The 13th Warrior
Based on the book Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Vladimir Kulich, Dennis Storhøi, Omar Sharif, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, Tony Curran, Eric Avari, Sven Wollter, Asbjorn Riis, and Maria Bonnevie
Release Date: August 27th, 1999
Ahmad ibn Fadlan is a successful court poet in Baghdad. But his poetic sensibilities lead him to love unwisely and he is banished far to the north to act as an ambassador to those tribes of Barbarians. The arrival of Vikings save Ahmad ibn Fadlan and his party great distress from Turkic Raiders. The Northmen are celebrating the death of their chieftain and the ascension of their new leader, Buliwyf. A young emissary arrives to ask Buliwyf if he will come to his father's kingdom and save them from an evil which cannot be named. The Viking's wisewoman comes to throw the bones and tells Buliwfy that the thirteenth warrior must not be a Norseman, and so Ahmad, called Ibn by his new travelling companions, unwillingly heads out to do battle with an evil he doesn't know with warriors who don't even speak his language. When they arrive at King Hrothgar's village the warriors see that the situation is more dire then they feared. The town is almost indefensible, and the mist is coming, and with that, the danger of the Wendol.
It makes sense that the oddest book in Crichton's oeuvre would make the oddest film. But still, I question this adaptation's purpose because whatever the book's failings there was at least a glimmer of something interesting, a little Viking culture, a little mystery in the mist, which has been entirely stripped away to be nothing more then over ninety minutes of battle. There is so little plot that I wouldn't even deign to call it a plot, something other critics and moviegoers apparently agreed with as the movie quickly flopped at the box office. The movie should have just been called "Buliwyf Does Battle." At least re-naming the story for release as The 13th Warrior versus Eaters of the Dead helped to highlight this lack of depth. The simple truth about this film is I struggled with it. This is a nothing film. Watching the movie I kept thinking to myself, how can I even write a review about a movie that is so lacking of anything that it is slipping out or my mind as unforgettable as I'm viewing it? This is just a bad movie, plain and simple, and this is after extensive re-shoots. The curious side of me wonders how bad the film was before the re-shoots. The fact that Crichton had to swoop in to try to save it makes me contemplative. If Crichton didn't step into the breech for the laugh riot that Congo became and the horror show The Lost World turned into, just exactly how horrible was this movie?
Even in this "polished" and "fixed" format it's a weird movie. Antonio Banderas is nothing so much as comic relief and nowhere approaching a romantic hero. Also, the film doesn't feel of it's time. Now I'm not talking about the tenth century when it's supposed to take place, I'm talking about the turn of the last century. This doesn't feel like a film from 1999, it feels like a film from the mid 80s. In fact it feels as if this film is the kindred spirit to Ladyhawke and Masters of the Universe with a little Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thrown in for the Wendol. Because the Wendol sure as hell don't look like they belong in Scandinavia! India, maybe. If that India came out of the fevered dreams of Lucas and Spielberg. If only we could get this Jerry Goldsmith score, which is laughably bad and uneven, replaced with a score by Tangerine Dream, a la Legend, I think, aside from Antonio Banderas being on screen, no one watching it would think it was made later then 1987. Just look to that 80s hair band appearance of all the vikings, and I think my point has been made.
In a film of weird and awkward scenes strung together with no regard to plot or pace there is one scene that sticks out. I really can't tell if it was really cool or really lame. In the beginning of the film it's a big deal that Ibn can't speak the language and therefore needs not one by two translators. This not only makes the movie hard to get into, but with Omar Sharif re-telling the events happening in the film I felt as if I was watching this documentary I saw years ago on the IMAX about the Nile that he narrated. But these clunky opening scenes are nothing to the scene where Ibn "learns" the language of the Northmen. Over the course of what we presume is many weeks we just see Ibn staring at the mouths of the Vikings around the fire. The first time it is all gibberish, but slowly, through rain and snow, words are decipherable until finally he understands everything they say, being able to then speak to them and also scaring them with the rapidity of his learning. While I like that it had a realism with him slowly learning, like everything in this film, it was handled in such a cheesy and heavy-handed manner that I'm not sure if I liked it or if it was groan worthy. I tend to lean toward groan worthy, just because of the rest of the movie.
The depiction of the Wendol was also just odd. As previously mentioned, they obviously are inspired by the evil death cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, what with their sartorial choices as well as taking off their victims heads and gnawing on their bodies. This is also where the movie diverged most radically from the book. The book clearly proposed the theory that the Wendol where really Neanderthals. There is nothing Neanderthal here, as Ibn screams "they are just men!" All their danger lies in the trappings of their appearance, not in their mysticism. The bone shirts and the bear headdresses are the signifiers that these people are evil and mean business. I'm sorry, but no. Looking a little different and killing people isn't enough for what is supposed to be the epicness of Beowulf! Plus, the Vikings kill each other all the time for dominance, land, and fun, so how are the Wendol different? The only real atrocity these people have committed, as far as I've seen, is that they must singlehandedly be responsible for Scandinavia having a depleted bear population because each and every one of their thousands of warriors has a bear headdress. Crimes against nature, yes, crimes against man, debatable.
But the worst part of this movie I think falls into the category of racial insensitivity. Ibn is from Baghdad, in Iraq; Antonio Banderas is from Málaga, in Spain. These countries aren't interchangeable. Just because Antonio isn't white doesn't mean he's middle eastern! Besides the atrocities of an obvious spray tan and so much guyliner that it's laughable, his accent is in no way correct. In fact, more then once I noticed that if Ibn said "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die" it would seem logical. Because he is THAT Spanish. His accent is so Spanish it's stereotypical Spanish. It is obvious that Antonio Banderas did nothing to help the box office of this film so why not just hire an Iraqi actor? But time and again this happens in Hollywood. Don't they get it that here's a chance to do something right and then they go and do something wrong, like Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily! Seriously folks! The reason this pisses me off even more is that Michael Crichton knows better. He has DONE BETTER! Look to Rising Sun! Instead of hiring anyone who looked Asian for the Japanese roles, the movie used all Japanese actors! I know, it's a novel idea, but there it is.
Friday, June 12, 2015
The 13th Warrior