The 13th Warrior (1999)

*. Being labeled as one of the biggest box office bombs ever is tough to live down, but it can be misleading. Not every bomb (or expensive flop) is a bad movie, and given the vagaries of Hollywood accounting defining the actual extent of the financial damage can be difficult.
*. Enter The 13th Warrior, which is usually regarded as having been a bomb but which is an entirely watchable if not great movie and whose balance sheet may not have been as grim as it is sometimes made out to be.
*. It must have seemed like a winner on paper. Based on a novel by Michael Crichton (Eaters of the Dead, which was also the film’s original title) and directed by John (Predator, Die Hard) McTiernan. But for whatever reason the initial test audiences weren’t enthusiastic and there followed a lengthy process of re-shoots (directed by Crichton), editing, and even the writing of a new score. All this extra work is usually blamed for the overruns, though there’s wide disagreement about how much the film ultimately cost.
*. Once you step away from this industry inside-baseball analysis, however, I don’t think it’s that bad a movie. The basic idea is fascinating, and effectively presented. Basically Crichton took the Old English poem Beowulf and re-imagined a real story that might have given birth to the legend. So Grendel becomes the Wendol, a tribe of primitive cannibals, the fire-breathing dragon is a stream of Wendol horsemen carrying torches riding down a mountain, and Grendel’s mother is the witchy-woman who rules the Wendol.
*. Well, at least I thought it was fascinating. But then I’ve read Beowulf. Not bragging, but maybe I got more out of that part of it. Still, even leaving that out I thought it was a solid historical adventure, with lots of guys with beards wielding broadswords and chopping off limbs. The plot is Beowulf meets The Seven Samurai, and what’s wrong with that? Or even Beowulf meets Predator, with the Wendol hanging their dismembered victims upside down and our hero (his name is Buliwyf) all but saying “If it bleeds we can kill it.” Actually, what he says is “If it’s a man it sleeps, and if it sleeps it has a lair.” Same idea.
*. I mentioned how odd it seemed watching The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) today and seeing the hero praying to Allah. This may have been the last big-budget Hollywood flick though that would have a hero doing that.
*. I thought it interesting that one of the changes Crichton made in the reshoots was to change a scene that was more faithful to his novel. As McTiernan had it, the den mother figure was portrayed as an old woman, as she is in the novel. It was decided this didn’t look good on screen so she was changed into a youthful minx. Sometimes the writer has to be one to re-imagine his own work. Or at least repackage it.
*. I really liked the atmosphere they created shooting on location, and the practical effects. It goes with the de-mythologizing theme, and I bought into all the mud and blood entirely. Today this would all be drowned in CGI and there’d be no texture to the film. Just look at the worthless all-CGI version of Beowulf that Robert Zemeckis directed. I’d watch this over that any day. And, I’ll add, I’d rather watch this than the similarly atmospheric Beowulf & Grendel (2005) any day too.
*. So, sure, maybe it was a flop. I think it’s still pretty good. It’s a bit slow and doesn’t move well (probably attributable to all the re-shooting and editing). They should have dropped a lot of the early, introductory stuff. Omar Sharif apparently hated his small part so much he retired from acting for a while. He could and probably should have been left out entirely. But once things get going I find this to be a perfetly serviceable and even at times enjoyable action flick. It’s not a favourite, but it deserves to be remembered as something a lot more than a bomb.

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