Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: About a year ago, we singled out some of our favorite unloved summer blockbusters. With the event-movie season upon us again, it’s time for the sequel.
Before The 13th Warrior, there was Eaters Of The Dead: a mucky, rainy Viking adventure, directed by John McTiernan and based on a novel by Michael Crichton, king of the bestsellers. The book, first published in 1976, marked one of the few times that Crichton demonstrated anything like literary ambition. It was a revisionist take of Beowulf, presented as an account written by the real-life 10th-century Arab diplomat Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, complete with notes and footnotes from a fictional translator. In the mid-1990s, when Michael Crichton adaptations seemed like the surest bet in Hollywood, it became a hot property.
Eaters Of The Dead was shot in the summer of 1997, with Antonio Banderas as Ibn Fadlan. A release date was set, for the spring of 1998, and then moved to the summer as a potential blockbuster. Teaser trailers were released. Then came the early test screenings, the end result of which was McTiernan’s exit and costly, extensive reshoots directed by Crichton himself. Retitled The 13th Warrior, and still credited to McTiernan, the movie finally made it into theaters in the late summer of 1999. There is no consensus on how much it cost, though some estimate that the studio lost as much as $130 million on the project—about $185 million in today’s dollars.
The surprising thing about The 13th Warrior—at least once you get past the opening credits—is that it isn’t the schizoid mess of clashing sensibilities one would presume it to be, given its production history. Stripped of the novel’s meta-fictional gimmicks and dry humor, and with only some of McTiernan’s vision, it still works well as a medieval adventure yarn. The storytelling is occasionally rushed and clunky, but the action—almost all of it McTiernan’s—is atmospheric and gritty, with combatants as figures lunging through fog, smoke, and rain.
Punished with an assignment to the land of the Volga Bulgars, in what is now Russia, the effete Ibn Fadlan—essentially a modern-day viewer stand-in—ends up traveling further north in the company of a dozen Norsemen, led by Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich), the story’s version of Beowulf. (The handling of language is pretty ingenious, with English used to represent anything ibn Fadlan understands, beginning with the occasional word peppered into the Norsemen’s speech.) There, they end up facing the eaters of the original title, a primitive tribe of cannibals who travel hidden in mist and fog.
It’s not hard to pick up the signature of McTiernan, one of the great action stylists, on certain scenes; his striking, lopped-off sense of framing is a dead giveaway, as is the smoky, rainy atmosphere. Nor is it difficult to pick up what kind of film McTiernan set out to make—one that was darker and moodier than the finished product. It may not represent his original vision, but it remains a fun, old-school adventure flick that is, in stretches, beautiful.
Availability: The 13th Warrior is available on DVD from Netflix and possibly from your local video store/library. It can also be rented from the major digital services.