13th Warrior. People look at me funny when I rate this movie so highly. But, as a scholar of culture, I'm always drawn to well-made historical dramas. And while a movie like gladiator is made to be entertaining first and cultural second, 13th warrior captures so many elements that I love, its easily the best of the best for me.
Yes. Even higher than seven samurai, which I'll explain in a moment.
First, 13th Warrior is about Norse culture, a typically overlooked culture in cinema. Viking movies are few and far between; and rarely are they any good. Attempts to make movies about Beowulf (in any era) always fail and even though Erik the Viking is a funny movie, using the name Sven does not make it authentic. The 13th Warrior is, without a doubt, as authentic as any movie about the era as can be expecte. As someone who has written fictional material based on Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland (I know very little about Denmark), I can say with some expertly opinion that the movie captures the four important virtues of Viking life - Strength, Wealth, Fate, and Luck. While very subtle, these issues are tackled fantastically in the movie.
Second, this movie is an ensemble... an incredible ensemble... and any ensemble done well deserves mention for this feat alone. 13 main characters, quickly parsed down to the most important six, with only five of them making it to the final fight.
Third, as a fan of stories like Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Gasiere's Lute, Jericho, Siddartha, the Odyssey, the Illiad, and all other ancient tales about characters larger than life, forging the first epics of their times, the 13th warrior takes these great stories and breaks them into a realistic tale of "what most likely happened" before skalds got ahold of the tale.
This movie ends well for me. The numerous and inventive fight scenes culminates with Buliwyf's poisoned, yet stalwart stand against the Wendol. In this scene we get three amazing vignettes that are my favorite moments in the movie.
One, there is the pose above from Banderas. Despite the fact that he isn't always the best actor in a movie, I think he plays his part well in this film. And this pose is just amazing. I love the framing and the mood. Excellent direction. The single best frame of it is when his arm crosses over his face. Look for it when you watch the film.
Two, we have the final stand from Buliwyf (pronounced Buhl-vie), on the outside of the wall, slowly dying from the poison inside him. The rain, the pacing, the score, and the fight all come together well, but Buliwyf is only that much cooler than the rest of it. Conan was a pansy.
Three, we must honor how well written the poem is that the characters recite one last time before the final fight begins. It captures the importance of ancestry to norse myth. Vikings were very fond of the importance of where you came from. Who you were and who your father was. Without a name, who would honor and remember your deeds. An abstract concept of wealth. Good stuff, this:
'Lo, there do I see my father. 'Lo, there do I see my mother, and my sisters, and my brothers. 'Lo, there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning. 'Lo, they do call to me. They bid me take my place among them. In the halls of Valhalla, where the brave may live forever.
The acting in the final good-bye scene between Banderas and Herger is trite. I wish they'd either reshot it or cut it altogether. It doesn't match the tone of the film. But, by this point my glands are working overtime anyway, trying to contain all the cool in this film.
Yes, I know it was panned. Yes, I know lots of people think it's B-movie material. Yes, I know Banderas is Spanish, playing an arab in Sweden. Yes, I know the screenplay is choppy and misses the mark 15% of the time.
I don't care.
None of this stops the other 85% from kicking ass.
Okay. This review is getting long in the tooth. Here is one last great quote and then it's off to bed with you:
Merciful Father, I have squandered my days with plans of many things. This was not among them. But at this moment, I beg only to live the next few minutes well. For all we ought to have thought, and have not thought; all we ought to have said, and have not said; all we ought to have done, and have not done; I pray thee God for forgiveness.