Quickie 13 – The 13th Warrior (1999)

or “A Baghdad Poet in King Hrothgar’s Court”

Sure to be a topic of tension, I’m gonna say it right now: I don’t approve of blackface and/or brownface. Before anyone asks, no, I don’t approve of whitewashing either. Well, the version that involves turning non-white characters into white ones so white actors can portray them. However, the one where you Tom Sawyer some chucklefucks into doing your work for you via deception? All about that. Unless it leads to a Trumpening. I draw the line at predatory exploitation of the stupids when elections with global consequences are involved.

Anyway, this comes up because today’s movie features Spanish actor Antonio Banderas playing the role of an Arab man. Given that I’m neither Spanish nor Arab, I have zero personal stake in the politics of one pretending to be another. Racial connotations not withstanding, my personal stake is that of an audience member watching a guy with a heavy Spanish accent attempting to convince me he should be speaking Arabic…which quickly turns into English because subtitles are box office poison. It gives me flashbacks of Sean Connery being cast as a Russian in The Hunt for Red October or a Spaniard in Highlander without the slightest effort to mask his HEAVY SCOTTISH BROGUE/BURR. Just your basic Hollywood bullshit, I suppose.

“I was wrong. These are not men.”

Starting off like a wacky comedy, royal court poet Ahmad ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) gets caught knockin’ pointy Iron Sheik boots with the wife of a prominent potentate, and rather than just getting castrated and/or executed, he lucks out and instead gets reassigned faster than a pedo priest. No longer a sultan of stanzas, Ahmad becomes an ambassador to the faaaaaaaar North, where he’s to build political relations with the typically savage Norse folk. It’s such a zany fish-out-of-water setup, how could it fail!? Well, financially it lost around $130 million, so I’d call that a pretty fantastic failure for starters.

What was intended as a simple summit between two kingdoms that wouldn’t even be able to form an alliance without their interpreters (the Arabians’ of which was played by Omar Sharif, who legitimately retired from acting after the piss-poor reception The 13th Warrior received) ends up with Ahmad joining the Norsemen on a quest to bring peace to one of their neighboring territories. Why? Because an old lady in the throes of dementia prophesied that the mission would be a bust without the assistance of a 13th party member who is not of Viking blood. Therefore, our hero becomes the group’s token brown man because he was there. If you’re wondering whether this is a common outcome for an ambassadorship, it’s not. The only other instances I can think of are the story of Plutarch having to slay the Chimera, and that time Shirley Temple Black teamed with the Ghana Consulate to prevent a malaria outbreak by disposing of a nest of Adze.

Though unable to speak a word of the Northerners’ native tongue, our ‘Mad man picks up the lingo after traveling back to Odin’s country with them. He teaches them, they teach him, he boinks a Viking woman, they work together, celebrate together, mourn together, yadda yadda yadda. Like I said, your basic foundations for a “square peg in a round hole” culture clash scenario. The supposed “monsters” marauding the Vikings’ neighbors turn out to be a clan of cannibal troglodytes dressed in bear skins who slaughter their more evolved prey using guerrilla scare tactics and HUGE FLESH RENDING BEAR CLAWS. Once the good guys sandblast the cave monkeys’ mystique, they raid the man eaters’ lair, kill their brood queen, escape with the help of a conveniently placed underground stream, then regroup back at the village to fend off the looming counterattack and kill the monstrous leader of the pack (*vrooooom*) to wrap up their heroic storyline. Ahmad hops the first Knarr back to Sand Town and avoids the possible fatherhood type responsibilities he probably left behind in his work girlfriend’s womb as the end credits play us out.

If you can ignore Tony B’s accent (though, having read this you’ll no longer be able to, mwa-ha-ha), this is a decent little fantasy-lite semi-epic production. Watching city mouse and his country mice cousins learn from each other is charming, the combat scenes are suitably serviceable, and the Eaters of the Dead (also the movie’s original title, which it shares with Michael Crichton’s thusly adapted story) are an interesting group of marauders that are much more cunning than most movies tend to write similarly savage characters. As expected, there are a few moments that will let loose cries of “HORSESHIT!” from fellow pickers of nit, but if you’re of a mood to ignore them and give The 13th Warrior a pass, pick it at your local library or buy one of the thousands of $1 copies littering any given flea market!

Moral of the Story: Dipping your pen in another person’s inkwell can dramatically increase your risk of ending up a side dish at some cannibal family cookout.

Final Judgment:

Two-and-a-Half Bear Claws out-of-Five



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