If there’s one reason why a Michael Crichton story doesn’t always hold up with readers it’s that the author tends to get a little too technical at times and unless a reader is capable of pushing through this type of writing, it might be a little too off-putting. But the adaption of Eaters of the Dead, which turned into The 13th Warrior, became something of a cult classic that many who have seen the movie would agree is a great transition from the book to the screen. The story is fairly simple and carries just enough hint of fantasy without dealing with actual magic or the need for outlandish effects, and as it’s told from the point of view of a man that is not a warrior but becomes one, it’s a little more interesting as we get to watch his swift evolution from court poet to hard-bitten veteran of dark and bloody battles. Antonio Banderas managed to play the part of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan quite well, especially when it came to admitting that he wasn’t a warrior and didn’t understand the ways of the Northmen that he was called to ally with.
The story begins with Ahmad’s caravan fleeing the Tatars, a large ethnic group that was likely bound to raid and pillage the caravan until they came within sight of a Viking ship carrying warriors that the Tatars apparently knew better than to engage. Of course, Ahmad’s caravan leader was none too happy to encounter them either, as the stories of the Vikings back in such times weren’t all complimentary as well. But upon entering the main encampment, Ahmad and his father’s old friend Melchisidek, quickly found out that the celebration they’d stumbled into was for the fallen king and the reason for the gathering, as they were quickly introduced to Buliwyf, the heir apparent. It’s rather amusing that Herger, one of the best characters in the movie, finds a common language that he and Melchisidek speak, and thus makes it known to Ahmad one morning that the Northmen are being called away to a kingdom that is well known to them, and is plagued by an ancient evil that they can’t and won’t speak of.
When the village oracle is called forth to summon thirteen warriors to undertake this quest, the Northmen, led by Buliwyf who volunteers first, make it know who will stand to take this perilous journey. Once the oracle reaches the final summoning, however, it becomes clear, especially after Herger makes it so, that the thirteenth man must not be a Northman. In other words, Ahmad has to make the trip as well. To make a long story short, he is looked down upon and called ‘Arab’ and ‘Ibn’ and is shown no respect, at least until he learns the Northmen’s language along the way, surprising them all one night around the fire as he speaks their language with only minor difficulty. It’s Herger and Buliwyf that take to Ahmad the quickest, with Herger dubbing him ‘Little Brother’ and Buliwyf sticking with ‘Arab’, which become terms that Ahmad realize aren’t as derogatory as they sound and are badges of respect as the warriors teach him gradually and in a roundabout manner what they’re all about and how to survive in their world.
The ancient enemy, known as the Wendol, are revealed to be a serious threat to the people they’ve come to help and operate under the guidance of a mother and a leader, who are the central figures of the entire Wendol tribe. The Wendol also have a firm belief that they are bears, or are at least bear-like as they wear the skins, use the teeth and fangs, and dress themselves up in headdresses and furs to give themselves the appearance of bears. The vicious fights that occur between the Wendol and the thirteen warriors soon leave the warriors depleted as each conflict they engage in ends up losing at least one or more of them. By the time the final battle comes along, they are down to five warriors total, and just before killing the mother, Buliwyf was poisoned, so his time is measured in minutes. What’s truly inspiring is that before the final battle begins, Buliwyf manages to stumble forth to stand in defiance of the Wendol, and even manages to kill the leader.
Some might think that this story didn’t work since it depicts one side or the other in an unfavorable light, and that might be so in some ways. One could even bring thoughts of colonialism into the mix and state that Wendol were defending their territory by killing so many. But the fact is that the lack of any compromise and the need to simply kill or be killed was a strong motivator in this movie. Overall, it was a fun but extremely bloody adventure story that’s worth watching more than once since there’s a good chance that you might miss something the first time around.