In what is basically an old-school Viking movie with a supernatural edge, Banderas plays the ultimate outsider, Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, a medieval poet from Baghdad who’s banished to a faraway ambassadorial post after an unwise liaison. On the journey with his translator-servant (Omar Sharif), he encounters a fearsome group of "north men" led by Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich) who are in the midst of sending their former king off to Valhalla via cremation.
When a messenger arrives at the encampment to seek their aid for his Scandinavian village, which is being ravaged by demonic scourge, Ahmed grins at their superstitious gullibility. But his response is more muted when their resident oracle decrees that Ahmed be the 13th warrior in their rescue party. So the crew heads north to battle the mythical wendol, a man-beast with ferocious powers who beheads victims and often eats the remains.
Screenwriters William Wisher and Warren Lewis have adapted The 13th Warrior from Michael Crichton’s novel, Eaters of the Dead, which in turn was inspired by 10th century historical accounts written by the real Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan chronicling his encounters with Norse warriors. But director John McTiernan (The Thomas Crown Affair) isn’t concerned with maintaining reality beyond the film’s authentic costumes and sets.
McTiernan has constructed an action-adventure story in which the clash of cultures serves as a positive exchange, enriching both sides. The big crew of Norse warriors laughs at Ahmed’s smaller Arabian stallion until he demonstrates the horse’s agility. For his part, Ahmed questions the actions of even his closest compatriot, Herger (Dennis Storhoi), until he witnesses the battle finesse of these brutes, who use their brains as much as their brawn.
John McTiernan, that rare combination of commercial director and skillful storyteller, and modern fabulist Michael Crichton have effectively created a world where mythology informs everyday life. This makes the thrilling, often gory The 13th Warrior an enticing peek into not just another time, but a prerational world order which incorporates the seen and unseen into a unified mind-set.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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