The 13th Warrior
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by William Wisher and Warren Lewis

Starring Antonio Banderas


The 13th Warrior

Don't shoot me, or in this case chop my head off, but I liked "The 13th Warrior," which might better be called "Gore Galore." Maybe it had something to do with my son's email that pointed out the ways in which it's based on "Beowulf," maybe it's the similarities with Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," maybe it's just that we haven't had a period swashbuckler recently. Whatever, this John McTiernan/Michael Crichton version of Crichton's 1976 novel "Eaters of the Dead" is actually a lot of fun. It's absurdly simpleminded -- which "Beowulf" assuredly is not -- and thrives on clichés till you find yourself reciting the dialogue along with the actors, and yet as popcorn movies go it's not bad. Among other pleasures, it gives us a list of characters that includes Herger the Joyous, Skeld the Superstitious, Roneth the Horseman, and Halga the Wise. However, since none of them speaks more than a couple of sentences in the film, we must accept the descriptions on faith.

Like a fairy tale or a studio story conference, it begins with our Arab hero Ahmed (Antonio Banderas, with eyes heavily outlined by Rudolph Valentino's makeup man) being exiled from his native Baghdad for playing around with somebody else's wife, and sent to be ambassador to the Norsemen, who have cleverly moved to the mountains of British Columbia for the purposes of this film, where they have built their fort in a large clearcut.

Ahmed joins the Norsemen, who are under constant attack by an army of demons, as, yes, the thirteenth warrior. But he must first learn their language, and Crichton and McTiernan and the screenwriters have done a truly lovely film trick here in a short montage, by having Ahmed first hear only alien sounds as the Norsemen talk to each other (in Norwegian, we presume), and then begin to hear English words and phrases mixed in to these overheard conversations, and then hear everything spoken in English. By the end of the sequence, he is fluent in the language. It's the neatest trick I've ever seen for dealing with a problem that other films shy away from.

You won't be surprised to learn that with Ahmed's help and lots of slice-and-dice swordplay, the Norsemen overcome the demon army, who -- surprise -- are really just human beings in bear drag. Along the way, lots of plot threads are introduced and abandoned, such as Ahmed's one-night stand with Diane Venora, the sneaky attempt by the Norse king's son to humiliate the warriors, and a lot of talk about a Maillol-like fertility goddess whom the demon army worships.

In any case, Ahmed leads the good guys to the bad guys' lair, which is a cavern that resembles the one in "Antz." They raid it and escape by holding their breath and riding an underground stream approximately five miles to the ocean (don't ask). And in the final battle -- well, I'm not going to give away the ending. Let it just be said that goodness, decency, and the Norse way of life are once again triumphant, as Ahmed leaves for home and presumably another scandal.    

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