Thursday, October 1, 2020

Blast From The Past Movie Review: 13th Warrior (1999)

For the current season of Myopia Movies, we're pairing freely-available episodes with episodes available only to our patrons. Our episode on the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, for example, was paired with a patrons-only episode on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the surprisingly good one with the whales). Now we're pairing Twister, written by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, with a patrons-only episode on The 13th Warrior, based on Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead and partly directed by Crichton himself.

If you want to listen to the podcast (it's available now), sign up for the Patreon here, but in the meantime here's my review.

The Plot

*The real-life historical figure (and in this version of the tale, a court poet of the Abbasid Caliph) Ahmed ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas), after an indiscretion involving another man's wife, is sent from Baghdad on a diplomatic mission to the Volga Bulgars in modern-day Russia. Along the way, he encounters a group of Norsemen whose king has recently died. After the king's funeral celebration, an envoy arrives from another Norse king, Hrothgar (Sven Hollter), seeking the warriors' help against an ancient evil. A Norse wise woman prophesies that thirteen warriors are needed to defeat this evil and one must be "no Northman," so ibn Fadlan is inducted into the mission despite his vigorous protests.

Now the thirteen warriors, led by the chieftain Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich), have to travel to the northerners' homeland, to do battle with the vicious Wendol, a horror that, as the book describes it, "slaughters the Vikings and devours their flesh."

The Good

*The film is entertaining and never boring. It moves along at a brisk clip and made my elliptical sessions go much faster.

*I liked the overall concept. Some people online who seemed to think the book was actually real history basically described it as "Vikings fighting Neanderthals in ancient Russia" and were I a movie producer or book publisher and someone pitched this to me, I'd definitely want more information. More on the Neanderthal part later...

*I liked the initial focus on the Vikings in Russia, before they return to their homeland to fight the wendol. The popular image of Vikings in Western culture is based on their raiding in Ireland, England, and France and the accounts are largely written by monks who were their victims. The Vikings also traveled eastward--they sailed down the great rivers of Eastern Europe to the Black Sea and founded the cities that became the centers of Russian civilization. The Byzantine emperors' Varangian Guard was largely made up of Norse. Vladimir I, the prince of Kiev, converted to Orthodoxy to marry an emperor's sister and assisted him in putting down a rebellion. There were even Norse expeditions on the Caspian Sea, to plunder as far as Iran.

*And although most of what happens in Eaters of the Dead is fictional, the first part of the book consists of (or is at least heavily based on) the historical ibn Fadlan's account of the Vikings when he was a diplomat in modern-day Russia. Islamic involvement with the Norse (or the early Russians for that matter) is something that isn't well-known either, so I'm glad Eaters was made into a film even though they weren't able to spend a whole lot of time on this part.

*The casting is good. Although some might raise eyebrows at casting Spanish actor Antonio Banderas as an Arab, the Arabs ruled Spain for hundreds of years. Banderas likely has least some Arab background even if it's way back, and he's a box-office draw (even if unfortunately that wasn't enough to save the film). And the legendary Egyptian actor Omar Sharif has a role here as well, albeit not a big one. The Vikings all look the part and have good accents--at no point do we reach "John Wayne as Genghis Khan" levels of miscasting.

*There's some good attention to detail, like the casting of Diane Venora (an American presumably of Italian background) as the Norse queen Wealthow. In the older Germanic languages the "weal-" sound is used to designate "foreigner" (hence the Celtic Welsh and the Wallachians in modern-day Romania) and she's a darker, lithe Mediterranean type, not a big blonde Nordic. Although the book includes the "Venus figurines" as a Wendol cultural icon, the addition of the Wendol general with the "horns of power" alongside the Wendol's priestess-goddess "mother" seems like they were going for some kind of proto-Wicca--the Goddess and the Horned God. The Norse are also extraordinarily brave in battle because of their religious beliefs--they believe the day of their death has been determined already, so there's no point in retreating or trying to hide. And at another point, weregild is paid to prevent a blood feud.

*Some of the dialogue is pretty funny. Herger (Dennis Storhøi) gets the best lines, but Weath (Tony Curran) gets some too. Banderas' ibn Fadlan gets some good moments in, especially when he shows that despite being a little guy riding a small horse he can be pretty bad-ass himself.

*And some of the serious dialogue is legitimately good, like a character who is mortally wounded (in the film cut with a poisoned blade; in the book a gut wound pierces either the stomach or intestine) claiming he will die a pauper. One character promises the burial of a king, but the person instead wishes someone who can "draw sounds" to tell his story so it would be remembered. Spoilers ahead, but you can see the dialogue in the Heartwarming page of TVTropes.

*The soundtrack is really good. A lot of very dramatic music, as befits the subject matter.

The Bad

*It was difficult to tell the various Northmen apart. Buliwyf stands out because he's the leader, is wise enough to recognize the value of writing, and has all the presence and charisma of a particularly large brick. Meanwhile, Herger is funny and keeps calling ibn Fadlan "little brother." However, the rest really aren't developed. TVTropes goes so far as to depict most of their names and epithets (like "Halga the Wise") as Informed Attributes, since we don't see them. That's one of the film's great failings. At DragonCon one year S.M. Stirling said that books make good miniseries or TV shows and adapting Eaters of the Dead into a miniseries or TV show would have been really helpful in this respect. Hey Netflix or Hulu, need something? :) Even a three-hour Lord of the Rings-esque film would have been better.

*The book plays up the differences between Norse polytheism and ibn Fadlan's Islam, but all we get the in film is one line about how ibn Fadlan is from a land where one god is enough but that's not the case in Scandinavia, the fact ibn Fadlan actually has personal hygiene in way the Norse most definitely don't, and some rules-lawyering about how as a Muslim he's forbidden to drink beer or wine but honey-based mead is just fine. The culture shock for the courtly Muslim in the land of violent, unhygienic pagans could have been much more developed. The book plays this up a lot more (ibn Fadlan has a running commentary on the Norse throughout most of it), but most of that didn't get into the film. I don't agree with fellow podcaster Nic's position that his being an Arab Muslim means so little that they could have just made him European or per Jon's suggestion Chinese (for starters, that would be an utterly pointless deviation from the book), but this is still a missed opportunity.

*There's a travel montage depicting the Norse making their way back to what in the book is pretty obviously Denmark from their riverside camp in Russia, but it's disjointed and it's not clear what's really going on other than ibn Fadlan gradually learning Norse and showing off his riding ability to the Norse who look down on his small Arabian horse. Some kind of Indiana Jones-style map-montage depicting their route might've been nice, or at least a more coherent "we're traveling overland through the Russian interior until we get to the Baltic coast and then we're taking ships home" journey would've been better. The Lord of the Rings films' depiction of Aragorn taking the Hobbits to Rivendell and then the combined Fellowship of the Ring traveling from Rivendell to Moria would be a good model, although since those movies came out later straight-up copying wouldn't work.

*In one of ibn Fadlan's prayers, he refers to God as "Father." It's my understanding that that's a very Christian thing, not a Muslim thing at all.

*The book very strongly implies the Wendol are a group of remnant Neanderthals. Ibn Fadlan comments specifically on their heavy, bony brows, for example, and this DeviantArt image of what they should look like includes relevant text from the book. However, other than a comment on how they look like the mating of a human and an animal, this never comes up. When we see them without their bearskin disguises, they look like ordinary people, not Neanderthals or some sort of "ancient evil." For all we know these could be some random tribe of cannibals that have managed to gather a large force of cavalry and get the drop on an isolated Norse settlement, not the monsters the Vikings claim they are. It would have been more interesting if the movie touched on the fringe theory that Norse mythology about trolls were either ancient racial memories of Neanderthals or that a small population of them survived into historic times or the even more fringe theory that most of humans' distinctiveness from other primates came from evolving to defeat Neanderthal predation. It might've cost a bit more, but hiring shorter and more heavily-built actors to play the Wendol and making them up to look just Neanderthal enough (bigger noses, heavier brows) to trigger the Uncanny Valley effect would've been an improvement.

*Per the above, a major villain looks nothing like the Venus figurines or her depiction in the book as a hideously fat old woman. Instead she's this swarthy ninja girl with poisoned weapons. Per IMDB, she was originally portrayed by an older actress, but Michael Crichton (who directed reshoots of the film) thought it wouldn't look good for Buliwyf to fight an old woman. Here's what the character should look like, at least if she were slimmed down a bit.

*It would have been better in a couple of battle sequences if the Wendol were less numerous. It's true the Vikings have metalworking and the Wendol seem to be generally Stone Age, but the Wendol seem to outnumber the Norsemen so absurdly at times that they could bury them in their corpses if nothing else. Think Zulu Dawn (about the Battle of Isandlwana) in which around 20,000 essentially Iron Age Zulu spearmen (with a few riflemen) destroyed just under 2,000 19th Century British troops armed with rifles and possibly even artillery while taking around 2,000 to 4,000 casualties.

The Verdict

Not the best adaptation of Eaters of the Dead that it could have been, but it's not a waste of your time either. 8.0 out of 10. If you want to listen to Myopia's take on the film, go to our Patreon page and sign up.

No comments:

Post a Comment