With all the slashing and piercing found within, it isn’t really a surprise that John McTiernan’s disastrously over-budget The 13th Warrior is so disemboweled. This tonally promiscuous production vacillates between effectively brazen horror viciousness and petty, watery cartoon-viking bombast, the two tones functioning like combative enemies rather than fascinatingly differentiated tonal inversions. Devious wrongdoings behind the camera and disastrous reshoots ensure a production that runs the gamut from pastoral myth to Manowar album cover, a grungy, dirge-like epic of alternately jaundiced and flowery discombobulation.
The reason’s for the film’s failures aren’t intangible either; with John McTiernan’s down-and-dirty update of Michael Crichton’s ‘70s book Eaters of the Dead subject to disastrous test screenings, the production company basically hired Crichton – an experienced but negligible director of his own source material – to re-film scenes, drastically altering the film’s tone and warping an exploitation-style thriller into a pseudo-epic monster mash. Delaying the release a year in the process, the reshoots also doubled the film’s budget to a massively overinflated 160 million (at the time, third only to the phallic Titanic and the misbegotten Waterworld for cost, and unlike in those productions, very little of it is showcased on the screen here).
A stone-age anti-blockbuster of sorts, The 13th Warrior plays like a bamboozled Norse Magnificent Seven, with twelve Viking warriors tasked with protecting a disheveled village from Crichton’s modernist Grendel rewrite, now a cabal of cannibalistic cave-dwelling warriors who wear bear outfits to frighten their prey. Crichton’s story is the most predatory beast here though, exactly the sort of faux-intelligent “what would it be in real life?” modernism that mistakes realism and a shortfall of magic for intelligence and insight. You have to grant a movie its concept though, and if you scrape away the idea, there’s a theoretically effective adventure-horror here starring Antonio Banderas as the effete, worldly Middle-Eastern scholar-poet Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, banished from his cosmopolitan land and tasked with serving as the 13th warrior in this journey for the endearingly arbitrary reason that one of the warriors must be a foreigner.
Other bemused decisions contribute to the pseudo-surrealistic, fairly pompous tone of the early goings, such as the bizarre non-commentary on difference and camaraderie when Banderas’ character (who as our guide speaks English in the early goings) suddenly understands the language of the Norsemen (who do not speak English initially). When everyone slips into English, and Banderas is questioned on how he can understand the Norsemen’s language all of the sudden (it is presumed that they are all speaking a unified non-English now and the film is simply translating for us), he retorts with a blissfully idiotic “I listened”. While McTiernan is staging a ghostly, dour action scene in one minute, the script’s over-baked silliness is fulfilling the promise of Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 2 to stage a Viking Funeral. You know, right after Hitler on Ice, but before Jews in Space.
Such bedeviling, prosaic idiosyncrasies of scripting ambition feel like the result of Crichton’s over-exerted desire for the film to mean something, but the middle hour promptly drops any such niceties as it ricochets between atmosphere-tinged action scenes before ultimately erupting in one of the most floridly shot, Dutch-angeled conclusions of the late ‘90s. The few bright spots are more than distractions, but they don’t save the wacky, distended tonal mistakes. For instance, the misty, myth-tinged cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. is surprisingly evocative, and McTiernan’s directing is efficient if not exactly visually witty. Elsewhere, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is sufficiently starry-eyed and stomach-burrowing, only seldom salivating with the kind of bombastic drivel that we would expect to characterize the finished product.
The various genre elements of the production – satisfying in their refusal to overindulge in grandness and their brisk, analog, pre-Lord of the Rings B-movie efficiency – just don’t jibe with the film’s shuttle-cocking between jaundiced and exultant though, resulting in a film without a center. Certainly, Banderas isn’t filling in the role. In the middle of his Errol Flynn-Douglas Fairbanks mode that was ably abetted by Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro from the year before, he is given little recourse but to glower in self-centered sobriety in a film with little investment in the kind of matinee-idol thrills epitomized by that swashbuckling slice of cinematic razzamatazz. The camera swoons on Banderas’ lined features with a weary sense of tragic ennui that, if McTiernan’s original horror-themed version of the story had come to fruition, might have corroborated the mixture of desperate energy and world-weary lethargy. But, with the mood writhing about and flagellating itself, the movie is both too messy, and far too pretentiously monumental, for its own good.