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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 2/11/00

The 13th Warrior
1999 (2000) Touchstone (Buena Vista)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The 13th Warrior Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/D-

Specs and Features

103 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menus, scene access (17 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English (plus seamless branching allows for titles and credits in French when listening to French audio), Close Captioned

"I am Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan Ibn Al Abbas Ibn Rasid Ibn Hammad... and things were not always thus..."

Yep... that's the first line spoken by Antonio Bandaras (Ahmed) in this John McTiernan film adaptation of author Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead. He says this as we find him huddled against the wind and rain in a Viking ship that's being tossed about on the stormy seas, in what has got to be the most God-awfully digital looking special effects shot I've seen in a film in a long time. Kind of a rough start - and I'm usually a big fan of this kind of flick.

In the space of about 60 seconds, we get all the setup we're gonna get about Ahmed. He was once an Arab poet in Bagdad - "the greatest city in the world". But a beautiful woman fell in love with him, enraging her powerful husband. So after a few well spoken words in the right ears, the Caliph makes Ahmed his ambassador to the land of the Norsemen, effectively banishing him from Arabia forever.

Accompanied by his father's old friend and advisor, Melchisidek (Omar Sharif in a brief, but nifty, stunt casting role), Ahmed follows the caravans north. Not long into their journey, they come upon a party of Norsemen (aka Vikings) whose leader has just died. The new leader and his men are in the midst of a drunken spree to celebrate their former leader into the halls of Valhalla, and Ahmed and Melchisidek are allowed to camp with them. The next day, a boy arrives with a message that a great Evil has gripped his homeland, and his people need the Norsemen's help. The nature of this Evil is so vile, that even these great warriors dare not speak its name... but they'd never resist such a challenge. They summon their oracle, and old crone of a woman, who foretells that the Evil can only be stopped by a band of 13 of their finest warriors. One by one, the men volunteer for this mission until only one is left to be chosen. The oracle tells them that this 13th warrior must be no Norseman... and thus Ahmed finds himself "volunteered" for the most dangerous adventure of his life.

The biggest problem with The 13th Warrior, is the lack of empathy and depth in the screenplay. You're not given much of a reason to care about Ahmed for a long while, although Antonio Bandaras makes up for this deficiency admirably - you start to find this guy likable after a while. The other problem is... well, the not-too-subtle direction by John McTiernan. Most of the detail of this story - the very stuff that could have made it more substantial - is glossed over. As I said, Ahmed's background is covered in about 60 seconds. Never mind that he doesn't speak Old Norse - he picks it up just by watching the others talk. And when the warriors finally get to their destination, and find themselves defending a village against the dreaded "eaters of the dead", we never learn more about the enemy other than that they're a barbarian clan of cave-dwelling primitives, who fight viciously and wish their enemies to think they're bears. This is definitely not a film that's gonna give you many answers.

But if you can blind yourself to all its faults, and simply accept it for what it is, The 13th Warrior can be a completely satisfying film experience. Subtlety may not be McTiernan's forte, but that's okay, because action is. And when the action heats up here, it's terrific. Swords clash, arrows fly, daggers jab and heads roll - everything you'd expect from Vikings on film. And while this film almost completely lacks the emotional depth and heart of a Braveheart, or the rich detail of a Lawrence of Arabia, it manages to redeem itself in the end. You do end up caring about Ahmed and the bond that he develops with his fellow warriors, forged in blood and steel.

The video on this DVD is anamorphic and it's terrific. The color is rich and accurate, with spot-on flesh tones. And contrast is equally good, with deep blacks and plenty of detail in the film's darker, more subdued settings. There's a ton of gloom in this flick - fog, mist, smoke and the like - and the MPEG-2 compression handles it perfectly, with little to no artifacting visible. Even the print is of beautiful quality. This is great looking DVD video from Buena Vista, and I hope they realize it, and follow through with lots more discs that look just as good. The Dolby Digital audio is also very good, in both English and French 5.1 surround. There's a nice measure of subtly to the soundstage, with lots of quiet little atmospheric touches in the rear channels. But when the audio must blow you away with the sounds of thunderous battle, it does that too. Best of all, Jerry Goldsmith's stirring score is perfectly blended into the mix.

Sadly, this DVD falls way short on extras. You basically just get a trailer. Oh - you also get one of those lame "film recommendation" sections. Because if you like The 13th Warrior, Buena Vista is just sure you'll dig Dead Presidents. There is one nice touch though - through the miracle of seamless branching, if you select the film's French 5.1 audio, you'll also be treated to opening titles and closing credits in French as well.

This is a pretty bare DVD, but it's stand-up solid in quality. Braveheart this film ain't, but while we all wait for that on DVD, The 13th Warrior will do. I never thought I'd say this, but I think Antonio Bandaras is a damn talented guy, and he certainly saves this film. Just open your eyes and ears, close your minds, and don't forget to bring your broadsword. You'll have a bone-crushing good time.

Bill Hunt
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