Michael Crichton, John McTiernan and Antonio Banderas give us the Viking action flick for the ages with ‘The 13th Warrior‘ (1999).
The Viking culture was just as rich and complex as any other ancient or medieval culture. Yet mostly the image of Vikings as fearless and ruthless fighters with an excessive taste for sex and alcohol has manifested in our modern world. And based on those clichés, they make for perfect protagonists in action movies, of course!
The first attempt was the Kirk Douglas flick The Vikings from 1958 which already was a pretty good swashbuckling adventure. After that, every once in a while another Viking movie would surface, but it wasn’t until 1999 that Hollywood decided to go all in on the topic, and produce The 13th Warrior.
It also was not the last movie to utilize a Viking theme, with the most notable movies from recent years possibly being Outlander and Valhalla Rising. Outlander certainly is a fun movie, but gives a rather superficial treatment of the Viking culture. And while Valhalla Rising is arguably a masterpiece, it does not really qualify as an action movie.
John McTiernan and Michael Crichton Present…
The 13th Warrior is based on the book “Eaters of the Dead” by Michael Crichton. A group of twelve mighty Viking warriors is selected to travel to the aid of king Hrothgar whose kingdom is terrorized by an army of monstrous creatures. The Arab diplomat Ahmad Ibn Fadlan is selected as the thirteenth warrior, and fights along the Vikings on their heroic quest. The story was inspired by the historic testimony of the real-life Ahmad Ibn Fadlan about his encounters with the Vikings, and by the Danish epic Beowulf.
Directed by John McTiernan with a budget of a whopping 150 million USD, the raw cut of the movie was heavily edited after unfavorable test screenings. Michael Crichton himself re-shot some scenes, but the movie still was a giant box office bomb. Reasons for this may be that thematically it was an outlier from the usual blockbuster movies, and did not have a cast or director of superstar status at the time, but certainly not because it was a bad movie.
The story starts with an interesting exposition that shows a sort of Meet & Greet between Arab and Viking travellers. It also features actor legend Omar Sharif in a small and rather disappointing role. The friendly clash of the two cultures clash is certainly amusing to watch, and especially the existence of language barriers is portrayed quite creatively. To do the heroic Viking culture justice, it’s important to create a proper epic vibe, and the 13th Warrior succeeds in this on many fronts.
There are the Viking warriors themselves, who check all the boxes for muscular and rough battle-tested heroes. They’re more than just cut-and-dried characters, though, all performances of the bunch are enjoyable and convincing. The breathtaking panoramic landscapes of the misty (Canadian) forests and mountains serve as a monumental backdrop for the story, and are just a joy to watch. And the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith was arguably the most epic score to be heard in a movie theatre at the time since the Conan movies.
Antonio Banderas: The Original Viking
I’m not an expert on Scandinavian history, but nothing presented in the movie on Viking culture looks suspiciously off, other than a couple of anachronistic armor pieces worn by some of the protagonists. All the popular Viking tropes are included, like longships and longhouses, fervent prayers to Odin, and excessive consumption of mead.
Fortunately, nothing comes across as kitschy or cheesy, but if historical accuracy is really important for you, please consider The 13th Warrior is an action-adventure first and foremost. Yet I believe one reason why the movie works so well is that it does actually dedicate quite a bit of its runtime towards displaying and occasionally even discussing relevant aspects of Viking society, and this really contributes to the immersion for the audience into the setting.
Antonio Banderas takes the lead role in the movie, and gives a charming performance as kind-hearted and frequently bewildered Arab emissary to the Vikings. His character does not really drive the story, for the most part he’s an observer of what’s happening, even though he knows how to stand his ground. He certainly adds an interesting contrast to the band of Vikings, and the cultural differences are a source for occasional humorous scenes in an otherwise fairly serious movie. The 13th Warrior certainly has its share of gloomy moments, and even a couple of genuinely scary sequences.
But, How Ultimate is it?
The centerpiece of the movie are the skirmishes between the Vikings and their unrelenting bestial enemies. The brutal attacks of the savage foes emerging from the mist are staged intensely and with good momentum, with the night-time combat sequences being done particularly well. As opposed to the usual night action scenes where there always seems to be an unidentifiable light source to create visibility, it’s actually convincingly dark.
Yet the lighting from the torches and other fires shown on screen is utilized very effectively to make sure we’re just seeing what needs to be seen to follow the action, and nothing more. There’s also a good deal of horseback action with frenetic riding over difficult terrain or during battle, for which the stunt team needs to be applauded. The 13th Warrior also does not skimp on graphic violence, there’s plenty of blood, impalement and beheadings during the numerous sword fights. In between the combat sequences there’s countryside exploration, village politics and romance to provide some relief of tension and do some world-building.
The 13th Warrior is an incredibly entertaining action-adventure that is properly embedded into a historic setting. It fully immerses its audience into the Viking era through its impressive visuals, enjoyable characters, and plenty of ferocious melee combat action.