Rewatch: The 13th Warrior (1999)

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This, frequently hailed as the Best of Beowulf Movies, came out in the same year as its steampunk counterpart.(1) A year before Gladiator, when special effects wizards were developing innovative ways to keep Oliver Stone alive, and two years before The Fellowship of the Ring, so also when Weta Workshops were sacrificing all they could to the gods of CGI… in my memory, it’s more of a mid-nineties film, but on rewatching, that seemed unfair. What it is, is an Antonio Banderas film, and we’ve not had enough of those recently (I blame the Shrek franchise).(2)

It shows off its budget not through CGI (thanks goodness – the few bits and pieces around the sea-journey to Scandinavia have not aged well), but through live-action battle sequences. Unfortunately, as borne out by its disastrous performance at the box office, these don’t really seem to justify the costs… The battles are dimly lit and smokey, and although they occasionally make nice use of dramatic backlighting, in all, the effect is muddled and rather chaotic.

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Dramatic backlighting

Okay, battles are chaotic and muddled, but compare the opening fight in Gladiator just one year later, and you really feel the difference.

Despite the dull fight scenes then, why does this remain a candidate for Best of Beowulf Movies? Well, it helps that it respects its sources. Ibn Fadlan’s account of a Rus funeral is not an easy read: the fate of the sacrificial victim is deeply unpleasant from a modern perspective (if you’re interested, James Montgomery’s translation is the one to use (pdf), but be aware: trigger warnings for rape, intoxication and human sacrifice). But The 13th Warrior, presumably following its source material, Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, opens with a subtle, playful representation of the priggish Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s first meeting with the Rus. The nastiest elements of the funeral are omitted from the movie: the slave girl is seen in the door ritual, reciting what she can see of the otherworld, and her death is hinted at from a distance, as we peer across the crowds from ibn Fadlan’s own perspective. An appropriate choice, given that the account’s accuracy has been questioned by scholars who claim ibn Fadlan would not have been able to witness much of what he describes as it happens out of sight.

Other good signs in a Beowulf adaptation are that Hrothgar is treated with appropriate respect (don’t get me started on naked, CGI Anthony Hopkins – the poem itself has nothing but praise for Hrothgar as a ruler…) and that Wealtheow (or Weilew here) is not made into a love interest for the hero. Most Beowulf adaptations don’t know what to do with her, the only speaking female character in the poem. They want her to be more, somehow, misunderstanding her role in the poem as something subservient and downtrodden. Wealtheow is the epitome of the medieval noblewoman, however: she is the hostess, and the diplomat, and her awareness of the precarity of the peace between her sons and her nephew is one of the most emotionally affecting parts of the poem. Okay, so The 13th Warrior sidesteps these issues in a way by just adding in Olga, who gets to be the love interest instead, but it leaves Weilew to be aloof, in control and about as haughty as a noblewoman should be (I liked the touch that she knew the people of the territory better than anyone, identifying the child who survived the Wendols, and leading the warriors to the old woman who provides information).

Of course, The 13th Warrior is not just a Beowulf adaptation. Grendel, descendant of Cain, monster of indistinct appearance, has become the Wendols – presumably meant to evoke the Vandals, or Wends, and so conflating two completely different historical groups – and the Wendols are in every way a mish-mash of many other confused influences. They’re not a particularly good replacement for Grendel and his mother, I must say. They wear bear-skins and are so ferocious they’re not immediately recognisable as men (so evoking stereotypes of the berserkr, a class of elite warrior). They seem to follow a cult of the Mother Goddess, but their women are only ever seen secreted away underground (I guess it’s probably more likely than the matriarchal society Gimbutas would have extrapolated from the Wendols’ figurine…). ‘Grendel’s mother’, the matriarch herself, is quite cool, in her cave, with her poisoned bear-claw, but why it is that she craves human heads is never really made clear. So we have various ancient northern European tribes, the idea of the berserkr as described by late medieval writers, an indistinct connection between bears and pre-Christian Scandinavian religions, the ancient fertility symbol of a large-breasted pregnant woman, and a culture of head-hunting. It’s all a bit much, really. And the primitivism is laid on so thick that these Wendols may as well not be human (as Ahmad notes when in their cave).

Usually, I find the ‘humanisation’ of Grendel in Beowulf adaptations to be an unnecessary encumbrance to the story – except in the case of Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, which lets the monster be a monster, but tells things from his own, strange point of view, and encourages a different reading of the heroes and their society. The feud plot of Beowulf and Grendel (2005) is particularly grating; if you want to make a feud movie, just adapt an Icelandic saga, don’t stick some Ugg boots on a bloke and call him Grendel and have him shag some random Irish witch so that their son can continue the feud between Grendels and humans. Sorry, digressionary rant – but in The 13th Warrior I actually found myself longing for a bit more depth of characterisation to the Wendols. Just a bit more explanation of what they were and why – how had they been assumed to be extinct for so long, but so many remained?

Well, it’s getting hard to sustain the idea of this as the Best of Beowulf Movies now, isn’t it? That’s because Outlander (2008) probably gets the balance overall somewhat better, even if it has to become a sci-fi movie in order to do so.

But as The 13th Warrior how does the film do? Well, the portrayal of the main characters’ friendship is genuine and warm, and keeps you rooting for the heroes even through the dull battles and the confusing mythology. Banderas is always likeable, and he brings that likeability to Ahmad with full force: he’s prickly and snobbish when he meets the Northmen, but over the course of the movie his transformation is consistent and, mostly, believable (not sure about the sudden abilities with the scimitar…). The other warriors are just defined well enough, like the dwarves in the recent Hobbit trilogy, and Ahmad and Herger’s camaraderie is real and palpable. Buliwyf, mostly silent and square-jawed, makes a fine, elusively charismatic hero. Where he and Ahmad speak together, the movie journeys into territory that it’s hard to imagine contemporary films venturing into: Ahmad teaches Buliwyf how to write Islamic holy words (‘there is one God and Muhammad is his prophet’), and when calls of ‘Odin’ bring the Northmen successfully to land on a foggy coast, Buliwyf makes sure to thank Ahmad’s god as well as his own. Similarly, having prayed to God, Ahmad joins the Northmen in their repetition of the slave girl’s chant from the funeral at the beginning. This respectful, if at times bemused, encounter of beliefs is refreshing in the context of what is essentially a ‘viking’ movie, and rings true to a number of medieval sources.

The opening third of the movie is the one that I enjoy the most, and it was from this opening third that most of my memories of the film came prior to this rewatch. Still, The 13th Warrior is hugely ambitious in its scope and in the depth it aims to give to its characters and cultural setting. It’s just a pity that too many cultural referents lie behind this setting, and they bring confusion and unnecessary complexity to what is, in origin, a fairly straightforward story of heroics and fate.

(1) Okay, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981) gives it a run for its money, but it doesn’t seem fair to compare John Gardner with Michael Crichton… And I do really, really love the Christopher Lambert Beowulf too. 1999: Beowulf’s best year since surviving the Cotton Library fire of 1731?

(2) You know, like the Zorro movies, or even Evita. Something that suits his special brand of tongue-in-cheek intensity, and preferably allows for slapstick action sequences. I do keep meaning to watch The Skin I Live In, but I don’t think it features the latter…

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