RogerBW's Blog

The 13th Warrior 30 November 2023

1999 pseudo-historical fantasy, dir. John McTiernan*, Antonio Banderas, Vladimir Kulich: IMDb / allmovie. Ahmad ibn Fadlan's diplomatic mission to the Volga Vikings goes further than anyone expected.

Is this John McTiernan's last great film? Well, no, because it isn't his; Michael Crichton, whose book had been adapted to make this and who after Jurassic Park could do no wrong, took it away from him and spent eighteen months on re-shoots and editing. I don't think any earlier workprints have been made public, and at this point it's not possible to say what's McTiernan's work and what's Crichton's, for all McTiernan got sole directing credit.

This is very loosely based in historical events: Ahmad ibn Fadlan did indeed travel from the Abbasid court to the Volga. But in this version the Vikings he meets are called home to deal with a monster, and because a soothsayer said he should he goes along with them.

And then it's Beowulf, sort of. There's probably a literary term for this kind of story; I think of it as a set of events which might, given lots of oral drift and contemporary thinking about magic and so on, eventually have given rise to the legend that got preserved to the present day. What this means in this case is that some of the names sound a bit like some of the names in Beowulf; but actually I like that. I'd much rather see this kind of very loose inspiration than something which tries to do actual Beowulf, but gets it wrong because the author has no understanding of honour. (And very few people do, particularly in the film world.)

The plot is rough at best. It's a very pretty film, though, and you can see where the money went: lovely rolling landscapes, convincing sets, hordes of warriors… hordes of identical-looking warriors, and none of them ever gets any character-building, so when we're told that X, Y and Z have fallen in battle our first reaction is "oh, so they had names". (A mistake which McTiernan noticeably avoided in Predator.) The Vikings are all pretty too, even though one of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's major points was how filthy they were compared with his own people.

I was never drawn into the film. I found myself asking questions like "how do you raise, train and feed that many cavalry mounts without your neighbours knowing that you have them" and "why does this Ahmad's prayer before battle sound exactly like a Christian one, indeed it's a very rough paraphrase of the General Confession".

Inflation-adjusted, this is number three on Wikipedia;s list of biggest box office bombs, and the two bigger ones are much more recent (John Carter and The Lone Ranger). There are bits I like here, and I've seen much worse films, but overall I can't claim this is any kind of forgotten masterpiece.

After this, McTiernan directed the Rollerball remake (in which, by all accounts, he turned a moderately thinky script into a basic action film that nobody liked), and then Basic (too many "aha, but really I" moments). So I think I have to regard his last good film as The Thomas Crown Affair remake—much better than it has any right to be.

I talk about this film further on Ribbon of Memes.

See also:
The Thomas Crown Affair (II)

  1. Posted by DrBob at 12:25pm on 30 November 2023

    I bought this for £1 in a charity shop and was surprised how enjoyable it was. I recall thinking at the time it was riffing off Robert E. Howard's version of the Picts as much as it was Beowulf.

  2. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 12:09pm on 01 December 2023

    It's a great film despite the directorial troubles.

    It does the whole language dissonance thing well, Anthonio Bandaras is great.

    The film is a homage to Beowulf without being Beowulf, and as DrBob says, the primitive cannibals are a riffing on Howard's Picts.

    Five stars, because I watched it more than once.

  3. Posted by John P. at 10:16pm on 01 December 2023

    Actually, I enjoyed watching John Carter. And not just because of Dejah Thoris either.

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