Films of High Adventure: The 13th Warrior (1999)
Thursday, July 23, 2015
The Film: The 13th Warrior (1999)
Dedicated to the Memory of Omar Sharif.
Responsibility Roundup: Directed by John “Die Hard is actually my adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream” McTiernan. Based on the novel Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, who supposedly came on as director to reshoot some scenes after McTiernan’s initial cut bummed out test audiences. Scripted by William Wisher Jr. (Terminator 2, Judge Dredd) and Warren Lewis (remember Ridley Scott’s Yakuza movie Black Rain? With Michael Douglas? Don’t worry, nobody else does, either). Original soundtrack by Graeme Revell (The Crow, The Craft, the Riddick movies) and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance, before Michael Crichton insisted on trashing the entire thing and having it rescored by his Congo buddy Jerry Goldsmith (always a good sign, amirite?).
Hackting by Antonio Banderas (lots of stuff), Maria Bonnevie (lots of Swedish stuff), Suzanne Bertish (The Hunger, Eleni on Rome), Diane Venora (Heat, Wolfen), and a whole Crossfit box’s worth of beefcake, including Vladimir Kulich (that Vikings show, the voice of Ulfric Stormcloak in Skyrim), Dennis Storhøi (Two Lives), Clive Russell (Ripper Street, Brynden Tully on Game of Thrones), Richard Bremmer (Control), Tony Curran (LXG). Also a very embarrassed Omar Sharif (RIP) (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Top Secret), who hated the movie so much he took a leave of absence from acting afterward.
Quote: “Lo, there do I see my father. Lo, there do I see my mother, and my sisters, and my brothers. Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning. Lo, they do call to me. They bid me take my place among them in the halls of Valhalla where the brave may live forever.”
Alternate quote: “My mother was a pure woman from a noble family. And I, at least, know who my father is, you pig-eating son of a whore!”
First viewing by Jesse: In the discount movie theater when it first came out, so at seventeen?
First viewing by Molly: Sometime during my senior year of high school.
Most recent viewing by both: A couple of weeks ago.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Fairly slight. I’d just read the book when the movie came out, and didn’t think too highly of the film—back then I put paramount stock in an adaptation’s faithfulness to its source, and this didn’t earn top marks in that regard. The book also left a bad taste in my mouth, since in the afterward Crichton talks about how he wrote it to prove that Beowulf wasn’t boring, which even as a teenager I didn’t think was a concern? So yeah, the movie featured some decent (if sometimes anachronistic) costumes and sets and fights, sure, but it all just felt kind of watered down. I did end up using the Jerry Goldsmith score for a metric shit ton of roleplaying games I ran or played in, but otherwise didn’t take too much away from the movie.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Here’s an unusually sweet story, at least by Films of High Adventure standards:
So my senior year of high school I took AP English and AP Art History. In the former, we read Beowulf, and in the latter, we studied the Venus of Willendorf. Not long after completing these units my folks and I watched The 13th Warrior, and while I came away from the film not necessarily thinking I’d ever re-watch it, when I realized the movie contained references to things I’d learned about, I had a major aha! moment re: why education is awesome.
See? So sweet!
Random YouTube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement (normally we’d find a juicy scene, but this trailer is so hilariously inaccurate we have to use it—and dig that wannabe Enigma score!):
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Yeah, okay, sure. I haven’t seen this since it since it came out, so remember very little in detail except the shield fight, and some of Antonio’s pratfalls. Also, that Buliwyf guy was a beast, and maybe had a sweet wolfhound? Let’s crack open some Viking Blod mead and get stupid!
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: LOL? All I remembered was the scene where Antonio listens to Norsemen talking shit for 15 minutes and learns their language, and the, uh, dragon of torches.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Well I’ll be damned, that was a lot better than I expected. Not necessarily Bergman, but not Deathstalker, either. Either this movie has aged surprisingly well or running this column has vastly lowered my standards, but in any event I’m calling it a win.
Looking back on it, The 13th Warrior signaled the end of an era in action cinema, especially where period pieces are concerned. It gets down and dirty but also possesses a goofy charm, with wise cracks and skull cracks in nearly equal measure of the 90s action movie mode… and then the very next year Ridley Scott drops Gladiator, and the game is officially changed. Brooding, immediately competent heroes and sepia-toned flashbacks become the order of the day, along with highly polished and CGI-enhanced action set pieces, careful choreography, and graceful cinematography. Scott was always far slicker than McTiernan, of course, but I’d argue that behind the scenes of these two movies a cinematic paradigm shift was taking place, as evidenced by their grosses: Gladiator was an instant blockbuster, and The 13th Warrior bellyflopped into box office failure.
What makes The 13th Warrior even more interesting as a pop culture artifact is it’s positioning of an Arab in an unequivocally central role. Granted, said Arab is played by Antonio Banderas, but considering how few Muslim heroes have graced mainstream screens both before and especially since, the dubious casting decision doesn’t rankle as much as it might. For serious, think about it—over fifteen years ago a big budget American action movie got made, all about the Arab scholar Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rāšid ibn Hammād. Nowadays any name with even one ibn appearing on the first page of a Hollywood script that wasn’t about the War on Terror would be enough to make sure it never, ever got greenlit, whereas back in ’99 it got over a hundred million dollar budget.
And what exactly does this Hollywood Arab do? Oh, not much, just be way more civilized than the Aryans he rolls with, all learning their culture with the quickness, saving photogenic white kids from barbaric beast men, and having an interracial romance. The 13th Warrior is classic cultural-exchange-is-good biz, and not nearly as heavy handed as you’d expect… well, okay, some of it is pretty heavy-handed, but this is the director of Predator we’re talking about here, and I’ll take well-intentioned messages in my action movies over ugly stereotypes any old day.
Oh yeah, and besides providing food for thought on the evolution of action movies and the dearth of cinematic Muslim protagonists, it also has plenty of Viking action, one-liners, and atmosphere. None of these elements are exceptional in their execution, but they’re always competent. Like gamalost cheese, The 13th Warrior is one that’s far more impressive with age than it was fresh, but still may prove overly pungent for non-connoisseurs.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Wow, I had forgotten almost everything about this movie!
So yeah, as Jesse was saying, points to the film for having a sympathetic Muslim hero---and not only that, he's a hero who is educated in the ways of the pen and the sword, and who uses his cleverness and humor to forge an alliance with those unlike him. It feels so... random, in 2015, which is really very sad.
Other than what Jesse wrote about, what struck me most about The 13th Warrior was---speaking of slick, CGI-enhanced blockbusters---is how apparently The Two Towers is referencing it like, constantly. I mean, the introduction of Jackson’s Rohan is basically a shot-for-shot remake of when Banderas and his 12 new homies arrive at King Hrothgar’s longhouse. All the buildings and costumes look like they came from the same warehouse, and of course the scenes with Bernard Hill AKA Theoden King are reminiscent of the cinematography and performances in The Two Towers. It's an aesthetic that works perfectly for Rohan, but it's just a bizarre cultural touchstone. (And, given how much more modern The Two Towers looks, watching The 13th Warrior now makes it feel like one of those fan films people Kickstarter and then put up on Youtube. It's kind of fun watching it through that lens.)
Anyways, The 13th Warrior is by no means the worst movie we’ve re-watched for Films of High Adventure. Nor is it, uh, the best. It skates by on its action sequences, the appropriately epic feel, and beautiful sets… but man, there’s a substantial lack of spiritedness. The problem with The 13th Warrior is that the plot is kind of... forgettable. I got more emotional when Jesse pointed out that the racial politics meant there was no way this movie would have been made in the last decade than due to any of the pathos and action (except when it’s suggested that Banderas will write Beowulf, but I’m a sucker for “Tell my tale!” endings). I kept wanting to care more than I did, but like… I never connected with Buliwyf, so his death was sort of “oh” than “oh no!”
But, pretty badass dogs, and good messy battle sequences. It's also about sixty thousand billion times better than another inclusive 90s medieval blockbuster, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The 13th Warrior had eight years to improve on the "civilized Muslim in the land of the barbaric white man" formula, true, but that doesn't mean it was obligated to. So, yeah. Not sad I re-watched this one at all.
I’m struggling to find more to say about The 13th Warrior, but then again, that seems to have been the majority opinion since 1999, when it grossed only $61 million, after reportedly costing $160 million.
High Points: Omar Sharif! Sir, you will be missed. Capable, sympathetic Arab hero. A tale of cultures coming to appreciate one another over time, in spite of their differences. All that sweet action involving swords, axes, bows (intoned in the voice of the shopkeep from Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance).
Low points: Didn’t bother finding a capable, sympathetic Arab actor to play said hero. The lack of any real tension.
Final Verdict: It made us both sad realizing this movie will probably not go through the remake mill because, yeah, sympathetic, not just Muslim, but Arab hero.
Next Time: The Seventh Curse. Trust us, you need to seek this out this Hong Kong gem…