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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Morgan

The Double Take: Re-watching "The 13th Warrior"

In the second edition of the series, I re-watch John McTiernan's 1999 movie, The 13th Warrior, and wonder if it's time to put away childish things.

Welcome to the The Double Take, a semi-regular series in which I re-evaluate books and films that I first encountered long ago. Sometimes it will be something I loved and wonder whether it stands up today; sometimes it will be something I loathed and feel deserves a second chance. Today, a movie that’s “action-heavy and psychology-light”.

 

When I was growing up, it was a well-established tradition for families to have a weekly movie night. I hear that some clans still cling to this tradition, but it’s diminishing enough that sociologists rarely encounter it in the wild anymore. Such rituals depend on coaxing the eyes of younger family members up from their phones to share in the film, a fight perhaps many parents are tired of having with their kids. Still, I find it hard to believe that a good movie isn’t exciting enough to challenge the phone for their attention. I was lucky enough to have a dad who knew how to pick some scorchers: our family movie nights introduced me to Back to the Future and The Matrix.


From the mists of memory, I recall that on one of those evenings in 1999, my dad brought home a movie called The 13thWarrior. I’d never heard of it (the film went so far over its budget in production that most of its marketing budget got axed) but I was sold the instant I read on its cover, “From the author of Jurassic Park and the director of Die Hard.” Seeing the title of a film I wasn’t yet allowed to watch and the title of my favourite book excited me more than the parental guidance sticker warning of bloody violence.


Just as Jurassic Park a few years earlier turned my thoughts exclusively to prehistoric predators, The 13th Warrior made me wish I was on a longship destined for Nordic lands, where I would live and die by my sword. I rented it on VHS so many times I practically owned it, until the day I bought myself a shiny new DVD copy. I’ve always loved those making-of featurettes that reveal how filmmakers blew up the White House or made people fly, so I was thrilled to discover that Eaters of the Dead (the book the movie was adapted from) had its own making-of featurette, a “Note on the Novel” on the last pages. Here, I learned that my new favourite movie went back through its Hollywood production and this slim novella to a single orienting question: Is Beowulf boring?


The answer depends on who you ask. Michael Crichton had a friend who once gave a lecture titled “Bores of Literature”, in which he argued that the Old English poem was too dull for modern audiences. An indignant Crichton made a bet with his friend – he would retell the saga of Beowulf’s great battles in a way that would appeal to a modern reader. Crichton made a number of changes to the original story, most notably turning Beowulf the 6th century hero into Buliwyf, 10thCentury Viking chief. The biggest departure, however, was denuding the story’s fantastical elements of their magic. Crichton turned the monster Grendel and his mother into mere mortals, and he reduced the mighty dragon to a line of men carrying flaming torches. As a result, I’d say that Crichton lost his bet.


The novella, published as Eaters of the Dead, is as dull as rust. Crichton obviously believed that verisimilitude is more interesting than fantasy is exciting. This tenet of faith is disproven by his own flat narrative. Crichton’s slavish adherence to a belief that the incredible should always be explicable means not only that there be no dragons here, but also that the story loses its mythic – and therefore its universal – quality. Critics of the time were similarly unimpressed, and Eaters of the Dead might have passed into oblivion while the tale of Beowulf survived.


But more than a decade later, in 1999, the book was made into a movie by John McTiernan, best known for Die Hard and The Hunt for the Red October. The movie – retitled The 13th Warrior – is a ridiculous, adrenalised, action-heavy and psychology-light adventure that proves the very thing Crichton’s book failed to demonstrate: that the story of Beowulf is fun.


 

“Fun” is a keyword for The 13th Warrior, which trims all narrative fat to leave a lean 100 minutes of set-piece violence, unexpected comedy, and great use of practical effects and impressive stunts. The story is tight: twelve Vikings and an Arabic traveller, played by the infinitely charismatic Antonio Banderas, travel to a village far in the north to battle an ancient evil. This gives us clear stakes and external conflict, but it’s in the internal conflict that the movie really shines. Banderas’ Ibn Fadlan is no warrior, nor is he masculine in the mead drinking, sword swinging, built-like-a-mountain way that these Vikings are. This, then, is the story of an outsider attempting to earn a place among others while proving himself to himself.


Ibn spends the movie’s runtime attempting to prove himself to the Vikings, who are exemplars of the “brute force” approach to a challenge. Buliwyf, for instance, does not become chieftain thanks to a democratic vote or some display of oratory skill; he kills the only opposition to his claim on leadership. Ibn, meanwhile, is not a man so made that he can win these contests of strength. He is effete and affected, so he must adapt to the ways of a warrior. Gearing up for battle, a Norseman tosses a massive sword to Ibn, who says, “I cannot lift this.” The Norseman replies, with a smile and a shrug, “Grow stronger!” A little unsympathetic, maybe, but true in its simplicity and useful its directive towards a stoic outlook. If you have a problem, search within for the answer; grow strong enough to lift the sword.


Except then our unlikely hero shows us – and his Norse comrades – a different way to confront the problem of the heavy sword. He takes it to a metal worker and has him reshape the blade into something lighter, curved and refined where it had been bulky and straight. This is not the weapon of the hulking Norsemen, but it’s one that works for Ibn. And his proclivity for thinking, rather than smashing, through a problem manifests in other scenes where he brings his brain to bear on their brawn. When the warriors are cornered and seemingly about to die, they hear thunder and one of them says, grinning, “It gets worse – now it’s going to rain!” A funny moment, and a fine example of heroic stoicism, but while the others laugh, Ibn is calculating a route to safety based on that sound of thunder.


While the bawdy, brawling Vikings were entertaining, it was the thoughtful, sensitive Ibn with whom I most empathised. As a twelve-year-old coming to The 13th Warrior, I already knew enough to know I was not the “popular type”. I hated sports, and teams, and team sports most of all. I preferred to imagine friends out of the books I retreated into. The skills that I had – reading, thinking, empathising – and the things I aspired to – being a great writer and daydreaming for a living – were not highly valued on the housing estates in which I grew up. This was a lonely way for a kid to be, and I wanted friends, though I wouldn’t lie about who I was to make them. That’s why The 13th Warrior spoke to the nerdy kid I was: I identified with Ibn, who finds a place for his intellect among the warriors.


 

A big part of what made me feel so isolated as a kid was the fact that I’d been made to leave my home country of Canada at a young age. It felt like a sort of homecoming to watch The 13th Warrior, which was shot on location not only in Canada, not just in the same province I’d grown up in (British Columbia), but just a little north of where my grandparents lived on Vancouver Island. Watching the movie today invoked the nostalgia of a land I left long ago, as well as the nostalgia of a piece of cinema that once defined my tastes and interests. Watching the movie today also made clear how my tastes and interests have changed. So much of what I missed about the movie as a kid I noticed now as a grown-up, and a lot of it is just plain stupid.


In our cast of Vikings, we have an Englishman, two Scots, a Czech-Canadian, and several Americans, none of whom bother with even a hint of a Scandinavian accent, creating a dialectical stew that makes no geographic or historical sense. There are subplots that wave for attention only to immediately give up and wander away. Ibn teaches Buliwyf how to write a sentence in the dirt, and the movie signals that this will come to something later. It’s never brought up again. Then there are indiscreet glances shared between Buliwyf and the king’s daughter, longing stares that imply a romance… but it remains, in every sense, unconsummated.


All of this is undoubtedly related to the movie’s turbulent production. After McTiernan’s version of the film went down poorly with test audiences, Michael Crichton was brought in to reshoot key scenes. I suspect this also accounts for the jarring tonal shifts that occur throughout the movie. At times, The 13th Warrior is clearly positioning itself as a historical epic in the mode of Gladiator or Braveheart. Then, erupting out of nowhere and just as quickly subsiding, we get moments of pure B-movie cheese, such as Ibn proving himself as a rider by making his horse leap over one of the Vikings (which looks even more ridiculous than it sounds).


Because of the movie’s own uncertainty about itself, each viewer must decide how to view it. You can criticise its many failures, in which case I don’t recommend wasting your time with The 13th Warrior. Or you can lean into its inherent, dated silliness and have a good time. During my recent re-evaluation, one particular scene made me see the choice I had. As Ibn (who does not speak the Viking’s language) travels with his new cohort, he listens to them banter until he begins to understand what they’re saying. One of them asks, “Where did you learn our language?” and Ibn replies, “I listened!” Though ridiculous, this stylistic choice makes sense. You can’t be reading subtitles when every scene after this will be filled with sword swinging and majestic settings. Forget logic and realism in The 13th Warrior; stay for the blood, guts, and chuckles.


The same principle holds for the protagonists and their lack of characterisation. In the script, each Viking is given an epithet after their name: we have Buliwyf the Leader, Skeld the Superstitious, Hyglak the Quarrelsome, and these single-word descriptions go as far as the movie does in exploring who they are. There is a mythic quality to this that makes them seem more like archetypes, and if that seems too high-minded for you in a movie like this, then consider their thinness as one way that McTiernan makes room to stuff the film with action. We know who to root for and who to root against (the bad-guys also lack any motivation, but they eat people, so we know not to like them). To ask for more is to miss the point.


 

Here’s the question I was faced with coming out of my re-watch of this movie: is it enough? Is it enough to be excited, thrilled by the spectacle, in spite of my intellectual objections to the filmmaking? In the first edition of this series, I re-read Jurassic Park and concluded that it was a silly and entertaining piece of lowbrow fiction that was worth holding onto, given how important it was to me as a kid and how it still connects me to youthful joy. But surely there’s a limit. It’s endearing to know that an adult still holds onto a childhood memento for nostalgia’s sake; it’s indicative of some stunted development to discover they keep a room full of teddies and toys. If I have to choose between Jurassic Park and The 13th Warrior – and I think I should – I’ll stick with the book.


What of the argument that there is inherent value in anything that can inspire awe and wonder, which so often emerge from the kind of excitement provoked by movies like The 13th Warrior? I wrote a whole essay about the importance of spectacle (which you can read here) but Roger Ebert said it best in his review of 1999’s The Mummy:


“There is a little immaturity stuck away in the crannies of even the most judicious of us, and we should treasure it.”

Granted, but do the books and films that allow us to treasure that immaturity have to be infantile? Do they have to be as poorly put together as The 13th Warrior? Surely it’s much better to turn to films like Into the Spider-Verse or Jaws, which tap into joy and excitement without sacrificing craft or asking the audience to dumb themselves down for two hours. So, I look back fondly on the relationship I had as a young teen with The 13th Warrior, and I move on. To paraphrase the apostle: when I was a child, I watched movies like a child; now I’ve grown up, it’s time to put away childish things.



 


Further reading:

The 13th Warrior, written by William Wisher Jr. & Warren Lewis; dir. by John McTiernan (1999)

Eaters of the Dead, Michael Crichton (1976)



 


Further reading:

The 13th Warrior, written by William Wisher Jr. & Warren Lewis; dir. by John McTiernan (1999)

Eaters of the Dead, Michael Crichton (1976)

The Mummy, Roger Ebert, in rogerebert.com (orig. 1999)

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