With the director of Die Hard and a star of Antonio Banderas' drawing power, it's hard to understand why The 13th Warrior never found an audience, other than being overlooked by critics. Maybe it should have kept the cooler original title Eaters of the Dead, the name of Michael Crichton's novel-as-historical-document about an Arab courtier (Banderas) who joins the 10th century Vikings in fighting an army of cannibalistic mist creatures. While not as exciting as Braveheart (1995), and without the thematic import of The Seven Samurai (1954), The 13th Warrior earns favorable comparisons to both films. It's a subtle historical epic -- if there is such a thing -- though its first half-hour belongs solely to Banderas adjusting to the gruff Vikings. Yet the passages are riveting, and the film earns kudos for a variety of smart details that set the scene, notably how it deals with communication difficulties. First up is Omar Sharif as Banderas' translator, who has a Viking translator of his own; events are related in duplicate or triplicate, as would have really happened. The film gets everyone speaking the same language in a captivating montage in which English words steadily blend with Norse, as Banderas absorbs their fireside bragging over weeks of travel. Among its other attributes are the most darkly lit and confusing battle scenes caught on film -- beautiful shots of the Viking vessel at sea, Banderas humorously displaying his increased battle finesse once given an appropriate-sized weapon, and a dozen Vikings painted with vivid individuality, even though their names are unknown. Don't let this overlooked gem slip through the cracks.
by Derek Armstrong review