There aren’t enough movies about Vikings. I’ve always thought this is a shame because the Vikings had a very unique and interesting culture, truly distinct in history. They had their own fascinating religion and customs, as well as epic stories of war and exploration. Some of the earliest records of the Vikings came from a Muslim ambassador named Ahmed ibn Fadlan. His accounts of the Viking culture are among the more famous in existence, which included a ship burial. Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel, Eaters of the Dead, was a fantasy adventure based on Ahmed’s encounters with the Vikings. It’s a great idea for a historical fantasy and I’m still convinced could have made a great movie. Oh well.
The 13th Warrior opens with Ahmed (played by Spanish actor Antonio Banderas) narrating his back story as quickly as he can. He was assigned his post as an ambassador and sent to the northern lands as a sort of punishment for getting too close to a noble’s wife. It’s not clear what he did exactly, but the movie moves so quickly away from this story that it probably doesn’t really matter. If the filmmakers don’t care about it, why should the audience? He and his translator, who’s played by Omar Shariff (blink and you’ll miss him), are rescued by a travelling band of Norsemen from a Tartar raiding party. Before he’s fully aware of it, he’s been recruited into a small group that must save a village being terrorized by demons referred to as the Wendol. That’s about all there is to know.
While there are some subplots, like Ahmed’s halfhearted romance with a village girl, they don’t amount to anything. In fact, they all seem to just dissipate from the movie altogether. The worst one comes with the character of the King’s son. When our heroes arrive at the village, they are introduced to King Hrothgar (Sven Wollter) and his vain son, Wigliff (Anders T. Anderson). It’s implied that Wigliff is an opportunist, eager for his father’s throne. He may have killed his brothers and sees Buliwyf (Vladmimir Kulich), the leader of the group of Vikings, as a potential threat. This guy is presented as if he’s an important obstacle for the heroes to overcome. Will Wigliff backstab the protagonists? Will he betray his people and ally himself with the Wendol so that he may take seize the throne? Or will he simply disappear from the script and never show up in the last half of the movie? Unfortunately the last option seemed like the best. This character and all the scenes that are in anyway related to him are only there to pad out the film’s length.
|Look! It's Omar Shariff!|
Now we’re getting to what’s wrong with this movie. Let’s begin with the pacing (since this movie has terrible pacing). The first half hour - where we are introduced to all the central protagonists - rushes by as if the characters and setting don’t matter at all. I couldn’t begin to tell you any of the 13 warrior’s names or their distinguishing qualities. It’s as if everything in this movie is simply stampeding towards the next action scene. The editing feels rushed and never highlights the movies’ strengths. Characters talk about doing something and in the next instant, they’re doing it. There’s no time spent on character development or establishing atmosphere. The 12 Vikings who join Ahmed in the quest are a collection of beards and swords. I don’t know their names and I don’t really care. They die left and right as the story progresses and only in the last half hour or so do I start to recognize the remaining few by their appearance. The only one of the group that stood out was Buliwyf, and that was only because he was the only one without facial hair.
Antonio Banderas has a likeable on-screen presence but it only goes so far considering how shallow his, and everyone’s, character is written. To make things worse, Ahmed is a perfect character to join the Viking party. He’s foreign to them and their way of life, so everything they do is new to him. This means that he could ask them about their culture and religion or better yet, he could ask the other characters about themselves. It would be so easy to give these characters even the smallest hint of depth but instead they’re given nothing. Once he learns their language (and he learns it through the magic of plot convenience), it’s as if he’s learned everything there is to know. William Wisher Jr. and Warren Lewis, who wrote the script, clearly had very little interest in Vikings.
Despite the shallow characters, one of the strangest aspects about this move is the way it deals with its setting. This movie has a big budget. It’s full of really large and detailed sets, as well as being shot in various places in