THE 13TH WARRIOR
It is hard to work out exactly what ended up on the cutting room floor. (One suspects that The 13th Warrior is a film whose reputation is going to flourish through directors cuts). Michael Crichton wrote Eaters of the Dead combining two interesting stories that of the true historical Persian adventurer Ahmed ibn Fahdlan who ventured up into the Norse lands, and the epic legend Beowulf where he ingeniously explained the Grendel monster away as a tribe of heldover Neanderthals. Whether Michael Crichton is talking about viral containment facilities, protocols for alien contact, dinosaur DNA, sexual harassment law or air traffic accidents, any Crichton novel always comes with screeds of research on the subject and Eaters of the Dead was filled with much detail about Viking and Persian cultures and speculation about Neanderthal tribal behaviour.
However, The 13th Warrior ditches much of the detail from the book. One suspects that this is an editorial decision rather than any sweeping scripting decision in order to place the emphasis in the film on the battle sequences. All we see of Baghdad is a flashback of less than a minute. (Certainly, the film piques ones interest if for no reason other than that there were no releases out there at the time that featured a Muslim or an Arab in anything other than a villainous role). There are some intriguing Crichton-esque glimpses into both cultures at the start of the film the boy who stands clear to show he is not an illusion of the mists, the Viking cleansing rituals and touches of Fahdlans Islamic background but most of the cultural/historical background gets swept aside once we get into the battle scenes. More importantly, the film never explains anything about the Eaters being Neanderthal holdovers. In fact, there is now nothing whatsoever apart from the later dispelled speculations that they are inhuman monsters that categorises The 13th Warrior as science-fiction as opposed to an historical epic.
A number of reviewers jumped on various aspects of the film the lack of characterisation and the production problems to run it down. For the most part however, The 13th Warrior works well. In the 1990s, alongside James Cameron, John McTiernan was one of the finest American action directors with powerhouses like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and the great action movie satire Last Action Hero (1993) under his belt, as well as the immensely underrated urban ghost story Nomads (1986). John McTiernan has yet to make an entitrely bad film although Medicine Man (1992) and Rollerball (2002) do come close. Unlike other action directors such as Renny Harlin and Michael Bay, McTiernan emphasises believability over the ridiculously spectacular. McTiernan has crafted The 13th Warrior as one of the new muddy and bloody historical epics post-Braveheart (1995) and the battle scenes are grim and brutal affairs. The Northern landscape looks suitably desolate and the photography, often by firelight, very good. The sense of mystery as the warriors confront the inhuman nemesis and venture into their lair is well sustained. Despite the validity of the accusation of lack of characterisations, the Viking supporting characters, particularly Valdimir Kulich as the Beowulf counterpart, comes across as stronger than the uncustomarily quiet and closed-off Antonio Banderas.
Also of interest is Outlander (2008), another film that transplants the story of Beowulf into Viking culture and features a science-fiction rationale where Grendel becomes an alien monster, while the same year as this also saw the bizarre Beowulf (1999), which transplanted the story to a post-holocaust setting. A few years later saw a spate of more traditional adaptations of Beowulf with Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Grendel (2006), the animated Beowulf (2007) and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2007).
Other films adapted from Michael Crichtons books include the extra-terrestrial virus film The Andromeda Strain (1971); the neurosurgical Frankenstein film The Terminal Man (1974); Jurassic Park (1993); Rising Sun (1993), an adaptation of Crichtons blatantly racist book about Japanese business practice; Barry Levinsons adaptation of Disclosure (1994), Crichtons novel about sexual harassment, which contains some science-fiction elements; the lost world film Congo (1995); The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997); Levinsons underrated Sphere (1998) about the investigation of a crashed UFO; Richard Donners dull adaptation of Crichtons Timeline (2003) about time travel to Mediaeval France; and the tv mini-series remake of The Andromeda Strain (2008). Michael Crichtons films as director include: Westworld (1973) about an android amusement park that goes amok; the medical thriller Coma (1978); The Great Train Robbery (1979) about a Victorian train heist; Looker (1981) about virtual models; Runaway (1984) about a police force to stop amok robots; and the courtroom thriller Physical Evidence (1989). Crichton also created the hit hospital drama ER (1994-2009) and wrote the original screenplay for Twister (1996) about tornado chasers.
(Nominee for Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score at this sites Best of 1999 Awards).