Before Robert Eggers’ The Northman and six seasons of Michael Hirst’s insanely popular Vikings, movies featuring those notoriuos, shaggy Nordic marauders (let alone good ones) were noticably thin on the ground in Hollywood, so when one actually came around it was always treated as something of a curious oddity. Dotted among such titles as Richard Fleischer’s seminal The Vikings, Nicolas Winding Refn’s arthouse Valhalla Rising and whatever the Hell Marcus Nispel’s Pathfinder was supposed to be was The 13th Warrior, John McTiernen’s attempt at making shaggy beards and longships cool via the Michael Crichton novel, Eaters Of The Dead.
However, after a tortuous production which saw costs soar, test screenings fail, a title change and even lengthy reshoots helmed by Crichton himself, the rechristened The 13th Warrior ended up bombing harder than a German pilot during the Blitz. But is it really as bad as it’s reputation suggests or is it just another good example of filmmakers betting on the wrong Norse?
Exiled from Baghdad thanks to an “encounter” with the wife of a nobleman, court poet Ahmad ibn Fadlan finds himself an unwilling ambassador to the Volgar Bulgars, but a chance encounter sees Ahmad and his companion, Melchisidek, fall into the company of a settlement of Norsemen as they bury their recently deceased king. Struggling to understand their ways and seeing their customs as somewhat barbaric, Ahmad nevertheless still is drawn to the charismatic wild card, Herger and in turn, burly heir apparent Buliwyf as he suffers overly masculine banter and outright abuse for his smaller stature and Arabian ways.
However, one day a call for aid comes from a kingdom in the far north that is seemingly under attack from a race of vicious creatures that rudely claim their victim’s heads and alarmingly are reported to feast on the flesh of the dead. The village’s wisewoman declares that victory will be achieved if thirteen warriors volunteer to go and fight this cannibalistic evil, but after twelve men, including Buliwyf and Herger, volunteer the wench drops the bomb that the thirteenth man must not be a Norseman which leaves Ahmad in something of an awkward position.
Arriving at their destination via long boat in gales of both wind and laughter (love a good storm do those Vikings), the warriors eventually surmise that the so-called demons are actually a tribe of berzerkers who believe themselves bears and live, dress and act as such. As their numbers noticeably dwindle under thirteen after numerous, brutal raids, the remaining members of the group decide to locate the tribe’s lair and attempt to take them out at the source; but how successful can a mere handful of men be against a mass of bloodthirsty bear-people?
Somewhere within The 13th Warrior’s broiling insides lay a potentially decent Viking film as McTiernen brings all the booming laughter, exposed entrails and men swigging booze from horn-shaped cups you could possibly ask for; however, despite all the atmospheric mist and torch-lit battles, there’s something noticably missing from this gritty adventure flick. Maybe it was missing from the start, maybe it was chipped away during the reshoots, or maybe it’s the somewhat distracting sight of the notoriously Spanish Antonio Banderas clad in Arabian garb and seated next to Omar Sharif, but initial reports on McTiernen’s original, 127 minutes deemed it “unwatchable” and in desperate need of salvation. It’s a curious result because it’s not like the director hasn’t previously made this kind film before in the form of Predator, which also saw a gaggle of ultra-alpha males engage a foe that mutilates its victims while styles itself as something other than human. However, whereas the team led by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cigar puffing Dutch are all distinctly different characters, the twelve Vikings suffer the same fate as the hog pile of Dwarves from Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, drifting in and out of the background to the point where you can’t actually tell two thirds of them apart. While this does mean the cast is regrettably cluttered, it also means that you don’t even notice when some of them get to cue jump to the gates of Valhalla and fall in battle – which kind of instantly makes having a large cast sort of pointless.
Still, the Viking cast members you do remember resonate decently enough with Vladimir Kulich’s stoic leader, Beowulf, radiating a quiet dignity and Dennis Storhøi making likable waves as the energetic Herger, but by any measure, two memorable characters out of twelve is hardly a good percentage. However, despite speaking with his distinctive Spanish accent from under an Arabian headscarf, Antonio Banderas reliably manages to add some much needed personality into the story as his Ahmad gradually earns his spot on the team despite being reluctant as hell and weathering a metric tonne of machismo bruising bullying. “I cannot lift this.” he complains when handed a broad sword big enough to be wielded by King Kong, “Grow stronger.” is the good naturedly callous reply delivered with a smirk.
So by my count we now have a Predator-esque, uber masculine team and a Die Hard style reluctant hero and still the movie drags itself along with a pace-slowing sub-plot concerning a rival Viking leader when all you want to see is them butt heads with the cannibal tribe. Thankfully, when they finally do, McTiernen doesn’t hold back, staging nicely bloody stand offs that are impressively wreathed in fog, rain and fire light and feature a tribe of bloodthirsty villains that preempt the body modification bezerkers of Bone Tomahawk and Serenity. In fact the scenes where out surviving heroes creep around the cave lair even has the noticable feel of Neil Marshall’s The Descent, but despite featuring this impressive run of imagery from movie that hadn’t even been made yet, The 13th Warrior rarely feels like it has it’s own identity, merely trudging along as a substandard adventure film with mild spikes of inspiration.
After the sterling work he did with his remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (a remake regularly lauded as being superior to the original), his dalliance with Vikings and cannibals would mark a noticable downturn in McTiernen’s career leading to the career low of Rollerball only a couple of years later.
Whether we’ll ever get to see exactly how unwatchable the director’s original cut was is extremely unlikely as the movie’s all but been forgotten except as one of Hollywood’s most costly flops. However, while the finished product isn’t that bad, its forgettable nature proves that 13 really is unlucky for some. Even warriors.