In the fall of 1999, another action flick came and went, garnering disappointed reviews and a paltry sum in ticket sales. Adapted from the novel by Michael Crichton The Eaters of the Dead, The 13th Warrior offered a surprising premise: a 10th century Abbasid ambassador is recruited to join a band of Vikings (!) Against an army of mysterious and monstrous creatures. Crichton’s idea thus combined the epic of Beowulf with the writings of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who traveled from Baghdad to Russia in the 10th century.
The 13th Warrior is not a great movie, or even a very good one. The opening credits give an idea of why: At one point, the directing work shifted from John McTiernan (Die Hard) to Crichton himself, giving the narrative a rambling feel. But while the movie isn’t great, there’s no denying how cool it is, which is why viewers keep revisiting it. The Vikings are intimidating, the villains are scary, the hero is up to the task, and there are intense action sequences including an underwater escape defying death from a cave. Basically, it’s the story of people from different backgrounds who learn to respect and appreciate each other.
What has added to the film’s appeal over the years is its choice to center a devout Muslim in a macho American action flick. Ibn Fadlan’s character is like so many other Hollywood toughs: handsome (that’s Antonio Banderas!), Courageous, resourceful, and guided by a code of honor. Throughout the film, we see how his background made him a hero to watch. When the Vikings laugh at his little horse, he shows off his riding skills. When the Vikings give him a broadsword that is too heavy for him to lift, he sharpens it into a scimitar, wielding it like their best warriors. When the Vikings leave him out of their conversations, they soon find that he is already fluent in their language.
These breakthroughs always follow a zoomed-in photo of Banderas’ face. He concentrates, eyes narrowed, and suddenly understands. You can almost see the cogs spinning in his mind as he deciphers their codes. At the start of the movie, he says, “I’m an ambassador, dammit… I’m supposed to talk to people.” Diplomacy is a higher calling that aligns with his culture as a man of piety.
The main motivation for making this film was to build on Crichton’s earlier success with blockbusters like Jurassic Park. At no point did the filmmakers claim that they were trying to create a positive image of Muslims. And yet, by a curious accident, they undoubtedly succeeded in doing just that. Ibn Fadlan’s belief is the foundation of the character’s motivation. There is a touching scene in which he teaches one of the Vikings to write by scribbling a line in the sand: “There is only one God, and Mohammad is his prophet. Later, in the moments before the climactic battle, ibn Fadlan kneels in sajda, asking God to guide them in what may be his last hour. And at the end of the film, ibn Fadlan’s voiceover tells us that his time with the Vikings made him a better servant of God. Perhaps most importantly, Ibn Fadlan does not question his faith or defend its rhetoric. He is noble because of this, not because of an anachronistic secular humanist view of his religion.
After September 11, the statement that ibn Fadlan teaches the Viking, the Shahada, would be considered suspect or worse. But here, the Viking rewrites the statement with all the coldness in the world. When he is wrong, ibn Fadlan gently corrects him. Art historian Stephennie Mulder suggested that this kind of imperfect copy was a sign of the times. She writes: “The presence of pseudo-Kufic [early Arabic script] tells us something important: that Arabic was appreciated by the Vikings as a mark of social status or capital, much like today we might buy a perfume with “Paris” written on it. For this reason, Mulder adds, the Shahada is perhaps the most common inscription in Viking Scandinavia. It seems that the soaring imagination of Crichton inadvertently captured the historical truth.
Ibn Fadlan’s performance is not without flaws. One could argue that the portrayal is based on a superficial understanding of Islam. The visual cues are certainly picturesque. On the one hand, the character of Banderas wears exaggerated and even clumsily applied kohl. Confusedly, he rides a camel through a landscape that resembles the well-watered hills of the Cotswolds. And if Banderas had been a Muslim himself, he might have noticed that addressing God as “Father” in the prayer scene is more a Christian practice than an Islamic practice.
Still, there is a strange innocence in this film, given its place in the story. A few years earlier, another medieval action film – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) – included a scene in which Muslims during the Crusades appear as savages, no better than the monsters that ibn Fadlan faces. James Cameron’s True Lies (1994) pitted Arnold Schwarzenegger against a terrorist organization with the unsubtle name of “Crimson Jihad”. The film has rightly sparked protests.
And of course, less than two years after The 13th Warrior, the United States’ response to September 11 thwarted any chance of a positive portrayal of Muslims in a mainstream movie or TV show for a long time. When Muslims appeared in an action film, they were often portrayed as terrorists or victims of terror (presumably by other Muslims). There have been a few films that have tried to be fair, like Ridley Scott’s Crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005), which earned praise for its sympathetic portrayal of Sultan Saladin. But these were rare and hardly ever put a Muslim at the center of the story. Even the 2007 Syrian TV series Saqf al-Alam, also based on ibn Fadlan’s travelogue, focused on post-9/11 geopolitics.
Although long delayed, Hollywood has finally started to tackle this problem, although it still has a way to go before it can be corrected. A planned project by Ms. Marvel features a Muslim woman as a superhero, finally catching up with the long tradition of Muslim women as leaders and public benefactors. Actor Riz Ahmed has started a mentoring program offering Muslims $ 25,000 in entertainment grants.
Maybe The 13th Warrior, like the Viking writing attempt, is a pastiche that can open the door to more. Through the vehicle of an exceptional hero, the film’s major statement is one that science fiction is well positioned to make. The suspension of disbelief ironically adds credibility to the idea of characters crossing borders easily. So the classic molds of Eastern Wonder and Sci-Fi Camp dissolve into an eerily heartwarming story of people overcoming their differences and working toward a common goal.