Beowulf and the 13th Warrior, both are very good stories, one legibly and the other visually (unless you go to the roots of the 13th Warrior and read Eaters of the Dead). Although it is pretty obvious to anyone who has read Beowulf that the 13th Warrior was based on this great epic, there are still several differences that make for an interesting twist or two.
While the two stories are very much alike in several ways, they are also very different. One of the key differences that the reader/viewer notices right off is that the story of Beowulf is being told exclusively about Beowulf and his antics… almost in a third person view. The 13th warrior, on the other hand, is being told by a participant (Antonio Banderas who plays Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan) in the action about the symbolic Beowulf character. Antonio Banderas or Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, is an Arabian ambassador from Baghdad whose whole purpose in going is to interact with and learn as much as he can about the “odd” and “uncultured” ways of the Vikings. Although he starts out pretty upset, almost horrified, about how the Northmen carry on with their barbaric customs and almost complete lack of hygiene of almost any sort. The reason that Antonio Banderas’s character is even part of the story is that the Vikings’ leader, Buliwyf, needs a 13th man that cannot be a northman to be included in his posse of adventurers.
The goal of the adventurers is to report to an aging “King Hrothgar” and help him to protect his people from a tribe of savages (you almost think that they as well are “supernatural” because there are never any of their dead left after battle and they are continually riding around in bear skins that give them a positively frightening appearance in the mist and at night) that are causing an incredible amount of terror (I’d be pretty scared too if I walked into a friend’s cabin and him and his family were cut up into pieces) and completely destroying the population; Grendel is the embodiment of all of the savages, while his only having himself, he so terribly lessened the population and established such a reputation, that he successfully made king Hrothgar move out of his prized mead hall.
While there are several similarities in the stories, one very important detail to notice is the parallel between Mr. Buliwyf and Beowulf (both of them are leaders of soldiers and they both rush to the aid of a troubled king whose kingdom is in danger). On top of, both of these leaders of men make it their mission to go and kill the “mother” (“mother” of the savages and Grendel’s mother).
In Beowulf, the hero actually fought and killed Grendel (“eaters of the dead” leader and savages combined) first and then when his mother (“mother” of the “eaters of the dead”) came and took away his body to her home in the lake, Beowulf followed and then killed her as well… but I suppose the order doesn’t really matter.
Another issue to notice is the parallel in “supernatural” happenings and traits in the two stories.
In Beowulf, he had supernatural strength, there was no one and nothing in the world that was strong than he was (he tore Grendel apart… literally, and Grendel was a demon which I imagine is no easy feat). The parallel to that in The 13th Warrior was how even after Buliwyf was poisoned just before he cut off the “mother’s” head, he still was able to fight through the poisonous haze and muster the strength (even though everyone thought he was pretty much dead in the town hall) when the time came, and fight off the vengeance being sought by the “eaters of the dead” for killing their “mother.”
After he dispatched with a couple of savages, he swings his sword at the leader and doesn’t just hit him and knock him off (he’s wearing chest armor so the sword doesn’t cut him in half), he has enough strength not only to try and knock the leader off his horse, but makes him fly off about 10 feet in the opposite direction that he was originally trying to go to get to Buliwyf.
The comparison of the way that the fighting men in each of the stories look at fighting is also interesting. In both stories, pride and boasting and “manliness” plays a very important role in the way things are done. Whether you fight or not seems to directly impact whether you are a “man” or not. The warrior code is an imperative part of any good epic, or war story in general… there has to be a “good” guy that, no matter how bad what he does is, follows some sort of honor code, that is an integral part of a good story.
Another very obvious difference is that in the 13th Warrior, Mr. Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan is not the main character of the story, whereas in Beowulf, Beowulf is obviously the one the story is about. As the viewer watches the 13th Warrior, they will notice that Antonio Banderas serves as the focal point/narrator of the film, even though the story is not about him. This fact becomes painfully obvious towards the end of the movie, just before the climactic battle, where the main character (the one that is symbolic of Beowulf), Buliwyf, indirectly asks Antonio to write down the story (Mr. Banderas actually seems to offer to copy it down so that their story is not forgotten) and Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan says it will be done (you get the feeling it’s almost a “get well” gift because Buliwyf is going to die from poison). So, despite not being the main character, he plays a very important role… not only in the copying down of the story but also because he is the reason they were able to put down the savages.
One very obvious difference (not sure what the directors were thinking) was that there was sort of a miniature love story sort of randomly thrown into The 13th Warrior. There really seems to be no point to it, it really has nothing to do at all with the main point of the movie… possibly it was a weak attempt to attract a female crowd (despite the gore) by claiming that it was, in part, a love story. Overall, it causes one to get distracted from the point… and it just creates more questions then it answers.
While one story is obviously a remake of the other, they still have their own, very acute, differences. And while the 13th Warrior doesn’t nearly come close to being as good of a story as it could have, and there are still several parallels with Beowulf that mad it enjoyable (obviously aside from the action which would make it enjoyable anyway).