Film review: “The Thirteenth Warrior”, reviewed by Jarl Valgard

Film Review: ” The Thirteenth Warrior”

by Valgard Jarl, Ulfhednar, Stiersman of Tribe Rot Mahne, Bundir to Alfrik Favnesbane

from the Sept. 1999 Seahorse

Okay, first the petty SCA nitpicking: I hated the armor, as most other SCA people will hate the armor, and the ships were a bit too Boris Vallejo for me. There is no reason to put Beowulf in fantasy/gothic plate. I also hated it when a couple of characters showed up wearing SCA armor (though it looked better then the other stuff). Normally we get to gripe about how the armorers knew nothing and how we SCA people could do so much better, but since the weapons (and probably some of the armor) were made by SCA people up in Lionsgate, we get to gripe at ourselves for a change. (Of course if Sir Gaston had won the bid it might have been a bit different). For a movie based on a book with such fine anthropological detail, that was gnawing — especially since the rest of the film was very good in that regard.

That being said, the movie is awesome. I’ll probably go see it again this afternoon. They made very few changes in the story to accommodate the filming, adding a small subplot and changing how some of the battles play out to make them more spectacular. If you’ve read the book you won’t be very disappointed. They dropped a few things to make it more palatable, like the fact that before a woman was burnt with a king she had sex with every member of his crew — which is part of Ibn Fadhlan’s development into a warrior when he does the same at Buliwyf’s funeral. And they did not show Buliwyf’s funeral, which would have been a good visual to end the film on. I also really wanted to see the scene about the “Soup Sickness.”

An interesting point: the reason Crichton has a directing credit on this film is because he had a fight with John Mactiernan over how the ending would be edited, and he won. It is good to see an author of a novel maintain that kind of control when his books are made into movies (Crichton and Stephen King are about the only ones who can. Even Tom Clancy couldn’t fight the producers when they wanted to fire Alec Baldwin and hire Harrison Ford — whom Clancy thinks is totally unsuited to the role — to play Jack Ryan). Making the Vendel bear berserks (which I don’t recall from the book) was really cool as far as I was concerned, especially since, even though it was a change from the book, it is one which was not too far off from period Viking culture.

Visually the film is rich in color and scenery. It was shot in the fjords in BC (one film which could not have been made as well in Hollywood), and the landscapes are stunning. Even better are the two CGI scenes which open the film, the one of Buliwyf’s longboat surfing down a fifty foot wave during a storm, the other of 10th Century Baghdad at sunset. Not only are they beautiful, but they open the film with two perfect visual contrasts between Ibn Fadhlan’s old life and his new one.

The casting was superb. They hired Scandinavian and English actors to play the Vikings, which not only gave them a foreign quality but it meant they were being played by people who really looked like Vikings instead of coverboys for Flex magazine.

But the best thing about the film is the way it portrayed the Viking spirit. Their embrace of battle is truly joyous, and when they are sure they are going to die even more so, as they are sure they will reach Valhalla. The scene where the twelve heroes volunteer for the journey is one of the best portrayals of Vikings in American cinema — better even than Kirk Douglas’s film (which had the benefit of the Vikings’ armor being more or less accurate and the English armor only being about 200 years too late). It is clear from everything they do that these are warriors for whom death is a constant companion, whose only fear is to die poorly, and whose greatest hope is that songs will be sung about them when they are gone.

I loved this film. It made my Viking blood boil.