Review: The 13th Warrior

This was a movie I looked very much forward to when I first heard about it. It was supposed to be a Viking movie with a twist, and I was not disappointed. It’s a fresh and different and packed fantasy actioner, but with interesting layers.

Antonio Banderas plays 13th warrioran Arabic poet who accidentally joins a group of Vikings when they are called back from Southern Europe to their homeland. A cry for help had come from a small village who had been attacked by bear-like demons, and more manpower was needed to stand against the attacks.

The 13th Warrior was a flop in theatres, which I don’t understand. I think the movie has many aspects that should have made it more popular than it was. First of all it is a good action adventure, set in the Viking age which to me is always attractive. There is lots of action and gory scenes, but the twist is that elements of horror and dark fantasy has been added. Perhaps 15% of the film is basically a horror movie. And I think they exploited the horror element good, without making it supernatural. This movie has action, horror, suspense, a little romance, and good characters, wrapped in a visual look and an atmosphere that will appeal to fans of dark and realistic fantasy, not just the Viking crowd. Perhaps the movie was ahead of its time, as fantasy films still were looked upon as corny in the late 90s. The Lord of the Rings part one did not come out to change that until two years later.

For a Viking movie the characters are surprisingly good. The Vikings are not portrayed only as savage brutes, even if their rough edges are present too. In fact, most of the Vikings are portrayed as modest, tolerant, willing to learn, brave, sensitive, and / or intelligent. They are not just violent rapists or muscular fighting machines, which some movies seem to prefer. The same basically goes for Banderas too, as the poet-turned-fighter who learns to admire the Viking way and who feels he is taken seriously enough to agree to fight for the lives of his new comrades’ wives and children. I like Banderas, and he is good in this movie. He doesn’t act like a movie star, but as the Arab stranger he is. His part in the movie isn’t blown up either, compared to his position in the story.

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Other things I appreciate about The 13th Warrior is that one of the underlying subtexts is about how we as humans in an international society can learn from and respect other cultures and foreign thinking. The Arab poet learns to speak Nordic and to go into fights like a Viking, and in return the Vikings (or at least one of them) learns to write Arabic and see that the Arabs know how to breed good horses. These things symbolize global tolerance and multilaterial understanding, which you may or may not find to be a good thing, but it does add value to the movie.  You might also want to dig into the whole Beowulf connection; another main character is Buliwyf and the story itself is a variation of the old English heroic poem.

For Scandinavians it is always interesting to see a Viking movie, because it is our past, like Westerns are to Americans. The 13th Warrior is an American production, but it has several Norwegian actors in key roles, including Dennis Storhøi in the second main role, after Banderas. I thought it was great that they cast several Norwegians for a major Hollywood production (and also the Swedish veteran Sven Wollter as an old king) but the guy who plays a young angry king is known from a series of funny commercials (among other things), soif you laugh when you see him, it can’t be helped! Nevertheless, in a few scenes the actors speak garbled Norwegian, and even the Norwegian actors don’t speak perfect Norwegian, so that was a little weird. The American actors had been coached in Norwegian by a woman from Latvia, who was a linguistic expert but only spoke Swedish of all the three Scandinavian languages!

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The locations look convincingly Norwegian, as do the costumes and sets. I have never heard about a tribe of cannibalistic bear-worshippers before though, so that must be the product of Michael Crichton’s imagination. The cannibals and how they are introduced and portrayed work well for bringing the movie into fantasy land, away from the historical adventure it otherwise would have been.

I have seen The 13th Warrior three times and I enjoy it more every time. It’s fresh and different and actionpacked, but with interesting layers for those who bother to look.

Rated 8 of 10.

Directed by John McTiernan.

USA, 1999.

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