Even at his commercial peak, John McTiernan was bafflingly underrated as a director. A master of mise en scene, he has few equals in his use of space and movement. His action scenes were, in his pomp, elegant, beautiful and muscular, but crucially always coherent and well-organised. Die Hard is perhaps the greatest action film of the 80s, transcending its own cliches even as it set them in stone for a hundred imitators, while Predator is a thrilling, simultaneously bloated and pared down study of hunter vs hunted which manages to skirt Arnold Schwarzenegger's limitations as it faces him off against a creature even more alien and bizarre than he is. The Hunt for Red October is perhaps the only truly successful Tom Clancy adaptation and a great study in cinematic space, as McTiernan's camera prowls the confined setting of a nuclear submarine, but never forgets to keep its focus on the movie stars playing out the tense drama at the centre of the narrative. Even the mostly deservedly maligned Last Action Hero has it witty moments, and is a bravely self-reflexive move on the part of this particular filmmaker.
By 1999, when he came to adapt Michael Crichton's early novel "Eaters of the Dead", itself a retelling of "Beowulf", McTiernan had lost most of his clout, and the filming and editing processes were bedevilled with problems and studio interference. It is to his credit, then, that the result is such a bracing adventure film, telling this Viking legend in the style of Kurosawa with style and wit and an epic feel.
Antonio Banderas is a Ahmed idn Fadaan, a Muslim poet and courtier who accompanies a band of Vikings back to their homeland in the barbaric , darkly alien North in order to combat a terrifying, all-devouring beast. Along the way, of course, he comes to appreciate their values, courage, friendship and loyalty, while they learn to appreciate him as a Warrior and man.
The action scenes are terrific - not least the commando-style Viking raid upon the lair of the "creature" and the final attack upon the Viking fortress, shot mainly in slo-mo as the rain pelts down, in apparent homage to Seven Samurai . But it is the smaller moments that best convince - Banderas gradually learning the Viking tongue just by listening and watching, his prayer before the final showdown, the Viking politics of challenge and combat put to cynical, hilarious use, their contempt for his tiny arabian stallion trumped by its athleticism...There is also a Hawksian sense of action as character here. By the end of the film, this merry band of Viking Warriors, so indistinguishable from one another at the outset, have become familiar and nicely shaded to us, without any real scenes of characterisation. The performances - mainly by a cast of semi-unknown European and British actors - are crucial to this. Vladimir Kulich isn't especially expressive, but his bearing and dignity - and his sheer, extraordinary size - tell us enough about his Buliwyf. Banderas is a capable, likeable lead, and he seems somehow more human beside these outsized Scandinavians. Meanwhile Norwegian stage actor Dennis Storhoi more or less steals the entire film as Herger, the most approachable of the Vikings.
Considering its enormous budget, you would expect The 13th Warrior to look and sound good, and it doesnt disappoint; Jerry Goldsmith's score is one of the best pieces of work in the final years of his career, while Peter Menzies' cinematography is atmospheric and beautiful throughout.
A year later Gladiator would come out and sweep all before it, but McTiernan's film is just as good, if less overblown and more of a pure genre exercise. Now, what about a Directors Cut on DVD...?