Its 1:11 pm
Back in 2018 I had the pleasure of reviewing a great film called “Molly” which was co-directed by Colinda Bongers and Thijs Meuwese. Though my review,I was also lucky enough to develop a friendship with Thijs and Colinda.
I have spent many late nights talking with Thijs talking about various films and when we discovered how much we both loved “The 13th Warrior”,I asked him if he would like to contribute his take on the film for the blog. He quickly said yes,he would be happy to do so.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum…..
Thijs got a green light to make the prequel to “Molly” and during the past 18 months,”Kill Mode”has been his full-time project. Pre-production,filming,the tragic loss of a friend,post production and finding a company to distribute his new film took up Thijs’s life. Other then the loss of his friend and one of the stars of “Kill Mode”,I have enjoyed standing on the sidelines and watching how the film making process works.
So you can imagine my surprise when I got a ping from Thijs who said he was sending me his piece on our beloved “The 13th Warrior”,I was so pleased to hear this as this movie is so vastly underrated. Its a wonderful film and one that really deserves a better reputation. Below is what Thija sent us and I really hope you all enjoy reading it.
Of all the 1999 movies I’ve seen celebrating their 20th anniversary on social media this year, one title was noticeably absent for me: The 13th Warrior. Released in August 1999 it was buried under the still reigning Sixth Sense mania and ended up as the 57th best grossing movie of that year. If it was released a year or two later it could’ve perhaps benefited from the success of Gladiator or The Fellowship of the Ring, but there’s really no real reason The 13th Warrior couldn’t have done better in its opening weekend. It’s just one of those movies where neither critics nor audiences were really waiting for it.
And so one could look at The 13th Warrior, see a Seven Samurai remake by the writer of Jurassic Park and the director of Die Hard, starring Antonio Banderas and Omar Sharif and think: What could go wrong? But if you ask me,the answer is: Absolutely nothing.
As with most great movies The 13th Warrior had a troubled production and was originally supposed to be called Eaters of the Dead, like the book it was based on. The story was based on historical figure Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a muslim traveller and writer who famously wrote about meeting the Volga Vikings and witnessing a traditional funeral. Writer Michael Crichton combined this with the idea that those vikings might have been the main characters from the epic poem Beowulf, and made Grendel, one of Beowulf’s main antagonists in the mythology a tribe of Neanderthals that had somehow survived the ages, hidden away in the Scandinavian woods. This was the basis for the book.
While originally conceived by John McTiernan as an R-rated movie, the studio made him shoot it PG-13 to gain a larger audience. However during post-production, Michael Crichton himself came in, added ‘the leader of the Wendol’ and some other stuff, reshot the Mother of the Wendol scene and shot some footage to make it R-rated again. The final movie is a mix and match between Crichton’s R-rated 13th Warrior and McTiernan’s PG-13 Eaters of the Dead, though supposedly most of the movie is still McTiernan’s. Finding out exactly what happened to the original cut and what the differences are is very difficult, but look at the wise woman scene for instance, you can see that any mention of the leader and his horns of power actually happens off screen. All of that was added in post-production. The French blu-ray has some interesting McTiernan interviews where he explains that adding bloody shots to get an R-rating and shooting it with an R-rating in mind are totally different things. He was clearly still a little frustrated by how it all went down.
As it was for many people, I missed out on The 13th Warrior in theatres. In fact I didn’t see it until it was on TV a year or two later. I do however remember every single detail about the first time I saw it. I must’ve been about 14, and I had a tiny little TV in my room. This was before flat screens. It was way up on top of the closet near the ceiling, and I’d watch it from my bed, which means that watching movies on that TV was kind of like watching movies on a smartphone today, but that’s all I had. There was a commercial on that said the TV station would be showing a Antonio Banderas movie that I’d never heard of called The 13th Warrior. It was on very late at night, so I stayed up to see it and went in knowing absolutely nothing about it.
It opens in Baghdad, quickly setting up it’s basic premise: Banderas is a poet, banished to a role of ambassador in strange northern countries because he had an affair with the caliph’s wife. Traveling together with Sharif, they’re quickly ambushed by Tartars, who are then scared away by Vikings. He witnesses a viking funeral just like he does in the actual Ahmad writings, and is then told by a Viking oracle that he has to join the Vikings to help protect a Scandinavian village from a mysterious attack. The 13th Warrior must be no northman. Then follows one of the movie’s most famous scenes. A montage where McTiernan cuts from campfire banter to campfire banter, slowly turning the Vikings Scandinavian sentences into English. By the end of the sequence it’s clear that Banderas has learned their language.
An interesting thing about the movie up to this point is that it’s made no statement on the world it takes place in. Is this historical? Is it a fantasy movie? None of this is accidental, because as soon as they reach King Hrothgar’s village and interrogate the survivors of the previous attacks, it becomes clear that to the characters in this world, dragons are real, and that’s what they think has attacked them. As an audience member you have no reason not to believe them, even though Banderas’ character is sceptical. Then something fascinating happens. In the valley below the village a small creature appears. Even on the blu-ray it’s hard to make out exactly what it is that’s running across the field, but more than anything it looks like an alien from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Watching this for the first time I was shocked. Was the dragon aliens? Was this movie about vikings versus aliens? What in the hell is going on here?
Of course it quickly becomes clear that the ‘alien’ is in fact a young naked boy who escaped from a farmstead in the woods, and that this movie in fact has nothing to do with aliens. But the way it keeps you guessing about the villains shows McTiernan’s talent as a filmmaker. Dropping hints and misinformation at exactly the right moments, never explaining to the audience what’s going on until Banderas discovers the facts himself. It gives us, even though the movie’s filled with historical inaccuracies, a clear insight into what it must’ve been like to live in that time. Superstition and religion overlap and knowledge is scarce. Over the next scenes the thirteen warriors slowly unravel the mystery, and discover that the dragon that slithers through the mist is in fact cavalry with torches who use the mist to their advantage, spreading fear among their adversaries. The movies ends with a couple of action setpieces as the warriors are forced to duke it out against ‘The Wendol’ (Crichton’s version of Grendel).
Another thing the movie does that is pretty rare in big budget movies, is that it treats the Northmen and the Arabs with similar respect. Never making statements on their culture at their expense. Half of this movie consists of a white man and a person of color learning about each others culture and learning from each other. Acknowledging their differences is what makes them valuable to each other. This is sadly still a rare thing to see in blockbuster filmmaking. The movie ends with the Vikings and Ahmad standing side by side, with common purpose, but each saying their own prayer.
Like Die Hard and Predator before it, The 13th Warrior is a perfect example of McTiernan’s unrivaled talent of showing characters doing things and making it the most fascinating thing in the world. His shots are clear and purposeful, his characters are thinly written, but their personalities and relationships crystal clear. His action scenes never just happen to be cool. McTiernan’s primary goal is always to push the plot forward and connect the audience with the characters, and he uses action to heighten the stakes and draw out the best and worst in the characters, never to show off.
It’s also a gorgeously shot film, all on actual locations in Canada, with actual sets, McTiernan and his crew do a remarkable job at bringing the medieval Scandinavian landscape to life and, more importantly, imbuing it with a lot of character. Locations are wet and misty, never comfortable to be in, keeping the characters on edge at all times. They also shot almost everything with available light. Day scenes were shot with sunlight, and night scenes were lit with torches and campfires. This gives the movie that raw realism that McTiernan is famous for. As in his other movies he uses it to buy the freedom to make some of the things that happen in the world a little more outrageous, because the setting itself adds to the believability.
Shortly after it blew the back out of my brain after watching it on TV, I came across the DVD in a store. It was the first DVD I ever bought and I remember where I bought it. It cost only 6.99. I still own it, even though I got a blu-ray of it later on. I still watch it at least once a year, and it continues to inspire me as a writer and director to keep stories clear and simple, focus on the characters, what sets them apart and what their relationships are. It will never become a classic, and is hard to find (France and Germany are the only countries where it’s even available in HD), but it’s an overlooked film that has a lot to offer, both in terms of entertainment and craftsmanship. If you haven’t seen it for a while, give it another shot. You will not be disappointed.
If you wish to buy the French version of “The 13th Warrior”,you can get a copy by going here.
I like to thank Thijs for taking the time to share his love for a favorite film. “Kill Mode” will be released in 2020 and is the one film I’m looking forward to see the most. The cheetah and I will be reviewing it once we get a copy.
You can reach Thija on Twitter by going here.
Feel free to drop a comment below and share your take on “The 13th Warrior”,we would love to read it.