Being it is one of my favourite movies, and that I just recently watched it (again), it raised the question of whether or not this movie would work in this current political climate where we are forced to see anyone who is an Arab as the “bad guy”.
First, what is The 13th Warrior? It was a movie released in 1999 based on the book Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame. The story is about a man from the Middle East, in particular Baghdad, who joins 12 Norse warriors to defeat an ancient evil that claims their lands in the north. Starring Antonio Banderas as Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, he is sent off into the north as an ambassador after catching the eye of a beautiful woman who was married to another man. He is a poet, not a warrior, but as Herger, played by Dennis Storhøi, says to him “very soon you will be”.
While the story focuses on Fahdlan mostly, it also develops the other characters that he travels with. Those 13 warriors face the threat and end up vanquishing it.
1999 was a different time
In 1999 we were still two years away from 9-11. There had been terror attacks from Muslim extremists, but nothing the sort of what we would see in 2001. The term Arab wasn’t used as much as a derogatory term then as it is now. Even with the movie The Siege starring Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Annette Benning, and Tony Shalhoub which came out the year before and focused on an attack similar to 9-11, there wasn’t as much fear about anyone from the Middle East.
Throughout 13th Warrior we are reminded where Fahdlan comes from and what he is.
“Only an Arab would bring a dog to war.”
“Go go, Arab.”
“Bring the Arab.”
It’s made clear right away where Fahdlan comes from, as a map shows he is from “the greatest city in the world”, which is Baghdad. Would any of that be used today? I’m not really sure.
Not without problems
Even for 1999, 13th Warrior still isn’t without it’s problems in casting. While Banderas may be a possible choice as a scholarly figure for the character of Fahdlan, there are others that could have been used. One that comes to mind is Oded Fehr, who played the role of Ardeth Bay in the first and second Mummy movies. The Mummy also came out in 1999 (it’s possible that Fehr may have been considered but there might have been scheduling problems, but it’s also safe to say Banderas carried heavier weight as an actor at the time).
But it’s also safe to say that having Banderas as the character of Fahdlan was fine because there was an Arabic and Muslim influence in Spain and Portugal at that time. But then, one would have to admit that also at that time, Baghdad was the cultural, philosophical, theological, scientific, mathematical, astrological, and literary center of the known world at that time. It’s recorded that heavy prices were paid to scholars, and that they were paid the equivalent of what sports superstars are paid now. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Spaniards or Portuguese were living and working in the Middle East at the time. Even in Gladiator, its mentioned that Russel Crowe’s character of Maximus is a Spaniard.
However, that would not be the case, because each time it’s mentioned that the Northmen call Fahdlan Arab. They are aware of what an Arab looks like, and they are most likely aware of what a Spaniard looks like. How? They’ve obviously traveled and have some education. Herger, after all, can speak Greek.
This, of course, does not even come close to how the threat that encroaches on the Viking village is portrayed. All of the enemy warriors are made out to look like savages with war paint and darker skin tones.
Still, would that mean that a movie like 13th Warrior could make it in 2015? Probably not. Not with the Fox News cycles condemning every Muslim/Arab they see, and people like Rupert Murdoch demanding all Muslims take responsibility for the small percentage of extremists in Islam. Not when movies like American Sniper do their damnedest to vilify Arabs, Iraqis and anyone of the Muslim faith.
In today’s day, sadly a movie like 13th Warrior wouldn’t even make it past the planning stage in Hollywood.