Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Thirteenth Warrior / The Eaters of the Dead

Written by Joe the Revelator

In the Thirteenth Warrior, the action adventure movie from 1999, Antonio Banderas plays Ibn, an Arab poet who is kicked out of his luxurious palace lifestyle for dallying with a rich man's wife. He is summarily sent to the far north as an emissary, where he happens across a band of vikings. After a wild night of partying they conscript him to fight an ancient army of bear people.

For anyone who hasn't seen this film, it may be worth your time if you're into viking adventures. I remember watching it with friends in college, crafting cardboard beer box helmets, trying to swill cheap rum whenever the surly, ZZ-Top bearded wrestlers on the screen drank their grog. Or when the character of Ibn makes a complaint about the rough lifestyle of the northmen, which is nearly constant.

But for the most part, reviews for the Thirteenth Warrior haven't been favorable. I've spoken to many people whose opinions I value say it was a boring, cookie-cutter, hack-and-slash fantasy, filmed like a self-serious historical fiction. For those who have seen the pre-CGI production of Beowulf and Grendel with Gerard Butler, and the newest Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie as a golden goddess (really...that narcissist), the 13th Warrior is like the former. It sacrifices its potential for over-the-top entertainment in lieu of plausibility.

Reality TV meets ancient scrolls.

So why, in a movie about vikings dispatched by a crazy witch to kill bear people, would anyone care about the bonds of reality? Because this story might actually be true.

I recently read Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, the novel on which the 13th Warrior was based. I expected something on the order of Sphere, also by Crichton, a fantasy story with elements of quasi-scientific theory, maybe something about viking blood being sucked by mosquitoes who got trapped in tree amber. What I got was a competent lesson about a real Baghdad ambassador who was sent to the north, held captive by vikings, and taken as a conscript to fight against squat tribals with sloped foreheads who wore bear skulls and furs.

Eaters of the Dead reads like a translation, or a heavily edited translation, of Ibn's journey. There are lengthy stretches where Ibn talks about trading with merchants and traveling, gaining passage through enemy lands, and consulting with his advisers. His manuscript is packed full of details that have been referenced and found accurate by historians, including geographical information that wasn't available to Ibn in A.D. 922.

Leaping horses not included:

Amazingly, 13th Warrior is fairly congruent with Eaters of the Dead, aside from Ibn riding a horse so agile it could have been a Pegasus. So as you watch a movie that made 60 million, far less than the cost of production at around 160 million, a movie that was given such poor reviews by the critics, just think to yourself; This might have happened.

My only regret after reading the book was how much was left out of Ibn's accounts of viking society. In an early scene during the movie a dead viking king is burned on his ship, filled with his earthly possessions. His dutiful slave woman also volunteers to be burnt alive to accompany him in Valhalla. But the screenwriters somehow neglected to include Ibn's account of the entire viking tribe having their way with her sexually before they strangle her with a cord to prevent her from fleeing the burning boat.

Ibn means Son Of:

Usually when books are retooled to fit the big screen, facts are removed, dialogues are shortened/simplified, and characters are softened to appeal to broader audiences. I promise the same has been done to Eaters of the Dead. I recommend reading the book and watching the movie again, and trying not to shit bricks.

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