Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Need a Good Movie Tonight? Try This One!

If you don't know me well, you might be surprised at what I would recommend amongst my top ten movie picks.

More than a decade ago, I discovered something that amazed me.  I stumbled into a fantastic and highly unusual book by an unlikely author. Michael Crichton is known to film fans, the television industry, and the publishing world as the author of science fiction thrillers, often dealing in medical themes. If you have seen the series ER, films The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, or Disclosure, or read the novels Sphere, Congo, or State of Fear - amongst many, many other works - you have tasted his special brand of genius.  Crichton was the all-around entertainer and entertainment industry mogul. His films have made millions, and his books are estimated to have sold over 200 million copies, many made into movies. This was a man anyone interested in entertainment can admire.

But that isn't all he was, turns out. He also was terribly knowledgeable in an area in which I share his interest: literature of the early medieval period, or what is rather erroneously known as the Dark Ages. Only those who know me well know that I am fully capable of waxing eloquent for hours about the history of early medieval Britain and Ireland, explaining the finer points of Beowulf and lesser Anglo-Saxon poems, and discussing unique features of the culture.  I'm sure my eyes light up, my cheeks flush, and I know my heart beats harder - nothing gets me more excited. Heaven help the person who has to listen to me.

So you can imagine that it was with great interest that I stumbled upon a film those years ago called The Thirteenth Warrior.  Not only did it seem to be set in the early medieval period, but well... two hours of Antonio Banderas is never a painful thing. I am a little unusual for a woman I suppose: you see, I love medieval epics. Bloody, no problem (in fact, I get a little offended if people are being slain on the battlefield and no one is bleeding. War was not pretty when all combat was face-to-face, hand-to-hand, sword-to-shield, eye-to-eye - nothing was anonymous, as it is now). Now don't get me wrong - over-the-top gratuitous isn't-this-fun violence is also offensive. But some realism is called for if a film is to earn my respect. The thing is, there are a lot of bad medieval-themed films out there (I'm talking to you, Ridley Scott!).  So I am conditioned perhaps to expect the inane when I sit down to view one. I am also a bit of a snob; years of university and my own study for the twenty-five-odd years since, have filled my head with too many historical details. I don't expect perfection, but I do like to see some real effort on the part of researchers, and when I see a film where they really seem to have gone out of their way to get it right, and cared about getting it right - I get all excited.

And it isn't just about historical accuracy in details of the period; it's about understanding the medieval mind. A film about the Middle Ages that is tinged with the political and cultural sensibilities of the 21st century (I'm talking to you, Ridley Scott!) is a failure. I like to see that a producer and director gets it: understands what the values of a culture were, and can convey them to the modern viewer with respect.

So it was with a little trepidation and a lot of hopefulness, that I sat down to view The Thirteenth Warrior, for what was to be the first of many times. The film is fantastically accurate in period details in terms of what we know about 10th century Norse culture (Vikings), and the bits that are missing from our puzzle are so deftly created by the filmmakers that there was, to my eyes, no lapse in logic.  I loved the film, and I still do.

Only one original copy of the
Beowulf manuscript exists.
But here is the surprise:  The Thirteenth Warrior is based upon a novel by Crichton (who quietly co-produced the film) originally called Eaters of the Dead (title later change to coincide with the film release). Actually, the full title is Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922. Evidently, Crichton was a very educated man. He earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard, and later a medical degree at the same institution. When a professor friend gave a lecture about the "Great Bores of Literature" and included the magnificent medieval saga Beowulf, Crichton was incensed (as I would have been). Only someone who hasn't the historical understanding of the background of Beowulf could believe such a thing.  The epic-length poem - which was written down sometime between the late 7th and early 10th centuries, and existed in oral form from about the 6th - is in fact not only important to literature, but our best glimpse into Anglo-Saxon society of the era. It is filled with historical detail about the daily lives of warriors and kings, and better, it allows us to see into their minds, and understand what made them tick. This is our heritage, these people. This is the foundation upon which the British built a civilization. The poem is written in the earliest form of the English language for which we have a record (if you have never heard Old English/Anglo-Saxon go HERE. You may be surprised - you'll understand perhaps every twentieth word, if you are concentrating hard!)  Anyway, Crichton disagreed that it was "boring", a  protracted argument ensued, and eventually Crichton declared that he would prove that Beowulf can be very interesting if presented properly. And he did just that, by putting the best of his genius into his most little-known novel.

But there is more:  Crichton, for his novel, combined Beowulf and its legend with an ancient Moorish manuscript written by a Muslim traveler who left a record of his encounters and travels with Vikings. The novel is imaginatively narrated by a voice that combines the two sources to weave an amazing tale. The film, years after (the novel was published in 1976) brought Crichton's vision to life.  But think about Crichton's creativity as a writer. He took two ancient manuscripts, which he had no doubt studied at university, and wove them together into one story. He also used an interesting device: the narrator approaches the subject by describing and discussing the Moorish manuscript itself, as if he were a scholar. If you think it makes for a boring book, you'd be wrong.

Even the dog in the film (an Irish Wolfhound
 mix type lurcher) is authentic to the period!
I can't begin to list the richness of the details that pepper the film, from the speculation on the clash/mix of cultures, to the struggles to understand a foreign language, to the way in which intelligent people having no advanced scientific reasoning came to believe in the supernatural and to live every day by those beliefs. Here is just one example:  in the film, a dragon comes when the mist falls in the valley. The people call it the "FireWorm", for as it winds its way down the mountainside through the mist, the observer sees only a fiery serpentine trail of orange light. But when the heroes get close enough, they see that it is a cavalry of horsemen, carrying lit torches high, and from the distance and through the mist they look to be a dragon.

Especially interesting is a scene depicting the Moorish man's beginning to understand the Old Norse of his companions, or the scene in which - tired of the Vikings making fun of his little Arabian horse by barking at it like a dog - he charges at and jumps his horse over a line of war horses to prove a point. Our protagonists are thinking, reasoning, and - in terms of their own era - highly intelligent people, who use their wits to win the respect of fellow warriors, and to survive disaster.

(I want to take this opportunity to mention the background for the primitive tribe in the film. Many anthropologists believe that "relic Neanderthals", a race that was a throwback to early alternative human development, existed up into the early medieval period, in remote pockets. Even this, which at first glance would seem to be fanciful on the part of the filmmakers, is based upon legitimate theory.)

The film is full of great sets and costuming, intelligent thought, stellar performances (Banderas is great, and Dennis Storhoi as Herger is excellent), stimulating dialogue. And well, Antonio and some other sexy men in leather breeches, and sweaty after the occasional sword fight. The greatest beauty is its themes: tolerance of others' ways in a chaotic world, uniting in order to prevail for a hopeless cause, and foremost - the definition of manhood in a time when you had to face your enemy eye-to-eye and hope you could survive by your wits if not your physical strength.  These warriors are not without fear, but they are men who know that muscle is often not the greatest tool in battle.

I would encourage anyone who wants to watch a thought-provoking, moving film that offers a lot of suspense and a rollicking good story, to see The Thirteenth Warrior. And if you do, think about the ways in which we rather stupidly look down upon the people of the past, and what they might be able to teach us about ourselves and about real courage.

Both the book and the film, incidentally, received mixed reviews. I believe that a little background is necessary to fully enjoy either one, and I wanted to offer it here for what that is worth. There was no argument that they were both well-designed, but some reviewers seemed to find the subject matter baffling. Of course. The film grossed around $50 million less than it needed to break even, however in subsequent years and decades made it up in DVD sales. It has become a bit of a cult classic. The novel Eaters of the Dead can easily be had from Amazon and other sources - it is interesting reading and for writers a fascinating exercise in innovation. It is a novella actually - a quick read, despite the presentation.

Sadly, Michael Crichton passed away in late 2008. I would have liked to have seen what more he would have come up with and added to the world of film and literature.

WARNING:  The film The Thirteenth Warrior contains non-gratuitous scenes of extreme violence. Don't let that deter you from a great film, but it isn't suitable for pre-teens.

For a great documentary on Beowulf go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1C0sFXU0SLo

This is a great reading in modern translation of Beowulf:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaB0trCztM0

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