Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, January 22, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1999) Part 1

8. The 13th Warrior

By 1999, John McTiernan was not the hit-maker he was once. Though he had bounced back with the third “Die Hard” movie, the stink of “Last Action Hero” still hung over his career. His reputation was about to take another blow. “The 13th Warrior” began production as “Eaters of the Dead.” Based on a novel by best-selling author Michael Crichton and headlined by proven star Antonio Banderas, the film was initially budgeted at 85 million. During filming, the budget ballooned over 100 million. Feedback from test screenings were negative, necessitating further re-shoots. McTiernan was let go from his own movie, with Crichton shooting a new ending. When the film opened, it only grossed 60 million, making it one of the biggest flops in cinema history. Did “The 13th Warrior” deserve to bomb so hard?

Arab poet (and real historical figure) Ahmad ibn Fadlan is gingerly exiled from his country following an affair with a nobleman’s wife. Assigned as an ambassador to the far north, Fadlan soon falls in with a band of Norse warriors. The vikings are summoned to protect a kingdom under siege by strange attackers. A fortune teller insists that a 13 men go on the journey and one of them must not be a Norseman. Fadlan joins the strangers on a quest into foreign territory were they face down an army of seemingly inhuman monsters, a primitive race that eats the flesh of men.

Back in high school, my English class read “Beowulf.” Most of my classmates hated the assignment but I loved it. A bad-ass Viking warrior fighting monsters and a dragon was right in my wheelhouse. Like most cinematic adaptation of the ancient story, “The 13th Warrior” approaches the text from a revisionist angle. The film tells the “true” events behind “Beowulf.” The titular hero is re-named Buliwyf. The monster Grendel becomes an entire tribe of monstrous men, called “Wendol.” The dragon’s role in the story is replaced with a last wave of attackers. By telling the Norse legend through the eyes of an outsider, a man that brings the written word to a verbal culture, the famous story is framed in a new context.

The same story element also makes “The 13th Warrior” a culture clash story, of sorts. At first, Ahmad doesn’t even speak the same language as his brothers in arms. The Norseman mispronounce his name as “Ebn.” They mock him as an outsiders. Their ways are, similarly, strange to him. They compare his smaller horse to a dog and laugh as his inability to wield a giant Viking sword. Yet Ibn shows how fast and agile his horse can be. He sharpens the bulky broadsword into a more-to-his-liking scimitar. By the end, the warriors have accepted the Arab as one of their own. It’s not a novel story but it is an effective one.

Even when I was in school, “Beowulf’ was examined less for its story and more for its linguistic importance. “The 13th Warrior” incorporates this element into the material as well. As a poet, Ibn is frequently writing. Buliwyf has never seen anything like this before. He asks the Arab how he can turn sounds into symbols. If you can overlook the factual error there – the Norse alphabet dates back to at least 200 AD – it’s an interesting display of how ideas transfer from culture to culture. Ibn brings Muslim belief and ideas to a culture previously unaware of them. We tend to think of the past as stationary. Yet cultures were interacting all the time, trading new ideas and concepts. “The 13th Warrior” does a solid job of illustrating this.

As a star vehicle for Antonio Banderas, the film plays up many of the actor’s appealing attributes. Despite the obvious disconnect of a Spaniard playing an Arab, Banderas is well suited to the part. As the story begins, Fadlan is an intellectual. This puts him at odds with his traveling companions. As an experienced Latin lover, Banderas has no problem with this material. By this point in his career, Antonio had already starred in swashbucklers like “Mask of Zorro” and bad-ass action flicks like “Desperado.” As Ibn develops into a warrior, Banderas gets to show off those skills as well. Even while hacking through monsters, he gets to maintain that erudite edge, making him more than just a typical action hero.

As solid as Banderas is in the lead, the supporting cast is less defined. The film makes little attempts to distinguish the other twelve warriors. Vladimir Kulich has a striking physicality as Buliwyf. Kulich’s glaring eyes come in handy when playing up the character’s mythic importance. Dennis Storhoi as Herger, the Viking who can speak Latin, is Ibn’s earliest friend. As the story progresses, the two become even closer. As for the other members of the clan? There’s an especially burly one and an archer. Beyond that? I’ve got nothing. I know thirteen is a lot of characters but the film could’ve gone a little further to develop the rest of the cast.

As a monster fan, “The 13th Warrior’s” treatment of Grendel is especially interesting to me. The singular monster is re-imagined as a small army. The Wendol are presented as a still lingering clan of Neanderthals, with wider noses and thicker brows. They dress in bear skins, their faces hidden by heavy hoods. They were giant claws on their hands, easily slashing their enemies apart. Though the Wendol are not literal monsters, their behavior is still certainly monstrous. They slink in and out of the shadows. In one scene, an attacker easily tears a man’s head from his shoulders. Their lair is decorated with the skulls of their dead prisoners. Most macabre is their habit of eating the flesh of those they defeat. Though you can’t overstate the appeal of a giant monster, the Wendol is an interesting variation on the classic archetype.

Perhaps another reason “The 13th Warrior” flopped is because it was a big and bloody, R-rated action movie in the age of CGI spectacle. By 1999, that kind of entertainment was already on the way out. Early on, Buliwyf cleaves a man’s chest open, spraying blood across the room. For the first hour, the action in “The 13th Warrior” successfully escalates. When the Wendol attacks the mead hall, there’s a chaotic flash of blades through the darkened room. Heads are removed, limbs are severed, and bodies are run through. The tone of that sequence successfully recalls the horror movies McTiernan got his start with. A duel between two men features lots of shattering shields and dynamic tumbling, concluding with another swift decapitation. The middle of the movie receives a bold exclamation point when the Wendol attack the Viking fort. There’s impalement, arrows and spears flying everywhere. The fire silhouetted against the black night gives the sequence a dramatic presentation.

As an epic action story, John McTiernan’s directorial trademarks are present and accounted for. The camera rarely stands still, smoothly surveying the action sequences. Blades and arrows are followed as they fly through the air. Once or twice, the blurry quality that showed up in “Die Hard with a Vengeance” appears again. McTiernan’s moving camera makes the action scenes tense and the quieter moments serene. Another attribute of the director, the use of foreign languages, also appears. Much of the Vikings’ dialogue goes without subtitles, at first. The transfer of languages is literally visualized when Ibn, after watching the Vikings talk for an evening, picks up on their speech. McTiernan utilizes a similar trick to what he did in “The Hunt for Red October.” At first, they speak Norse. Slowly, recognizable words slip into their conversation. Finally, as the camera focuses on their mouths, they start speaking English. Clever beats like that is something McTiernan rarely gets credit for.

After more than an hour of solid action and amusing culture clash antics, “The 13th Warrior” builds to its apparent climax. Buliwyf, Ibn, and the other men sneak into the Wendol’s lair. There’s an exciting sequence where they swing under a waterfall. A battle among a field of bones is another high-light. However, how “The 13th Warrior” handles Grendel’s Mother in an underwhelming fashion. A female elder dips her claw in some snake venom. She dances around Buliwyf for a minute, scratching him once, before he cuts her head off. The story seemingly ends there and, in McTiernan’s original cut, maybe it did. Instead, an extraneous extra act is tagged on. A sick Buliwyf and the remaining men take on the Wendol army. This battle only lasts a few minutes as well. Both of these elements wraps up an otherwise satisfying film on a slightly sour note.

The reason “The 13th Warrior” seemingly went so hideously over-budget, besides the re-shoots, is its extravagant production design. But you can’t say the money isn’t on the screen. “The 13th Warrior” looks great. The film’s world is extremely detailed. The villages, mead halls, and forts are full of minutiae. The mud, grit, and natural wood of the environment sets the film in a clear time and place. Aside from the awesome production design, the film also features a pretty good score. Graeme Revell composed the original score, which was rejected by second director Michael Crichton. Jerry Goldsmith wrote the music featured in the final film. Though I’m sure Revell did a good job, Goldsmith’s score is fantastic. The themes are rousing, recalling a classic sense of cinematic adventure.

McTiernan’s original vision of “The 13th Warrior” hasn’t emerged and it’s unlikely it ever will. The version released to theaters isn’t a masterpiece. However, it’s still a solidly entertaining film, a satisfying mixture of historical epic and low fantasy adventure. A movie like this probably never would’ve become the huge hit the studio needed it to be. But if it had been brought in for a lot less money, I suspect it probably would’ve done alright at the box office. Not quite an overlooked gem or a cult classic, “The 13th Warrior” is still a fun way to spend an evening. [Grade: B]

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