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Film / The 13th Warrior

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The 13th Warrior is a 1999 Action/Adventure film directed by John McTiernan, based on the book The Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, who also directed parts of the film.

Ahmad ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) is an educated Arab courtier who is sent to foreign lands as punishment for a courtly indiscretion. He is recruited to serve as the thirteenth member of a group of Norse warriors who answer a call for help from a far-away Nordic king. Said king's kingdom is under attack from the Wendol, a savage tribe of bear pelt-wearing cannibals. The bookish Fadlan narrates his adventure and his growing respect for the barbarians around him throughout.

The story is a reworking of the classical tale of Beowulf, with Norse chieftain Buliwyf as an Expy for the hero Beowulf and the remaining warriors form his band. The classic battles are all reworked to replace the monsters with the cannibalistic Wendol, and the whole thing ended up looking pretty close to Seven Samurai, only with Vikings and an Arab traveler. Speaking of which, Fadlan is based on the Real Life figure of the same name. The book draws heavily on Fadlan's writings in its opening passages.


The film had a notoriously difficult production, and suffered heavily from Executive Meddling. Crichton himself ended up performing some reshoots after test screenings, such as making the tribe's queen into a lithe Dark Action Girl. For the release of the film, some printings renamed the book after the film, with the note "Originally Published As 'Eaters of the Dead'".

This film provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: After Ahmad shows off his skills with a sabre and eventually points his blade at the still sceptical Weath, he, without blinking, asks if he can give the cut-down sword to his daughter after Ahmad gets himself killed. Everyone cracks up, including Ahmad himself.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • The case of the Wendol queen mentioned above. She was originally a fat old woman, embodying the Wendol's "prehistoric Venus" stone figures. It was actually done on Crichton's demand, because he wanted Buliwyf to be Distracted by the Sexy.
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    • Neither the (final version) Wendol mother nor the male leader (both introduced in reshoots) look in any way Neanderthal.
  • Adaptational Badass: While the Ahmad in the book is just a diplomatic on a mission, has no particular skills, and barely manages to keep himself alive in fights, the Ahmad in the movie was banished for his (implied to be unconsummated) love of a woman forced to marry another against her will, and is a talented equestrian, swordsman and blacksmith. He is also capable of learning a language just by careful observation and listening (at least in an immersive environment). He does start the movie about as competent in a fight as his book equivalent, but it turns out it's because he doesn't know how to use that style of sword.
  • Advantage Ball: As long as the Wendol are considered supernatural, they seem almost invincible, slaughtering the 13 with ease. The moment their true nature is revealed, they start dying and fighting like standard Mooks. It is implied this is because the warriors lose their fear of them.
  • All Cavemen Were Neanderthals: The movie keeps the Wendol's love for bear skins and human meat but oddly subverts this. They have their own language, enough engineering skill to build a solid bridge, and can wage hit-and-run cavalry warfare. It is even debatable if they are still Neanderthals in this version, as while those in the scenes shot by McTiernan have some passable Neanderthal eyebrows and chins, the new mother and the chief added in the reshots by Crichton clearly don't, and their tech only complicates things (see Anachronism Stew).
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • The Wendol get this even more than in the original book. In addition to the Venuses, they also have body paint (we don't know if Neanderthals did, though they may), cave paintings (very unlikely), and they also fight with horses and throwing javelins (certainly not). However, it is not unbelievable that they'd pick new technology from their neighbors if they lived for another 31,000 years.
    • Each of Buliwyf's men wears a completely different set of armor that in many cases won't be made for centuries or is outdated by centuries. There is a Roman gladiator's murmillo, a Spanish conquistador's morrión and breastplate, a Greek-looking set of scale armor, and Buliwyf wears a Vandal helmet and part of a 15th century knight's plate armor at the same time.
    • Weath wears a belted plaid, AKA a great kilt, despite it not having come into being until the late 16th Century.
    • Ahmad turns his broadsword into a shamshir - a Turkic cavalry saber introduced in the Middle East from Central Asia in the 12th century.
  • Artistic License – Biology:
    • The wendols are all clad in bearskins, with each and every one of them wearing a bear's head as a headdress, and the skins don't even look worn or old. And there are hundreds of wendols, meaning that hundreds of bears have been recently slaughtered to make their headdresses. This is kind of impossible, as there simply wouldn't have been enough fully grown bears in the region to outfit them all.
    • The Vikings mock Ahmad's little Arabian horse and joke he's riding on a dog. While Arabian horses were relatively small at the time to better survive in the desert (and straight Egyptian Arabs still are), Scandinavians rode ponies, which were also small to survive in the cold. Ahmad's horse would have been a bit larger than theirs, not smaller. The Vikings' attitude toward Arab horses is Truth in Television for a lot of people who don't know what these beasts are capable of; in reality they are Pint-Sized Powerhouses which have been bred for battle for centuries.
  • Artistic License – Engineering: Ahmad, unable to wield a Viking broadsword, uses a grindstone to turn it into a Arabian shamshir. In real life, this would result in a useless sword because of the different forging techniques used to make them. The sword would now be nearly unable to hold an edge and would be incredibly weak - likely either breaking or bending the first time it hit something. Not only this, but he manages to do it in what appears to be a fairly short period of time, while a grind of this magnitude on a hand-worked wheel would take days.
  • Artistic License – Geography: The map in the beginning shows Baghdad in the middle of the Caucasus, at an equal distance between the Black and Caspian seas.
  • Artistic License – Martial Arts: Ahmad can barely wield a viking sword because it's straight and heavy, so when he turns it into a lighter, nimbler scimitar, a model he is familiar with, he turns out to be a master with it. In real life, while it's true that swordfighting changes a lot depending on the blade's shape and proportions, viking swords weren't really that heavy or cumbersome. Realistically, although Ahmad would have certainly been thrown off by the sword's unfamiliar shape at first, a seasoned swordfighter like him should have been able to swing it with all ease.
  • Ascended Extra: Ahmad has a romance with an unnamed Norse girl, however brief. In the book, he simply found himself ravaging random slave girls like his Norse comrades before the battle.
  • Automaton Horses: While some care and feeding of the horses belonging to the Viking band is depicted (Ahmad is shown carrying hay for his horse) and some sense of the difficulty of transporting horses by longship is shown, the movie would have the viewer believe that not only was a tribe of hundreds of Wendol able to live undetected in a cave within miles of the Viking settlement but that they also kept hundreds of horses there. A single horse would need at least an acre of excellent pasture, year-round.
  • Awesome by Analysis: Ahmed pieces together the norse language in his head and learns it well enough to speak it fluently just by sitting quietly and listening to the twelve warriors talking for long enough.
  • Badass Bookworm: Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, but he's more of a ladies' man.
  • Badass Creed:
  • Barbarian Tribe: Besides the Norse and the Wendol, the movie adds a Tatar army at the beginning of the movie who promptly scampers at the sight of a Viking longship.
  • Bears Are Bad News: This part is kept like in the book. However, here is also used against them. Ahmad asks the Northmen how do they hunt for bears, thus leading to his realisation that they need to find a cave system large enough for the entire tribe to live in it.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Before the final battle, the women prepare to kill the children in case of Wendol victory.
  • Bilingual Bonus: In an early scene, there's a fairly lengthy speech in Swedish.
  • Blood Knight: All of the Northmen, who seem to enjoy battle more than anything else in the world.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Many of the Northmen, but mainly Herger the Joyous, Ahmad's caretaker.
  • Big Guy Fatality Syndrome: Of course, the biggest (and oldest, therefore more experienced) of the 13 is killed in battle with the Wendol. And he has the slowest, most painful death of all.
  • Bookends: One of the first scenes after Ahmad joins the Vikings shows Buliwyf's father Viking Funeral. The film ends with Buliwyf's own Viking Funeral.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Inverted. When Herger is purposefully bullying Angus, he's doing it exactly to get him angry, force a duel and kill him by surprise.
  • Chekhov's Lecture: The explaination behind Thunder Cliffs and the sound they make. It comes to play in the final act, when the remaining warriors are trapped deep in a cave system and suddenly start hearing thunders. What starts as a joke about incoming rain quickly turns as a way of figuring out a escape route through the water.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: In the first skirmish, the 13 take casualties against a small raid. In the first main battle, the remainder backed by the locals lose several more. In the caves, they lose yet more in tunnel fighting but take many enemies with them. In the last battle, four drive off an army and the only casualty was already dying from an earlier wound.
  • Cool Sword: Ahmad's scimitar, which is basically a Norse broadsword grinded down into a sabre. It still has a hilt of a broadsword, giving it an uncanny look, and is absurdly sharp, making up for Ahmad's lack of strength.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass:
    • Herger won the duel using this. From the point of view of his opponent he was an older, shorter and weaker guy with a really big mouth and ego to match. What Angus didn't know was that the whole situation was a set-up to get him killed and send a message to his boss.
    Herger: Deception is the point! Any fool can calculate strength.
    • The Northmen treat Ahmad like an useless Funny Foreigner load at first, but he eventually proves he can actually fight and be useful in their quest.
  • Dark Action Girl: The tribe's queen, at least in the final version.
  • Dare to Be Badass: The choosing of the thirteen (until Ahmad is drafted as number 13) consists of calls of "Who shall be the Xth man?" "I shall be the Xth man!"
  • Decapitated Army: First the tribe's queen, then their general. It's lampshaded by a local oracle when she gives cryptic advices to the remaining warriors.
  • Debut Queue: The seer casts the runes and names the warriors to be appointed on the quest one by one.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Several of the vikings have their moments. But perhaps the most memorable moment is when the vikings are told that the oracle they must consult is a mad old woman, and Herger comments "the perfect advisor."
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The number of warriors must be 13, corresponding to the number of months in the Norse year (probably meant to be in that specific year, as they occasionaly had a 13th month akin to the extra day in a Leap Year). The book further explains that Old Norse culture sees the number 13 as a good thing in general. Then there's the Human Sacrifice of a willing slave at the Viking Funeral.
  • Demoted to Extra: Wigliff and his herald disappear after Herger's duel with Angus.
  • Demythification: By removing the dwarf daggers, the movie's version of Buliwyf's fight with the mother weirdly gets closer to the original poem, yet keeps the non-fantastic approach. He decapitates her with his sword (rather than it breaking down and him using another random, older, more powerful sword lying around in the cave to do the deed), but he loses it still during the escape from the Wendol's cave (which is more accidented than in the book, where the Wendol guards simply left their posts after the mother was killed).
  • Department of Redundancy Department: "In the halls of Valhalla", Valhalla meaning "hall of the slain" (singular).
  • Developing Doomed Characters: Averted, and unlike a typical case - with amazingly bad results for the story. Since most of characters are completely underdeveloped, there is no impact to their deaths, as they aren't even named in-story and some of them exist only in the Debut Queue scene.
    Vladimir Kulich: We shot for 10 months. We had plenty of time to establish characters.
  • Died Standing Up: Buliwyf dies sitting on a log, watching the enemy retreat.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: Buliwyf is poisoned and so fatally sick that he can hardly stand, but when the battle starts he's there with his sword and his dog because that's just how Vikings do it.
  • Dual Wield: In the final battle one of the warriors wields a sword and a short axe.
  • Due to the Dead:
    • Herger tosses gold to Wigliff for Angus's funeral, after killing him. This practice, called a weregild ("man's price") was mandatory under Viking law to prevent a Cycle of Revenge.
    "See to your friend. He was a brave man."
    • Hrothgar pays for Bulliwyf to have a royal funeral as thanks for his heroism.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Ahmad is initially referred to by the northmen as "Eben, a mispronounced "Ibn", which means "son of" in Arabic, due to misunderstanding him when he gives his full name as Ahmad Ibn-Fadlan Ibn-Abbas Ibn-Rashid. Later on Herger starts affectionately referring to Ahmad as "little brother."
  • Fanfare: The score by Jerry Goldsmith.
  • The Fatalist: The movie presents Norse culture as such, leading to Not Afraid to Die. Before their first battle Herger tells Ahmad not to fear death because his fate is fixed and nothing he can do will change that. Real Life Islamic culture of course tends at least as much towards fatalism as Norse culture possibly didnote .
  • Flat Character: Practically everybody that is not Ahmad, even although he is, well, the 13th warrior, not the only. Half of the group's members don't even have spoken lines beyond "I shall be the Xth man!" in the choosing of the thirteen scene.
  • Funny Foreigner: The Vikings take Ahmad for this although he progressively earns their respect. Bizarrely, one of the final trailers stressed the first part without referencing the second, making it look like a comedy.
  • General Failure:
    • Despite being under constant Wendol attacks to the point of his people being depleted of men of fighting age, Hrothgar doesn't even put up a palisade before Buliwyf and his companions show up.
    • Despite the Wendol's earlier mastery of cammouflage and scouting, once the Wendol leader breaks out the cavalry, he just keeps a frontal attack on one point of the Norse fortress and attempts to Zerg Rush it.
  • A Good Way to Die: When wounded Helfdane decides to stay behind in the cave tunnels, he remarks to the sorrowful Ahmad, "today was a good day," even smiling. As said below, all of the vikings are invigorated by battle, and do not fear dying in combat.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Buliwyf is accompanied by a large red dog for most of the movie. The exact moment he dies happens offscreen and is announced when the dog is heard whimpering.
  • Heroic Second Wind: Downplayed with Buliwyf, who still shows up for the final battle despite being fatally poisoned and barely walking, but it's obvious to everyone he won't last long regardless of circumstances.
  • Heroic Spirit: Buliwyf is dying of poison, and still fights in the climactic battle.
  • Hijacked by Jesus: Ahmad's Muslim prayers would sound Christian-lite to a Muslim audience. In reality, Muslims do not refer to Allah as their father.
  • Hollywood History: Guilty of assuming big Vikings = big swords = big horses and using it to showcase Ahmad as the odd man out. In reality, the Arabs used similar swords (curved swords are much more recent) and had larger horses.
  • Hollywood Tactics: The Wendol have a powerful skirmishing cavalry, but by the end of the film they are just sending frontal charge after frontal charge, against an entrenched enemy no less. They also only attack the village on one place, even although they have seemingly enough numbers to besiege the whole place. When their leader is killed, they immediately retreat to presumably never be heard of again.
  • The Horde: The Wendol, who have a number big enough to be taken for a "fire wyrm" when they move in the mist with torches. There are apparently hundreds of them, if not more.
  • Horny Vikings: Averted. The Vikings have their cultural quirks, to be sure, but the helmets worn are hornless (if oddly scavenged in turn) and the crew are generally motley.
  • Hotter and Sexier: McTiernan filmed a fight between Buliwyf and an old Wendol mother like in the book, played by 73-year-old Susan Willis. When the studio removed McTiernan and gave the directing chair to Crichton, he reshot the scene with a young "mother" played by 31-year-old Kristen Cloke, and even claimed that Buliwyf was injured because he was Distracted by the Sexy. The credits still list Willis and not Cloke despite the movie not featuring the former at all.
  • How We Got Here: The movie opens with Ahmad sailing to the north with the twelves Vikings, then immediately goes back to Ahmad's exile and him meeting the Vikings.
  • Human Pincushion: The largest viking, Halga (played by Asbjorn "The Bear" Riis), gets stuck with a half-dozen spears, the red-headed Skeld gets stuck with four. Both during the second battle.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After (barely) surviving the Wendol's assault on the village, Ahmad is looking out at the devastation when Herger walks up to him with a flask of mead in hand. He offers Ahmad a cup, which he refuses on the grounds that alcohol made from grain or grapes is forbidden by his religion. Herger laughs and presses the cup into Ahmad's hand, telling him it's made from honey. Ahmad stares at the cup for a long moment, then chugs it down. He then passes it to his Norse fling, who also welcomes it.
  • Informed Ability: The end credit lists the warriors with their attributes like, for instance, Helfddane (Fat). Apparently, the seer called for men with these attributes in the Debut Queue. But most of this is not displayed on screen: Edgtho the Silent gets more lines than Halga the Wise, Weath the Musician never plays music, Skeld doesn't seem any more superstitious than the others (or than any 10th century norseman would be). The only ones who seem to match their attributes are Heger the Joyous and Rethel the Archer.
  • Jumped at the Call: The other 12 warriors, who eagerly embark for the quest.
  • Language Barrier: The movie starts out with many moments like this until Ahmad ibn Fadlan sits quietly with the group and figures out the Norse language over many days or weeks. The Vikings made many jokes at his expense which comes to backfire on them when he reveals he can hear what they're saying. They were convinced for half the movie that his first name was "Iben." When they meet, the Vikings can't speak Arabic or Greek, but it turns out one speaks Latin which gets them an introduction to their king.
  • Loophole Abuse: Herger offers Ahmad a post-battle drink, which Ahmad refuses saying he cannot partake of alcohol made from grape or grain. Herger cheerfully points out the mead is made from honey, so Ahmad shrugs and joins in.
  • Mad Oracle: As one of the Vikings sardonically notes, "The perfect adviser."
  • Madness Mantra: Ahmad manages to kill one of the Wendol in the second battle, and gets a chance to inspect the body to discover that the Wendol are not supernatural creatures but rather ordinary humans. The revelation breaks him for a moment, and he can only repeat "It's a man" before flying into a rage and attacking the rest.
  • Manly Facial Hair: Practically every male adult Viking has a Beard of Barbarism to contrast the more "civilized" Ahmad's beardlessness (and Barbarian Long Hair to contrast his shorter haircut). Notably, the weaselly Prince Wigliff is both beardless and short-haired. Buliwyf himself is beardless, but his long hair, Lantern Jaw of Justice, and Heroic Build make up for it visually, and he's still the most badass character in the movie. Also, the characters with well-groomed beards happen to live till the end, as opposed with those that simply have some form of facial hair.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In addition to the strange oracles, Buliwyf's reappearance at the end for the final battle is rife with Pagan symbolism of the god Odin, implying a supernatural source for his Heroic Second Wind.
  • Mighty Whitey:
    • Averted. Ibn Fadlan impresses the Vikings with his skills, not least his literacy and horsemanship, but he never surpasses the Vikings in the skills they teach him, and while he is a fairly competent fighter, he is nowhere near a match for any of the Vikings. If anything, the Vikings consider him the Tagalong Kid, even going so far as to call him "little brother".
    • Even if played straight, it would be rather an inversion, as Ahmad ibn Fadlan is an Arab, while the Vikings are the white ones. His actor, being a tanned Mediterranean, is also the least "white" in a cast mostly populated by Anglo-Saxons and North Europeans.
  • Million Mook March: The "fire wyrm" is in fact hundreds of mounted warriors, each carrying a torch.
  • Mrs. Exposition: The young nurse-like Norse woman and the Mad Oracle are there just to tell the heroes what's going on and what they should do next.
  • Off with His Head!: Besides the Wendol kills, there is also Herger decapitating Angus in their duel.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Subverted and lampshaded. It turned out the "fire wyrm" is just a cavalry column with torches, and Herger said he would have preferred an actual dragon. Of course, given that the size of the fire wyrm in question meant it was comprised of literally hundreds of warriors, all mounted on horseback and moving independently, his preference for a straight-up lizard is understandable.
  • Overly Long Name: When asked his name Ahmad starts giving his full lineage. The Vikings get annoyed and decide to call him "Eben" (after the Arabic ibn, "son of") from then on, likely because they heard him repeating the word as he gave his name and assumed that it was an important part of it. Buliwyf does call him "Ahmad" later.
  • Pelts of the Barbarian: These are vikings, so when they wear their huge fur capes, it's half for warmth, and half to make them look even more imposing.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The only thing the 13 share in common is being embarked on the same quest. The Vikings get along pretty fast, most of them already knowing each other, but for Ahmad it takes most of the story to finally start getting along.
  • Rated M for Manly
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: In the novel Ahmad is timid and wimpy until he learns how to fight and be a real man from the Norse warriors. In the movie, it is heavily implied that he is already skilled with a scimitar, and the Norse gain a great deal of respect for him once it becomes apparent he can hold his own.
  • Rule of Cool: Ahmad cannot swing his standard-issue Viking sword (based on the false idea that Western swords were more heavy and unwieldy than Eastern swords; such a Western sword would actually weigh 2-2.5lbs at most) so he grinds it into a pseudo-scimitar. The process would have destroyed the blade's cutting edge in reality, because of its blade geometry (such as the cross section would not take to grinding, nor be as strong when changed from straight to curved). But it does make him look more badass when he gets it to the shape he wants.
  • Sadly Mythtaken: In the film, Herger tells Ahmad that the All-Father (Odin) "wove the skein (thread) of your life a long time ago." In Norse mythology it was the Norns who wove the threads of fate (comparable to the Fates in Greek mythology), not Odin.
  • Shown Their Work: While the movie is historically speaking a step down from the scrupulously researched book since it introduced many anachronisms and errors, there are some historically correct facts showing some amount of research:
    • The scene were the Vikings wash their face and blow their nose in the same shared wash basin is based on an actual account from the real Ahmad ibn Fadlan.
    • The movie has a more or less direct quote from Beowulf:
      "Luck, often enough, will save a man if his courage holds."
      Wyrd oft nereð unfægne eorl þonne his ellen deah (Wyrd often spares an undoomed man when his courage endures.note )
    • The "Mead is OK" justification under Loophole Abuse is not considered valid by many modern Muslims, but was in fact largely accepted in the period the story is set in.
    • After killing Angus in a duel, Herger throws a weregild at the prince's feet.
  • Suddenly Always Knew That: In the film, Ahmad suddenly reveals that he's a total whiz with an Arabian-style saber, after having spent half the film showing that he can barely lift a viking sword. Downplayed, though, as the revelation is not that he has sword training, but rather that he only looked untrained because he was unaccustomed to the kind of sword available there.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Ahmad is the viewpoint character of Buliwyf's story.
  • Sword Drag: Right before the final battle starts, Buliwyf shows up as the last act of defiance. Since he's fatally poisoned, he can barely walk and drags his sword behind him.
  • Time-Compression Montage: A truly infamous one. Due to the way it's edited, the progression Ahmad makes over months with learning Norse appears to be all within a single night. Supposedly, the sequence was filmed differently and included more obvious clues of passing time, including snowy winter, but none of that left the cutting room.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: Downplayed. There is a "turning the village into a fortress" scene (which the villagers had not done already, despite the constant attacks by the Wendol), and they shoot arrows while the surviving warriors hold the field alone in the final battle.
  • Translation Convention: In the beginning of the film, Ahmad ibn Fadlan speaks Arabic, which the movie-goers hear as English. He travels with Norsemen, who speak only Norse. Over a montage, he makes a dedicated effort to learn their language. The dialogue changes slowly but surely from Norse to English, showing that Ahmad has learned the language. In the book, his character spends most of the story slowly learning the language and having most things translated into Latin by bilingual Norsemen (usually Herger).
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The prince and his remaining henchmen are never seen nor mentioned after the sham duel. Most likely they were lost somewhere in the cutting room with other lacking pieces of the film.
  • The Worf Effect: In the beginning, Ahmad's party panics at the sight of a coming Tatar army. They take refuge in a river creek, where they are approached by a Viking longship. The Tatars flee immediately.
  • Worthy Opponent: Buliwyf gives the leader of the Wendol a respectful salute at the end of the first siege.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: The Norse consider that every man's fate has been written since the day he was born. When the Northmen's oracle decrees Ahmad is to be the 13th warrior, his protests are completely ignored.

Alternative Title(s): The13th Warrior