In my previous post on The 13th Warrior (1999, dir. John McTernan, based on the Michael Crichton novel, Eaters of the Dead), I looked at its relationship to its source material. In this post, I want to explore the costuming and props, specially the clothing and armor the characters are wearing, because I think it highlights something extremely important about historical films.
Let’s remember that the movie is set in the early 10th century; if they’re following Ibn Fadlan’s Risala, the events take place in 921 AD. That means the characters ought to be wearing armor and clothing that looks something like this:
Chainmail (if they were wealthy), round shields, and helmets something like the Valsgarde helmet or else a simple metal cap.
Ahmed (Antonio Banderas) is dressed for much of the early part of the film in black robes of a style that are intended to communicate his Arab identity, with a head band of silver beads. Later, he is given what looks to be an early medieval chainmail hauberk, with a chainmail coif (a separate hood), iron spaulders on his shoulders, and leather gauntlets with iron plates sewn onto them.
The other characters dress in styles the viewer is likely to read as European, and are groomed to appear stereotypically ‘Viking’—long hair, perhaps braided, and a shaggy beard, although a few have short hair and a close-trimmed beard. Two of them have modern Celtic-style tattoos on their face. Once they get to Scandinavia they are mostly wearing armor, although 2 of them are wearing kilts that won’t be invented for about 700 years.
Buliwyf wears a silvery steel breastplate with bronze details, spaulders, and besagews (round plates that hang down to cover his arm-pits. It seems like a nice, if cinematic, version of armor that could have been worn in the 15th or early 16th century. Over this he wears a cream-colored fur cape. In some scenes he (and another of the warriors) wears a version of the Valsgarde helmet, but without the chainmail face protection. This helmet dates approximately to the 6th century, but it’s not unreasonable to use it as a 10th century helmet.
Herger wears what appears to be a version of scale armor, a leather chest plate with metal plates laced onto it. Scale armor was employed by the Romans, and it was used in Europe by the late 11th century, but I’m not sure there is evidence for its use in between those two periods.
Weath wears a brown gambeson (a padded undercoat), a leather breastplate with a fancy hand-tooled decoration riveted to it, and segmented sleeves, and a gauntlet that might be either wool or chainmail. Leather and fabric survives poorly from the early Middle Ages, but Weath’s gambeson and breastplate are perhaps plausibly 10th century, although the sleeves are probably later than that.
Halga wears a breastplate of some sort (it’s mostly hidden by his cloak), studded leather bracers, and, most prominently, the helmet of a Roman murmillo gladiator, complete with a high crest and a face plate. So his helmet is roughly 700 years too old for this film.
Skeld wears a roughly 13th century iron breastplate, metal spaulders with chainmail attached to them, and leather bracers with iron plates riveted to them. Helfdane is wearing a metal breastplate of slightly more sophisticated type than Skeld’s.
Another character wears a black, ankle-length wool tunic. Over this he seems to be wearing a sleeveless chainmail hauberk and perhaps a chainmail coif with the hood back on his shoulders. Another wears what looks a lot like a conquistador’s helmet and breastplate, from the late 15th or 16th century.
Hrothgar’s son, Wiglaf, playing the role of Beowulf’s Unferth, wears a black tunic with metal studs, over which he wears leather covering his shoulders and collarbones, to which is attacked a sort of chainmail pectoral. As far as I know, this bears no resemblance to anything ever worn anywhere, perhaps as a subtle reminder of how useless this character is. (I couldn’t find a decent still of this character in his armor.)
Mercifully, none of the characters wear this:
Mostly the warriors wield swords that look like reasonable approximations of early medieval spathas—thick, straight blade, double-edged but not especially sharp, minimal cross-piece. Ahmed has trouble with his because it is too heavy, and so he uses a whetstone to file it down into a scimitar, which makes about as much sense as using a belt-sander to transform a rifle into a pistol. Like most medieval films, they exaggerate how sharp a spatha was. These were blades made of fairly low-quality iron that could not hold an edge for very long in a fight. Rather than primarily being a cutting weapon, spathas were more tools for bludgeoning an opponent and breaking limbs.
At least two of the warriors use 13th century longbows rather than the short bows that were used in this period. And one of them seems to be using a late medieval poignard. And Herger periodically uses a halberd, a pole-axe from the 14th and 15th centuries.
The shields they use are reasonable facsimiles of early medieval shields—round, with a metal boss in the center and usually some metal reinforcing the wood of the shield.
So What’s the Point of This?
When people watch historical films, they often ask whether the film is historically accurate. But in my view, that’s the wrong question to ask, because there’s no such thing as a truly historically accurate film. I’ll explain what I mean by that in another post. But for this post, let me say that a much better question to ask is why they get certain details right and other details wrong. And The 13th Warrior perfectly illustrates why it’s important to ask that question.
Many of the armor pieces that characters wear are reasonable facsimiles of actual armor that was worn in different periods. Halga’s helmet is a decent reproduction of a murmillo’s helmet. Buliwyf’s armor is modeled on 15th century plate armor. One character is wearing armor that would have been more or less at home in 16th century Spanish America. But none of this belongs on 10th century Norsemen.
This means that the costume designer and the armorer knew enough about historical armor to create reasonable replicas of genuine pieces of armor. And they knew enough to avoid helmets with horns or wings; instead several characters wear helmets actual Norsemen could potentially have worn. So if they knew enough about historical armor to get many of the details right (or at least in the ball park), why didn’t they put the characters in historically accurate Norse armor? Why did they care enough to produce a decent facsimile of a Norse longboat but get the armor wrong?
The answer to that question becomes pretty obvious when you think about the film’s title. The costumer and armorer have to costume 13 characters and get them to stand out as visually distinct on screen. If they had costumed the cast like this:
it would have been very hard for the audience to keep track of who was who, because all the characters would have looked alike. And that would have been an absolute killer for the film’s chance of success.
So instead, the costumer and armorer clearly settled on a strategy to give as many of the warriors as they could distinct visual styles. They cast a range of actors young to old, with a range of hair colors ranging from black to brown to blond to red. They gave two characters distinguishing tattoos. Buliwyf’s silvery armor and light fur cloak make him stand out among a group of characters mostly wearing darker colors. Halga’s absurd helmet makes his character visually unique even if he doesn’t get many lines. Instead of thinking like a historian would, the costume designer was doing his or her job and was thinking about how the costumes would look on screen and how they could help the audience keep track of a large number of characters who would otherwise tend to blur into each other. Although several characters wear helmets, Ahmed does not, because as the main character, the audience needs to be able to see his face and watch his reactions to things. In other words, they made choices that on the surface seem bizarre because they’re making a movie, not writing a historical monograph.
So when you’re watching a historical film, don’t stop with the question, is this film accurate? Ask the far more interesting question, why are they being accurate in some places but not in others? Because when you start digging into this question, you start getting a sense of what was going in the heads of the people who made the film.
Want to Know More?
The 13th Warrior is available in multiple formats through Amazon.
There is a dearth of good works on Norse weapons and tactics that both based in sound scholarship and accessible to the general reader. William Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat Techniquesis probably the best option available.