Loosely based on “Beowulf” (and directly adapted from the Michael Crichton book Eaters of the Dead) this film is about an Arabian, who we’ll call Little Brother because that’s what he’s referred to most often (Antonio Banderas (Original Sin, Assassins)), who gets banished from his homeland and travels across the Middle East and Europe. He comes across some Vikings and hangs with them for a bit. But they get an emergency call from a small village that’s under attack by monsters. A team of thirteen warriors needs to be assembled and Little Brother is chosen to go. He doesn’t volunteer mind you. He gets handpicked because the thirteenth warrior needs to be a foreigner. So our heroes set off to figure out what the fuck is going on and kill the threat.
That set up may have sounded kinda funky but it’s only the first couple of minutes of the film. The main story is extremely simplistic: something is attacking this village, find out what and destroy it.
The reason we need to have a character like Little Brother is because he’s supposed to be the audience. He’s the guy that’s completely unfamiliar with this Viking world and so shit needs to be explained to him. It’s a standard way to dole out info to the viewers and also one of the best because it comes across as natural.
Every one of the Vikings is a man’s man. They have beards, long hair, aren’t afraid of anything, don’t think twice about killing, keep cool under fire, they’re muscular, stoic as shit and are just all around badass motherfuckers. Little Brother is weaker, smaller, inexperienced in battle, unacquainted with Viking lore, unaccustomed to the thick forests and caves of Scandinavia and feels out of place most of the time. But don’t get the wrong impression. Little Brother doesn’t argue when he’s told he must embark on this journey with the Vikings. He accepts his situation without as much as a peep. Sure he may not be as manly as the others but he puts his best foot forward and does whatever he can to help out. He knows he’s not on the same level as these macho sonsabitches but he tries to not let it discourage him. Even with the occasional joke that gets made at his expense Little Brother remains committed to helping these guys out because they’re all in the same boat (literally and figuratively). They’re united to stop this unknown force. The camaraderie is beautiful to see.
And the actual mystery itself is really cool. You hear tales at first of these things eating the dead and then you see some of the carnage that they leave behind when our crew checks out a house in the woods filled with mutilated bodies. The creatures are kept in either long or very shadowy shots for about the first half so we can’t make them out too well. They look like bear/human hybrids. And the supernatural aspect seems to be true when the Vikings are sure they’ve killed a bunch in a fight but when they go to examine the bodies they’ve disappeared. Spoiler, skip to the next paragraph where it’s safe. But when we do finally see that these things are really just humans dressed up to intimidate it’s more shocking than if they really were an ancient breed of monsters. I don’t know about you but to have the enemy be a tribe of barbaric humans grounds the movie and makes the whole experience feel more serious. If the filmmakers had used mutated human/bear creatures I wouldn’t have been against it but having them just be crazy humans is maybe scarier. I think it’s because it shows how cruel we can be towards each other and also that things haven’t really changed over the years. We still threaten and attack each other every day around the world.
The production design and cinematography are goddamn incredible. The world we’re shown feels rich and lived in. The small village that needs protection with its great hall is especially amazing. Everything looks larger than life and is kinda grimy. The whole film has a sort of slightly exaggerated and dark look to it that’s absolutely beautiful. It looks very similar to how most pictures are done today with muted colors and just the right amount of grit. But I think this one looks even better than today because back in the 90’s they weren’t afraid to throw in some color and textures that weren’t so glossy and shiny.
The lighting is also very well done. Like the rest of the movie they tried to keep it organic and didn’t clear up the overcast days or over light the scenes where fire is the source.
One of the best parts is the night battle. The bad guys wield torches and hurl them at the village to try and burn it down. Of course they also invade on horseback and everyone joins in on the fight. It’s a little hard to make out what’s happening sometimes because the lighting is minimal and there are a lot of shadows. But it all looks and feels phenomenal. It’s supposed to be chaotic which definitely comes across but it’s not so messy that you can’t follow shit. I particularly like the shot of the enemies riding with their torches through the narrow avenues of the village. I love that you can’t see the faces so it looks like a bear riding a horse.
John McTiernan of Die Hard and Predator fame directed this. But apparently the final product he delivered was so bad that Michael Crichton had to go back and do some reshoots as well as re-edit the thing. It’s so weird because this film doesn’t feel that way at all. The whole thing really comes together and works well. There are only two things that don’t quite add up. The first is that they set up this power struggle between the king of the village and some other dude but it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s brought up maybe twice and then it’s forgotten about. Although, this throwaway part of the plot does lead to a pretty cool moment that demonstrates how awesome one of the Vikings is. The other is that the last fight sequence is rather short and it feels like either they didn’t shoot enough footage forcing them to make it a relatively brief scene or this was part of Crichton’s reshooting which he wouldn’t have had a large budget for causing this battle to be smaller and shorter. The way they did it isn’t terrible but it’s a shame because you want this to end with a big fight. You could also say that Little Brother learning the language of the Vikings in just a couple of weeks or months is bullshit but that didn’t bother me very much (for some reason this same language thing irritated me a lot in The Last Samurai though). Other than those couple of items this is a lean mean badass sonuvabitch of a movie.
Well, ok, The 13th Warrior is a lame title. They should’ve stuck with the original (and book) title: Eaters of the Dead. Not only is it way cooler sounding but it also makes more sense. The focus of the picture isn’t the thirteenth warrior, Little Brother. He’s the main character but the story isn’t about him, it’s about a situation at this village. It’s like if Star Wars was called Jedi or Luke Skywalker. Sure Luke plays a major role but the story is bigger than him. The movie encompasses more than this one character.
But overall I really liked this one a lot. It’s a very refreshing film that gets so much out of a stripped down story. The idea of danger and creatures lurking in the woods is classic. The investigation and build up is executed pretty perfectly with a ton of suspense, intrigue and menace.
This is a forgotten gem. It’s such an adventure-y adventure picture. Plus a lot of people get killed. According to moviebodycounts.com the final tally rises to 61. Shit man.