“I am Ahmad ibn Fadlan, ib al Abbas, ibn Rasid, ibn Hammad. And things were not always thus.”
The title of this column, The New Mythology, is meant to be a bit of a jarring oxymoron like jumbo shrimp or likable Cubs fan. Mythology, as we generally understand the word, is old. It’s stories that are centuries in the making, passed down from generation to generation until no one alive can remember the origins of a tale. But things move more quickly these days. Characters that aren’t very old like Wonder Woman, Jean-Luc Picard, and Mickey Mouse have formed the basis for new pantheons, imparting inspiration and moral codes for new generations to follow.
This all brings me to The 13th Warrior, an Antonio Banderas film on Wikipedia’s list of Hollywood’s all-time biggest box-office flops.
The premise: Ahmad ibn Fadlan is a poet in ancient Baghdad who sleeps with the wrong guy’s wife and receives a promotion that’s actually exile to serve as an ambassador to the North. In his travels, he encounters a group of Vikings and tries to open diplomatic relations with their chieftain, Buliwyf. Instead he ends up getting roped into a quest to help King Hrothgar fend off a nameless evil that comes to their mead hall at night, killing their warriors and eating the dead.
If that all sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Michael Crichton, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based, was attempting to tell a more realistic version of Beowulf. To update the oldest story in written English, he crafted a believable explanation for the supernatural Grendel. He replaced a mythological monster with a savage tribe of bearskin-wearing cannibal cavemen. To add to that aura of realism, he chose Ahmad ibn Fadlan as his narrator since he’s a real historical figure who traveled north and encountered Vikings. The novel is presented as a newly discovered lost chapter in Fadlan’s travels, complete with historical footnotes as befitting an academic text.
The 13th Warrior’s production was troubled. It was helmed by Die Hard director John McTiernan until Crichton booted him and took over directing duties himself. The entire musical score was scrapped and redone from scratch by Jerry Goldsmith. The movie went tens of millions of dollars over budget and lost the studio $130 million. The end result barely clocks in at an hour and 40 minutes, which feels like a tapas-sized portion compared to our modern era of two-to three-hour sci-fi and fantasy epics. Roger Ebert trashed it, giving the film an anemic one-and-a-half stars. Omar Sharif retired from acting for a while after appearing in this.
But the movie is actually awesome, an unpolished gem that casts an unexpectedly large shadow, reaching back in time to change our perceptions of old mythology and how it’s represented in our new mythology.
There is an ancient Viking prayer you may have heard before:
Lo, There do I see my Father, and
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, and
Bid me take my place among them in the halls of Valhalla,
Where the brave may live forever.
You can hear Atreus muttering the beginning of this prayer in the opening moments of the latest God of War game. Thor of Asgard says it quietly while mourning in Thor: Ragnarok. But it’s almost entirely made up for The 13th Warrior. This “ancient Viking prayer” is 20 years old, a spiffed-up version of a prayer that appears in the Crichton novel, which was in turn his spiffing up a version in ibn Fadlan’s real historical account, which was in turn ibn Fadlan loosely transcribing the prayer from a language he didn’t actually speak.
The 13th Warrior has had other ripple effects. The Czech character actor Vladimir Kulich played a Viking so convincingly in this movie that it opened up a new career path for him. You may recognize him as the voice of Ulfric Stormcloak in Skyrim. His stoic portrayal is one of the things that makes the Nord faction feel like a viable option. This movie also features the phenomenon I call “Scottish Vikings,” where some of the Vikings appear to be just random Scottish character actors rather than Scandinavian. You can also see it in Skyrim and the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. My running theory is that because the movie was a huge flop, those that did see the film felt more secure in borrowing (stealing) from it.
Beyond the ways this movie proved to be so influential, it’s worth checking out because it is significantly better than the contemporary reviews would have you believe. Antonio Banderas is delightful as a noncombatant forced to sack up in the face of danger, demonstrating both his comedy chops and the swashbuckling skills he’d picked up just a few years earlier for his take on Zorro. The Vikings are a little difficult to tell apart at first (at least until they start dying and leaving you with fewer dudes to keep track of), but the film takes the time to give them unique goals, personalities, and costumes. Herger the Joyous, ibn Fadlan’s bro throughout the movie, provides a memorably likable performance.
One thing that makes this movie truly stand out today, though, is Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s status as a Muslim man. The movie is set during the Islamic Golden Age, when Baghdad was the intellectual and cultural center of the world, and the audience is meant to recognize more of themselves in Banderas than the Vikings. Take this early scene where ibn Fadlan witnesses the Vikings “cleaning up” the morning after a party.
Oh, uh, I hope you weren’t eating while you watched that.
The Vikings mock his clothes, his horse (a tiny Arabian rather than the big honking Budweiser Clydesdales they ride around on), and his choice in weaponry. One of the better parts of The 13th Warrior comes from watching him turn the tables on his backwards companions by showcasing the value of his culture as well as himself. Early on, he can’t speak the Viking language, but through his cleverness and education he’s able to piece it together himself in one of my favorite sequences in any movie ever.
The movie feels a product of 1999 in the saddest way possible. Two years later, 9/11 put a fairly screeching halt to positive, empathetic portrayals of Muslim civilization. Not long after that, coalition forces began bombing Baghdad in a search for weapons of mass destruction that never turned up. Nowadays, Norse culture is interwoven throughout the imagery and anger of the alt-right. It’s shocking to realize there was a time when we were willing to acknowledge that the richness and culture of the Islamic world far outstripped that of its European counterparts for much of history.
It’s fun rooting for the intelligent, civilized man from a rich cultural heritage, and it’s fun watching him bridge the cultural gap that separates himself from these very different people. There’s a running gag throughout the movie where ibn Fadlan makes vague attempts at converting the Vikings to Islam that go completely ignored, one that would fall flat in an era where politicians cite the imaginary threat of “creeping Sharia law.”
Twenty years later, The 13th Warrior is both everywhere and nowhere: a movie that very few people appear to be directly familiar with, but one that has had a surprisingly large impact. We’re in the midst of a multi-year vogue for the stories and imagery of the Viking age, and little details from The 13th Warrior are woven throughout that entire trend. One could say that it’s a movie that lives on in myth — both old and new.