Megan and Kristin’s recent podcast about historical fiction films reminded me of a flick that is often admired by those who have seen it, if they have at all. On a not so scientific Facebook poll, about half of respondents (my friends) said that they had seen it. Nearly everyone I have ever spoken to about the film that has seen it says that it is an awesome movie. What then makes is so great if half the people I know also have not seen in?
The 13th Warrior (1999) chronicles the journey of Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, played by Antonio Banderas, who is exiled from his homeland in Baghdad and journeys as an ambassador to Tossuk Vlad. He encounters Northmen and is thrust into a hero’s journey. He is tested by a mystical and violent experience in the north. It challenges him mentally and physically. He emerges a changed, braver man.
Based on the Michael Crichton book Eaters of the Dead, it is rooted in historic fact. Ahmad ibn Fadlan was an actual person who kept account of his travels and experiences with the Vikings. He interacted with several central Asian and Eastern European tribes according to his records, including the people who eventually settled the modern Bulgarian and Russian regions.
Not having read Crichton’s book, I cannot attest to the fidelity of the filmic adaptation. However, the historic connection is fascinating as a story for either literature or cinema. A man from the desert, of Islamic beliefs travels by sea into the cold and lives amongst polytheists. The audience remains curious if this man will be able to survive in a culture and climate so different from his own. And to be able to have historic foundation for this makes the story even more impressive. This is a hero’s journey, and he discovers himself along the way.
The casting of Banderas might catch the viewer off guard at first. Clearly the studio needed a big name to headline. But it is possibly one of Banderas’ better filmic performances. He immerses himself in the role and is believable as a fish out of water from Medieval times. Of particular delight is the appearance of Omar Sharif in a minor role early in the film. In his short time on screen, he provides the gravitas of believability needed for what on paper seems an unlikely tale. Overall, there is nothing ‘great’ or ‘outstanding’ about this film; no spectacular performances or ethereal lighting. Rather, it is a solid film and serves as an example of what can be done with a compelling story, as opposed to some exercise in pushing the boundaries of cinematic expression.
So we ask ourselves once again, what makes this film so special to nearly all who have seen it, but why hasn’t everyone seen it? Well here we have our main point of discussion. The film clearly lies within the historical fiction genre. Historical fiction put at its simplest is a fictional story rooted in historical people, places, or events. We have already established that The 13th Warrior is rooted in historical fact. But The 13th Warrior is a great example of a cult classic, a sub-genre. A cult classic put at its simplest is a film that does not have widespread recognition, but deep appreciation by fans. Think of Firefly (2002), or Shaun of the Dead (2004), although the later has moved more deeply into mainstream acceptance if they are spoofing themselves years later. Cult classics are often not given the full weight of a production or publicity budget, or perhaps has a disappointing showing at the box office. The 13th Warrior only made back about 40% of its budget in ticket sales. But it remains endeared in the hearts of fans.
The 13th Warrior doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to subvert expectations through genre hybridity. Just when the audience recognizes the beginning of the hero’s journey, and recognizes the historical connections, then elements of the horror genre emerge. Now the audience wonders if any of the 13 warriors will succeed against the evil that entices them on their quest. The overlapping of genres helps bring the viewer deeper into the story and caters to those who appreciate different types of films. Thus, this is the success of The 13th Warrior. Genre is not static or fixed; genres overlap and intertwine, making finite distinctions between them impossible. The more they blend together, the more interesting the story to the audience. So The 13th Warrior is a story with something for everyone.