April 20, 2014

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Thirteenth Warrior, The
(Reviewed August 1, 1999)
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The 13th Warrior, directed by John McTiernan, is a Hollywoodification of Michael Crichton's attempt to re- imagine Beowulf in his novel, Eaters of the Dead, with the help of a 10th century Arabic account of adventures in Central Asia. It was Kipling who pioneered this sort of thing in his brilliant story, “The Knife and the Naked Chalk,” in Rewards and Fairies, a story which purported to give a naturalistic explanation of the Norse myth of Odin. But there was a resonance to that tale about a man who unwillingly became a god which is lacking here. Kipling was careful to preserve the mystery of the myth as well as the humanity of the man, and he did not impose upon it recognizably modern assumptions. Without such care there is something suspiciously patronizing, as there is here, about saying, in effect: “We know it couldn't have been the way it is in the story, so this is what we, with our superior knowledge, suppose must really have happened.”

Not that there are not some good things in the film. Its silent conversion of the magnificent hall of Heorot in the poem into little more than a collection of primitive huts has the persuasive stamp of reality on it, and it was clever to have imagined the monstrousness of Grendel in moral rather than physical terms. Instead, that is, of a single, quasi-human creature with superhuman strength, he becomes a whole tribe (called Wendels or Vendels) of fierce cave-dwellers who paint their bodies black and dress up in bear costumes. They are said to eat those whom they kill in battle (and may in fact do so in ritual fashion) because they dismember them and carry off body parts, especially arms and heads, as sacrifices to their goddess, represented by an African-looking fertility totem.

But the goddess also lives in human form, surrounded by piles of skulls, in the deepest part of the Vendels' underwater cave, and this creature, whom the heroes must kill in order to defeat the enemy, is obviously meant to be Grendel's mother. Thus the heroism of the warriors, vaguely identified as “Northmen” and their Arab companion, played by Antonio Banderas, who is the eponymous 13th man, requires that they recognize first the inhumanity of the enemy's behavior (that's why he is “not a man”) and then the underlying humanity that makes him vulnerable. When Banderas pulls off the bear-disguise of one of the slain foes he keeps repeating: “It's a man; it's a man.” Then, when they are in the cave and in presence of the pile of human skulls and bones, the moral lesson is repeated: “No, they are not men.”

The Arab is represented as the one with the brains, the one who figures out how to find the queen while the big, dumb Norsemen's only plan is: “Ride till we find them; kill them all.” But at least two of the Norsemen are portrayed sympathetically, the happy warrior Herger the Joyous (Dennis Storhoi) who teaches the Arab the secret of his courage (“Your fate is fixed: fear profits a man nothing”), and the biggest and strongest and most admired of them, Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich), whose job it is to kill the queen. The latter sees that the Arab's ability to write is a skill worth acquiring, and after he is wounded by the queen/goddess's poisoned bear-claw, he says to the others in what is nearly his longest speech: “A man may be thought wealthy if someone were to draw his deeds—that they might be remembered.” Thus in the final scene, we see Banderas's sheikh, returned at last to Araby, writing down the deeds of the heroes in Arabic.

All this is almost but not quite enough to overcome the little annoyances of the film. The discontent of Wiglaf (Anders T. Andersen) in the poem is brought up only to be abandoned, for instance, while his name is changed to Wigliff. In the same way Beowulf becomes Buliwyf, Wealtheow, Weilew. Wouldn't a contemporary bard or scop have been more likely than our modern re-imaginer at least to get the names right? Worst of all, the story often seems in danger of turning into a multicultural morality tale. “Good-bye, Arab,” cries Herger as Banderas returns to his own land in the end. “Good-bye, Northman,” calls out the dewy-eyed Arab. This kind of thing gives the film the unmistakable hallmark of the late 20th century and calls into question all the rest of it.

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