Some things look so good on paper that one wonders how they could have failed so thoroughly in execution, and a prime example is The 13th Warrior, a historical action-epic that should have been a box office slam but bombed so badly that it became just another cautionary tale of Hollywood. There is no escaping that this movie clearly did not get the most out of what was spent on it, and sandwiched between other movies of its ilk both before and after that won both critical and commercial acclaim with more modest productions (“modest” being a relative word here), its inability to win audiences is a failure that can rest only at its own feet. But you know what? None of that matters. Because when you want a story about Vikings throwing down against endless hordes of savage stone-agers while loosely drawing upon both history and literature alike, then what you want is the 13th Warrior.
The story takes place in the 10th century. Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, the court poet to the Caliph of Baghdad, has been exiled from the court for his dalliance with the wrong woman, and finds himself on the northern hinterlands of Europe as some kind of ambassador to the Northmen there. While he travels as a stranger in a strange land, he is recruited by the heroic Buliwyf and his band of colorfully named warriors—Herger the Joyous, Skeld the Superstitious, Weath the Musician, Rethel the Archer, Roneth the Rider, Halga the Wise, Helfdane the Fat, Edgtho the Silent, Haltaf the Boy, Kyglak the Quarrelsome, and Ragnar the Dour. Together, they are called on a quest even further north to save King Hrothgar from a relentless assault by some undefined enemy called the Wendol. But the same soothsayer who encourages Buliwyf to take the quest in the first place warns that it will not succeed unless a 13th member who is not a Norseman joins the effort. So, Fadlan is pressed into service as the outsider who isn’t particularly wanted or needed by his newfound companions, but he must figure out how to become one of their number if he is to survive the trials ahead. He doesn’t have long to do it, either. For it soon becomes clear that Hrothgar’s court isn’t under siege by some singular monster, but by an entire clan of stone-age cannibals who won’t rest until Hrothgar and all his people are dead and digested. As Buliwyf’s crew is whittled down in clash after clash, they must make one final push into the heart of the Wendol’s home to end—once and for all—this internecine war between two groups of people separated not so much by space as by time.
Sometimes when a movie has a troubled production—as this one most certainly did—it’s easy to see where the collateral damage surfaces on screen. Not so here. The final result isn’t high cinema, but it’s a solid swords & shields dungeon crawl that doesn’t promise a whole heck of a lot, but what it does promise, it delivers in spades. The movie does make a critical error of drawing upon both historic and epic sources without being particularly faithful to either, thereby upsetting fans of both camps. But for those who come to this movie cold, all you need to know is that the movie does what it says on the tin: Antonio Banderas joins a bunch of Vikings to venture into the boondocks and fight an army of cannibalistic cavemen who dress like bears. What else is there to know? Exactly. Nothing. So suit up and head north, already. These cavemen aren’t going to slaughter themselves.
While the central narrative export of the 13th Warrior is a series of intense battle scenes staged in ambitious set pieces, what holds it together are moments of character between the mayhem that underscores why these heroes are fighting at all. Sadly, the attrition our heroes suffer removes some of Buliwyf’s band from the action before we ever get to know them all that much. But since the action fixes on Fadlan, he is our eyes and ears, and watching his journey into the hearts and minds of an alien people is a lot of fun to watch. Some of it is mere fish-out-of-water stuff, but there are scenes—like a particularly effective one where we see Fadlan slowly figure out the Northmen’s language—that get us to root for the outsider on a deeper level than we might expect.
Ultimately, what’s at stake in this story is a people’s sense of humanity; everything they have done, everything their ancestors have achieved threatens to be undone by their enemy. Death isn’t even the real peril here. It is obliteration—the promise that if the Wendol prevail, Hrothgar’s people will be so overturned that it will be as if they have never existed. For a people who draw so much strength from the notion that their forefathers both watch over them and await their own arrival in Valhalla, those are some pretty high stakes. High enough, in fact, to lend heft to an adventure story that otherwise would have you halfway wondering if treasure dropped every time a bad guy gets reduced to zero hit points.
That’s why the moment of truth in the 13th Warrior comes in its most badass moment, when the Wendol summon all their strength for one last assault, a stricken Buliwyf emerges to meet them one last time, Hrothgar’s people brace for their final defense, and Fadlan finally transforms from an observer to an equally invested participant in the drama at hand. Buliwyf issues an ancient prayer to his ancestors and is joined by all who stand beside him in a moment of quiet goosebumps before the clamor of war that makes us realize that some struggles really are about a whole lot more than life and death. Some struggles are about eternity.