Movie review: The Thirteenth Warriror by John McTiernan

Directed by John McTiernan

Release date: 1999
based on the novel Eaters of the Dead
by Michael Crichton

Genre: historical (?) fiction action film

Vladimir Kulich as Buliwyf
Antonio Banderas as Ahmad ibn Fadlan
Omar Sharif as Melchisidek

Diane Venora as Queen Weilew
Clive Russell as Helfdane


AD 922. Ahmed ibn Fadlan is a court poet to the Caliph of Baghdad—until his amorous encounter with the wife of an influential noble gets him exiled as an “ambassador” to northern barbarians. Traveling with Melchisidek, his caravan is saved from Mongol-Tatar raiders by the appearance of Norsemen. Taking refuge at their settlement on the Volga river, communications are established through Melchisidek and Herger, a Norseman who speaks Vulgar Latin. Ahmed and Melchisidek are in time to witness the fight, which establishes Buliwyf as heir apparent, followed by the Viking funeral of their dead king.

A youth enters the camp requesting Buliwyf’s aid: his father’s kingdom in the far north is under attack from an ancient evil so frightening that even the bravest warriors dare not name it. The “angel of death,” an oracle, determines the mission will be successful if thirteen warriors go to face this danger—but the thirteenth must not be a Norseman. That’s how Ahmed is recruited against his will and goes to a completely barbaric land to fight an unknown evil.

Ahmed learns Norse during their journey by listening intently to their conversations. He is looked down upon by the huge Norsemen, who mock his physical weakness and his small Arabian horse, but he earns a measure of respect by his fast learning of their language, his horsemanship, ingenuity, and ability to write.

Reaching King Hrothgar’s kingdom, they confirm that their foe is indeed the ancient ‘Wendol’ – fiends who come with the mist to kill and eat human flesh. In a string of clashes, Buliwyf’s band establishes that the Wendol are humanoid cannibals who appear as, live like, and identify with bears. While the group searches through a raided cabin they find a small, headless sculpture of a naked woman’s torso, similar to Upper Paleolithic ‘venus’ figurines. Their numbers dwindling and their position all but indefensible, an ancient wisewoman of the village tells them to track the Wendol to their lair and destroy their leaders, the “Mother of the Wendol” and the war leader who wears “the horns of power”.Will they manage to defeat far stronger and completely ruthless opponents? What sacrifice will it take?

My impressions:
I didn’t want to watch this movie for a long time. Firstly I read some bad reviews; secondly it featured Mr. Banderas who is not my favourite actor to put it mildly. After a bit of encouragement from The Red Witch, though, I decided to give it a chance. After all it was loosely based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, “Beowulf” even if it came via one of Crichton’s books, right? “Beowulf” demands some respect and gives hope. Combine it with the fact that I really have a soft spot for epic fantasy movies and here you go – the decision wasn’t that dififcult to make. Imagine me watching the movie one rainy May evening. Watching and wondering. 

At first glance the movie was really ok – the atmosphere, the blond, muscled Norsemen, their less-than-hygienic customs, their disregard for death and brutality, the ‘oddball’ swarthy Arab boy trying to fit in. Still, after watching it I couldn’t get over some obvious mistakes which made me think that there were no historians or archeologists, helping the director as consultants. I would sum it up this way: too much Crichton, too little real history.

It is true: the Arabs and Norsemen traded with one another and the contrast must have been interesting. However any history nerd might find out that Hrothgar was a king of Denmark whose chronology was roughly after AD 500. Ahmed ibn Fadlan, a real Arab explorer, flourished circa AD 922. Over 400 years of difference means those two men couldn’t possibly have met at all. What’s more Ahmed’s Islamic faith itself did not exist until after AD 622, so Hrothgar’s court could’t have encountered any Muslims to begin with. Do you want some more? Here it goes.

On the map at the start of the film Baghdad is in the Caucasus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. In reality it is more to the south west of there, on the Tigris River. It is really one of the silliest mistakes I spotted because so easily avoidable – it’s enough to check any map. How hard can it be?

 Then our handsome Ahmed encounters a beautiful woman in the street, who is wearing a strange headscarf over the low part of her face. Not only is this clothing not opaque, which is forbidden to Muslim women wearing headscarfs, but it is a Yashmak, worn first by Turkish women only around 1840. And it is brilliant red – a colour no decent Muslim woman would wear publicly. Of course it shows off the pretty, dark eyes of our enchantress so I guess the director didn’t think twice about anything as stupid as historical plausibility…

Finally one more jewel in this short collection: before the last fight, Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan invokes God by calling Him ‘Father’. Muslims don’t address God like this, only Christians do. And do not let me start on the strange and quite stereotypical demonization of the mother goddess – I found it particularly ignorant and wrong. A Celtic tribe with their painted faces, worshipping a female deity, are once again at least a thousand years out of place.

The actors, however, kept the film from becoming too stupid. The acting was much better than average for this sort of film. Dennis Storhøi enthusiasticly portrayed Ahmed’s closest friend among the Norsemen, and Vladimir Kulich gave a quiet dignity to his performance as Buliwyf, the leader of the Thirteen. 
Final verdict:

The atmosphere was right, some scenes I really appreciated and enjoyed but overall…At its best (the final battle) , this came close to the beauty and grandeur of a Kurosawa epic – at its worst, however, it felt like a Python remake of The Vikings. Do not expect anything deeper and do not treat the adjective ‘historic’ too literaly and you’ll be fine. Well, as fine as it is possible.
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4 Responses to Movie review: The Thirteenth Warriror by John McTiernan

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    I enjoyed this movie,m it's totally stupid and things make me cringe, but it's mindless fun

  2. With the emphasis on 'mindless' I suppose?

  3. I'm pretty sure I've seen this movie. I sounds like something I would watch, but I don't remember anything about it.

  4. From your reaction I can tell that you've watched it for sure. Easily forgettable it is. 😛

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