13th Warrior, The (1999)

13th Warrior, The (1999), directed by John McTiernan.

This is a clever concept, adapted by Michael Crichton from his book Eaters of the Dead, where the origin of the Beowulf legend is described by an Arab traveler in barbaric northern lands. The Northmen are being menaced by a fierce Neanderthal remnant and we have bloody inter-species warfare without mercy.

In the legend as we know it Beowulf fights with the creature in the hall and rips his arm off, then swims underwater to fight with the monster's mother. In his old age he fights a dragon which finally kills him. All these scenes have parallels in the film, "the real story".

The original was written in England but takes place in Scandinavia. Note that Tolkien was a noted Anglo-Saxon scholar and recognized expert on Beowulf. His Riders of Rohan will seem like familiar characters.

I really like Antonio Banderas as the long-suffering civilized Muslim among the brave but very crude Northmen. He is the modern viewer projected into the story, funny and self-reflective. He gets a brief romantic interlude before the big battle (see comments on same in The Seven Samurai (1954), another siege story). I recall the narrator of the book saying something like "women always presume men of other countries are like stallions".

Several of the Northmen are well drawn, particularly the leader Buliwyf and happy, clever Herger. Otherwise: why in films must all these guys have non-stop hearty laughter? I'm afraid they are going to break something. They have a variety of modern accents which takes us out of the story.

It packs in a lot of action and moves quickly, but the editing is choppy and the plot makes no sense sometimes: if the Wendol have not been seen in the area for a hundred years, how do they have a community of what looks like thousands in well-developed underground caverns? What were they eating before they got around to people and where do they stable all those horses? The king's unexpectedly dapper son pops up, causes some mischief and then vanishes.

At first the fiends seem like a separate Neanderthal species, but later are just small swarthy men. The heroic fighting is reduced to race war, an unpleasant concept. They use atlatl spear-throwers, a nice reference to neolithic technology no one remembers today.

A "troubled" production that went through several re-edits after poor test audience results. Crichton took over directing and the original score was replaced by Jerry Goldsmith's usual fine heroic music.

It was a flop anyway.

Available on DVD. It could use an upgrade, maybe with alternate edits of the original cuts? I don't know if a "director's cut" would have any meaning in this case. And much as I revere Jerry Goldsmith I would like to hear the original soundtrack by Graeme Revell and Lisa Gerrard from "Dead Can Dance".

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