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The 13th Warrior (1999)

Antonio Banderas and Omar Sharif are the two most familiar names in the cast of this international film based on Michael Crichton's retelling of the Old English epic Beowulf.

Crichton's novel is called Eaters of the Dead and this expression is used by the characters in the film to describe what is apparently a tribe of prehistoric people who dress themselves in bearskins and worship a female deity represented by a living woman kept in the depths of a cave.

The film is entertaining and who wouldn't enjoy watching Antonio Banderas doing anything? In this film he is an Arab exile who becomes attached to a group of men who have been summoned to the aid of a Northern king. Sharif is an elderly Arab who accompanies him in the early stages of his journey, serves as an interpreter between Banderas and the Northmen, and then disappears from the story.

Crichton reworks the three episodes of the traditional Beowulf story--the fight with Grendel, the fight with Grendel's mother, and the fight with the dragon--so as to suggest that the fantastic elements of the story had their origin in "real" events.

In this "explained" version, the monster Grendel is a tribe of prehistoric people who raid Norse villages and take away the heads of their victims. Grendel's mother is an ancient hag who represents the female deity worshipped by these cave people. The fiery dragon is a procession of these people carrying torches in the night.

Crichton's story is as fantastic as the story from which he took it.

The "Grendel" people are portrayed as cave-dwelling Neanderthals whose way of life is extremely tribal and religiously conservative. Yet they have horses. This is not a socio-economic pattern that would work. When the Plains Indians acquired horses, for example, their traditional way of life was completely overturned. No way would the mounted warriors that descend on the Norse compound run away at the loss of a single leader. Mounted warriors are nothing if not independent and competitive.

By the way, the Neanderthal people died out in Europe 30,000 years ago. Ditto the people who made the fat little female figures that the Norse characters in the movie are so disgusted by. And as for the cult of the cave bear, the preferred offering was the heads of bears, not people. Judging from the number of bearskins adorning the backs of the marauders, it's surprising that they felt the need to acquire human heads for their shrine.

I enjoyed the way the film plays with language. At the first contact between the Arabs and the Northmen they communicate by way of medieval Latin. Later the exiled Arab is shown learning the language of his pagan companions by listening them to speak. He then uses a vocabulary far more sophisticated than that of any of his "teachers."

A striking inconsistency is that the Beowulf figure seems unfamiliar with written letters. If he'd had contact with Latin, he would have had some familiarity with the Latin letters. Even if he hadn't, the Northern peoples were familiar with runes, symbols rather like letters that they carved on their weapons and other belongings. Presumably they could scratch them in the dirt as well. And speaking of language, the name given to the Beowulf character, "Buliwyf," isn't a very likely name for a warrior. In Old English, "wyf" means "woman" or "wife." The actor who plays him, however, Vladimir Kulich, does a great job.

The film's treatment of religion is also a bit skewed. In A.D. 920 the Vikings were aware of Christianity, but I don't recall any mention of it in the movie. And I thought it odd when one of the Northmen tells the Arab not to worry about going into battle because according to Norse belief everyone's fate has already been decided by the gods.

The suggestion seems to be that this is a pagan concept unfamiliar to the more civilized Arab, but according to the Koran, everyone's fate is decided at birth. And the kind of tolerance the Banderas character displays towards the beliefs of his pagan friends would not have been typical in one of his background.

The 13th Warrior is an interesting take on the Beowulf story. It can be enjoyed as fantasy, but it would be a mistake to imagine that it portrays an accurate picture of life in the tenth century.

By the way, check out the complete credits at IMDb. It's amazing how many people worked on this film.

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