Movie review — The 13th Warrior — thumbs up

The 13th Warrior is a 1999 film starring Antonio Banderas which did not receive terrific reviews at the time (or since) and apparently did not do well financially either. But I recommend it. 

The story is set in A.D. 922. Banderas plays a Muslim Arab diplomat who joins a group of Vikings who head north to aid a besieged king. (The story is intentionally similar to that of Beowulf, in that regard.)  

The movie has just a 6.6 rating on IMDB. It gets criticized because it’s too violent; the story line is pretty straightforward action/adventure bedlam once the Vikings and the Arab arrive up north; and there are some loose ends left hanging.

So first, about the violence. Yes, heads get chopped off; people are impaled, shot through the head with arrows, etc., and there’s a lot of blood. But it’s no worse than many movies from the 90s and afterward. No worse than Gladiator or Pulp Fiction, for example. I’m not sure why critics take such offense at Vikings getting decapitated here (ahem, spoiler alert) when other films just as violent were considered works of genius. Honestly — Tarantino was canonized for Pulp Fiction, but the violence in The 13th Warrior is no worse and is basically historically accurate, in the sense that the Vikings were certainly violent people. 

Second, the action/adventure plot. Yes, it’s an action/adventure movie. There are chases, skirmishes, and battles. Secret passages and torch-bearing mobs. An army of bad guys are besieging a village, and the main characters . . . fight the bad guys. It’s not My Dinner With Andre

Third, loose ends. Yes, a half-baked subplot with the maybe-treacherous son of an aging king is never really resolved. Also, Banderas ditches a love interest who would have been an interesting person to take back to the Middle East. A different director (Michael Crichton) took over the movie when it was nearly complete, and some balls were dropped.  It’s a good flick anyway. 

Another great thing about this movie is that it has a very rare, positive depiction of a Muslim. Banderas’s character is educated, urbane, literate (unlike his companions), and brave. He rescues a young Viking girl. He sticks to his beliefs in an alien environment. Why do I care? It’s just nice to see positive press for a Muslim when so often in Hollywood films they’re simply villains. Banderas’s character reminds me of the hardworking Muslim detective in A Perfect Murder and . . . not too many other roles that I can think of. 

The movie does well depicting the polyglot tenth-century world of Viking travelers — they really did travel far to the south of their homes, down into Russia and Middle East. Banderas’s character has to have a friend (Omar Sharif!) translate for him from Arabic into Greek, so that a Greek-speaking Viking can pass along information from his band — it’s well done. A good movie to check out. 

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