Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lost and Found: The 13th Warrior (1999)

My original intent with John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior (1999) was to have it be the third in the 'pantheon' of Mini Masterpieces Within Mediocre Movies (MMWinMM), because there's one scene early in the film which was truly great. I remembered the rest of it as being a bit of a mess. To confirm this, I decided to rewatch it (after first seeing it sometime in early 2001 on videotape). Imagine my surprise that in 2010 I found it quite entertaining.

Set in the early 10th century, The 13th Warrior tells the story of Ahmed (Antonio Banderas), a Mesopotamian prince who is exiled as a 'diplomat' to the Norseland for indiscretions in Babylon. With the assistance of Melchisidek (Omar Sharif) as his guide and interpreter, they find themselves welcomed into the Norse king's home shortly after he has died. Almost immediately, it is announced that a distant community has been attacked by an unknown evil force that has laid waste to the village. A shaman proclaims that 13 warriors must go to defeat this threat. Twelve would be Norse, one must not be a Northman, so Ahmed is quickly co-opted into the group. The biggest problem is that he cannot understand a word they say and they cannot understand him (this leads to the MMWinMM which I will get to in a minute).

They arrive in the village and over the course of the rest of the film, the 'evil ones' attack three times, repelled each time by the warriors and villagers (and the warriors attack the 'evil one's' camp once too). After each attack, some of the warriors are killed and Ahmed, a man of peace, develops into a respected member of the group. The material, originally based on a short novel by Michael Crichton called The Eaters of the Dead, borrows freely from The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven and also embraces the notion found in most Howard Hawks films about one man gaining acceptance into a long-established group (in Hawks' world, everybody has a nickname, here the Norsemen cannot comprehend that Ibn means 'son of,' so they just call him Eben).

Banderas and the rest of the cast are uniformly strong, and one of the film's greatest strengths is that you actually believe you are in Norse country in the 10th century (even though the whole thing was shot around Vancouver and Vancouver Island), right down to the long stretches of the film where the characters speak to each other in languages neither can understand.

Which brings us to the MMWinMM. About 20 minutes into the film, the warriors and Ahmed set off. Each night, the men sit around the fire pit, talking up a storm, all except Ahmed who sits quietly and watches. Earlier in the film, the dialogue has either been subtitled or translated by Sharif's character, but not now. The Norse is left unsubtitled so that we, like Ahmed, feel isolated. Over the course of many evenings, Ahmed sits quietly and listens to the men kibbitz with each other in their own language. Through the clever layering of the soundtrack (we see Ahmed start to recognize repeated words and phrases) we quickly comprehend (but the other warriors do not) that Ahmed is learning their language. Then one night, again as the men talk, we hear gibberish Norse, and then the word "tomorrow" is heard. More gibberish and then a few more words in English. This continues for a few beats until all the dialogue is again in English. Finally, one of the them throws an insult at Ahmed that he and the other men assume he cannot understand. Banderas plays the response perfectly. Speaking very slowly (as if a man is speaking a new language for the first time), he tosses the insult back. The men are shocked and demand to know how he learned their language. To which he proclaims, with obvious pride, "I LISTENED!" It's a sublime moment that illustrates how, if we are open to it, we can comprehend the languages around us, especially if we become immersed in them.

I once experienced something similar to Ahmed. In the early summer of 2001, I was in the south of France on wine business. I didn't speak French, but there was an interpreter with us. One afternoon, after being surrounded by mostly French speakers for a week, I was standing with my interpreter and a French winemaker. They spoke French for a couple of minutes as I stood there and listened. Once they finished, my interpreter turned to translate for me. "It's okay," I said. "I got most of that." Which was true. I couldn't speak back, but because of a combination of English and French words that were similar, several French wine terms I knew, and repeated words and phrases that I was getting, I began to understand what I was hearing. I'm convinced that the scene in The 13th Warrior inspired me to "listen" because in listening comes understanding.

Now the film still has problems, the biggest one being the brevity of the picture (103 minutes - it could have easily lasted another very satisfying 10 minutes). A subplot in the distant village of a conflict between the village chief's son and the warriors is brought up and then dropped (I bet there's lots of scenes on the cutting room floor that finished this off better). Also, the scenes where Ahmed learns the language are over far too quickly (it would have been nice if we had seen a couple more nights) and the final big battle is way too brisk. The three places where they could have lingered, they chose not too, which is a pity, because there is enough 'good stuff' in this film to have made it a fine little action picture. As it is, it has the MMWinMM. But there are also many other moments that make it very entertaining.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

1 comment:

  1. I must agree with your comments on the language scene.
    I saw this movie in the theatre when it opened.
    Four years ago, I started working in Brazil. When I arrived, I didn't speak a word of Portuguese. Now I am practically fluent, without taking classes - and I always refer to this film as my inspiration.
    I remember it happened just like the film. One sudden moment, while a little intoxicated - I broke out a told a joke to the group in Portuguese. Shocked faces and complete silence switched into laughter. From then on, I had no excuse saying "Eu Não Falo Português".