of fighting age left alive. The king welcomes the heroes-to-be, and tells them that the Vin, a mysterious race of man-bear creatures, have been making raids. The Vin always decapitate their victims and gnaw on the remains.
It eventually becomes clear that 13 warriors and a village of farmers are no match for a burgeoning tribe of cannibals. Expecting death and defeat, they struggle for a plan that will make every life count.
Not many movies portray Vikings in the dark ages. In fact, the only one that has had an impact on my generation is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So the setting in The 13th Warrior is fairly original for 1999 (that is to say, unexploited by Hollywood).
The movie gives us a speculative glance at the lives the Vikings might have led as well. Since our hero is an outsider, he gives the audience someone to identify with as he learns their customs and ways. Having that hero be Muslim adds an exotic flavor. It makes the entire setting all the more exotic and foreign.
The movie has high production values, (a trait I admittedly respect more highly than other critics). I was impressed by the look of the movie, and by some of the obviously unfaked settings. A Viking village was at least partially created, as was a great wooden Viking ship. A long scene in a cave appeared to actually be lit by the torches carried by the characters, and the cave itself appeared to be real, or at least made of more substantial stuff than can be seen in Star Trek.
Much of the movie was shot on location in British Columbia and other parts of Canada. The cinematography (by Peter Menzies) captures the cold outdoor atmosphere of northern climes. Whether it was the unsoftened shadows at midday or some trick with the lens, the air in the north looked crisp and cold.
In contrast, the nighttime battles and inky cave interiors were a dark black, lit by harsh orange torches. The look could have been a cheap way to save on precise special effects, but it was an effective way to convey fear and claustrophobia.
One last noteworthy detail is the way in which McTiernan handles the language barrier between Arabic, Latin, and Norse. It’s the same trick he used in The Hunt for Red October, and it works very well. Perhaps he drew too much attention to his trick, but it forestalled an objection that had been forming in my head.
Yet in spite of the best things about The 13th Warrior, I still found myself less than entirely engaged. I kept waiting for the really thrilling parts, always expecting something more. Clearly, my expectations were wrong, but it’s also probably fair to criticize the movie for being slow in parts, and for meandering at the beginning.
The 13th Warrior never really wowed me while I was watching it, but I grew more impressed with it afterwards. You won’t find explosive, blockbuster action in The 13th Warrior, but see it if you’d like something a notch older, more serious, and more mature.