Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas) was living a comfortable life in tenth century Arabia when he was unfortunate enough to fall in love with the wife of a rich and powerful man. One thing led to another, and Ahmed was made ambassador to the lands of the North, effectively exiling him to Europe, where he made friends with a translator and guide, Melchisidek (Omar Sharif) who he accompanied on the long excursions. They were most afraid of the Tartars, and one day it looked as if they would be attacked by a party of them, but oddly they stopped in their tracks. The reason? A longboat filled with Vikings heading down the nearby river, men who Ahmed would soon be getting to know very well - as long as they didn't kill him...
This adaptation of co-producer Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, a Beowulf variation, took a long and unhappy journey to get to the screen, and when it arrived it was a muted welcome that awaited it. However, over the years since its release it attracted a growing number of fans, perhaps starved of the kind of old school historical epic filled with flying swords and manly men that The 13th Warrior depicted. The script was written by William Wisher and Warren Lewis, but the production was forced to endure costly rewrites, reshoots and a long delay before it was finished to the studio's satisfaction.
Antonio Banderas may have made for a good Zorro, but here he's supposed to be a learned man (Ahmed was a real, historical writer, a point that is simply thrown away like much of the accuracy) plunged into a rough and alien world, and as far as that goes he stands out as the character with the most personality. The initial scenes resemble an anthroplogical documentary with Sharif narrating (or translating, if you prefer) for the benefit of Ahmed and for us as well. We get a brief outline of the Viking way of life, as Ahmed wants to speak to the band's king, only to find that he has died, giving us the chance to see a Viking funeral of legend.
Events take a turn towards the main plotline when a soothsayer shows up, casts some bones and announces that thirteen warriors should head off home to do battle with a mysterious new threat that has been decimating the local villages. So what we are offered is really a retread of the old Seven Samurai story, The Thirteen Samurai if you will, or The Twelve Norsemen and the One Arab because Ahmed is ordered to go along as well (it said so in the bones!). So Sharif is left behind and off our heroes sail towards Scandinavia, all set to bring down the menace.
When they reach their destination the joking and drinking stops as they discover at an impoverished village that the Wendol, as the heavies are called, could be some form of animal men and most sobering, they eat their victims. The thirteen then do their best to arm and defend the village against these villains, with all the murkily shot battle sequences you could want, but with almost every male character interchangeable, you increasingly hang onto Banderas for some kind of route into the action. Highlights include a raid on the Wendol's underground lair, as they fashion themselves after bears, and the ashen faced heroism comes across well enough, but the film doesn't enjoy enough in the way of innovation to really make its mark. For uncomplicated adventure, however, it is satisfactory - certainly better than that for its fans - but this time a little more complication would have been of benefit. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
American producer and director with a flair for action blockbusters. After self-written horror Nomads, he hit the big time with three successes: Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, but after two flops, Medicine Man and Last Action Hero, he returned to familiar territory in Die Hard With A Vengeance. Subsequent films include the troubled The 13th Warrior and two remakes, a fair attempt at The Thomas Crown Affair, and a disastrous one at Rollerball.