There aren’t enough movies about Vikings. I’ve always thought this is a shame because the Vikings had a 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 (it’s Antonio Banderas, so you can guess), 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 much of 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.
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 warriors’ 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 developing these characters 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 appearances. 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 Canada. The costumes are great and the look of the movie is obviously where the all money went, and yet director John McTiernan spends no time showing off any of these things. There all just there to be noticed when your eyes start to wander. He could have emphasized the vast scenery or the amazing sets, taking his time to show off the visual scope of the journey but instead these are reduced to brief establishing shots as he prefers to focus on the characters or the battles (which aren’t all that great anyway).
The first few battles scenes take place at night in a fog, so it’s not ideal for seeing the action. The action scenes are dark and mostly uninteresting; despite how violent they try to be. To make things worse, this movie has two climaxes and after that first one, the presence of the impending second one is draining. Luckily after the action scenes end, so does the movie. It sort of fades away without a satisfying conclusion.
I said there aren’t enough movies about Vikings but if they’re going to be like “The 13th Warrior”, maybe I should be grateful.