Sunday, 27 September 2015

It takes three days for Ahmed, a poet banished from Baghdad, to learn the language of his adopted Norse comrades in John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior, or at least his education is shown consecutively over three nights. Having left his translator behind to join a band of warriors fighting a mysterious evil, Ahmed is thrown into Norse culture with no points of reference. He sits in silence as the men drink, talk and laugh around a fire at night, watching their mouths as they speak and studying the sounds of the words they say. He understands nothing but watches everything. McTiernan compliments this with alternating close-ups of Ahmed's face, his eyes darting around following the speakers in the conversation, and close-ups of those speaking. As Ahmed focuses on specific words, McTiernan cuts from a close-up of the speaker's face to an extreme close-up of their lips as the words are repeated to emphasise their importance. He then cuts back to Ahmed's face, and fades to black. 

Day two. It's raining, but the men are again sitting around a fire, telling stories and drinking, Ahmed is still studying them as they speak, but this time the camera is much closer to his face, slowly zooming in towards his eyes. As he watches, he silently mimics the shape of their mouths, and he begins to pick out the occasional word or sentence from their conversations. McTiernan presents Ahmed's perception of language through English, so we hear these English words sandwiched between the Norse words the warriors have been speaking up to this point, only they are heavily accented and only vaguely distinguishable from Norse. Still, progress has been made, and McTiernan returns to the close-up of Ahmed's face, deep in thought, before fading out once more. 

Day three. The rain is gone and the men are talking. A close-up of Ahmed's eyes, wide, steady and attentive, is the first image we see. McTiernan again cuts between this close-up and Ahmed's perspective of the men talking, now almost entirely in English with less obstructive Norse accents. One of the men directs an insult at Ahmed, assuming he does not understand. He does. His eyes spring into action, and McTiernan moves the close-up down to Ahmed's mouth as he responds in stuttering but accurate Norse, stunning the laughing men into silence. McTiernan cuts to a wider shot of Ahmed's face, echoing those he used to portray the warriors. But they're still separated. Before he finishes, McTiernan places all the warriors in one frame, and Ahmed alone in one. Some of the warriors take offence at Ahmed's response, while another stands over him, furiously (if not fearfully) asking him: "where did you learn our language?"Ahmed stands up, shouting back: "I listened!" Two men: one Arabic, one Norse; standing face to face, speaking the same language. The Norseman laughs, and places his hand on Ahmed's shoulder. Now able to communicate with the men, Ahmed becomes one of them. 

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