Yma Sumac, Michael Crichton

I would be remiss if I did not mention the passing of Yma Sumac and Michael Crichton.  Sumac I knew through her gonzo lounge-exotica album Voice of the Xtabay, an LP I kept in my collection for many years.  She was a true one-of-a-kind entertainer: how many other Peruvian sopranos were there who dressed like an Incan princess and sang oddball "exotica" in New York clubs in the 1950s?

Michael Crichton was, of course, a much more easily-defined talent: he wrote bestsellers.  Lots of them.  The Andromeda Strain was one of my first "grown-up movie" movie-going experiences, I was probably 10 or so when my brother took me to see it.  It scared the hell out of me, images of the town full of dead people still linger in my mind.  I remember, even then, admiring the deft twists of its plot, and the way it criticized the fallibility of science.  I rushed to see The Terminal Man in spite of the fact that it was, of all things, a George Segal vehicle — pardon, a George Segal thriller, and Futureworld, which was a kind-of sequel to Westworld, which set the tone for a number of Chrichton plots to come: rich guy takes a cool scientific principle and tries to turn it into a theme park — with disastrous results.  Chrichton had a hugely commercial understanding of how to make science cool to the casual entertainment consumer and was the source of many successful adaptations, as well as some interesting misfires — The 13th Warrior springs to mind, with its end-of-Act I moment where Antonio Banderas, after being kidnapped by a cannibalistic tribe, suddenly finds that he can understand their language.  The scene is handled beautifully — Antonio is huddled by the fire, scared to death as the barbarians talk in their strange, brutish tongue, and then suddenly an English word pops up here and there, and then suddenly they’re all speaking English.  The dramatic point of the scene is that Antonio can now understand them, but the screenwriters figured out how to express that the way it would seem to the protagonist, and I’ve always kept that scene in the back of my mind in case I ever need to steal it for something.  (The 13th Warrior is based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, which, well, if you don’t think Eaters of the Dead kicks The 13th Warrior‘s ass around the block title-wise, I just don’t know what to tell you.

UPDATE: Okay, okay, I didn’t describe the translation-by-immersion scene from The 13th Warrior very well.  swan_tower , as usual, puts it much better below.  And this blog entry must surely be the largest gathering of 13th Warrior fans ever assembled.


21 Responses to “Yma Sumac, Michael Crichton”
  1. swan_tower says:

    Antonio Banderas, after being kidnapped by a cannibalistic tribe, suddenly finds that he can understand their language.

    Er? I can only presume it’s been a while since you’ve seen the film, and are misremembering. The Norsemen are not cannibalistic, and he hasn’t been kidnapped by them, and the way the scene is edited makes it clear that it’s a montage of his lengthy travels with them, as he gradually learns to pick out words and then whole sentences. Which makes it, for my money, a very elegantly concise representation of the language-acquisition process he’s going through. (You seem, based on your description, to like the scene, but your summary of it is a tad on the garbled side.)

    I actually like The 13th Warrior. I also like the book, but I long ago gave up on comparing Crichton books to movies, so. The film does a good job of scratching my itch for Norse stuff — all the cheerful fatalism and suchlike. And it’s Beowulf/ibn Fadlan crossover fic, which makes my geeky heart so very happy.

    Here, I’ll even trot out my Hel icon, though she’s from the wrong corner of the pagan Germanic world. (That’s me in the picture, for the curious. I do not recommend doing what I did to my hair for that costume.)

    • Todd says:

      It has, I admit, been a while since I saw The 13th Warrior. More to the point, I honestly thought at this point I was well clear of anyone else seeing it as well.

      • marydell says:

        The 13th Warrior is awesome, although it has about 18 fight sequences too many. I love the language learning bit, and his righteous attitude about it. “How did you learn our speech?” “I listened!”

      • stormwyvern says:

        Even if it’s not exactly how you remembered it, it sounds like it’s still a really wonderful way to show through film that a person is coming to understand a language, no matter what the time frame is.

        I agree with your vote for the better title. My best guess is that some studio exec was worried that if they called the film “Eaters of the Dead,” audiences would go in expecting a zombie movie.

      • peter_erwin says:

        That was one of my favorite scenes in The 13th Warrior, as well.

        It did remind me a bit of the language transition scene near the beginning of The Hunt for Red October, where the political officer is in the Captain’s quarters and starts reading from the Captain’s (wife’s) Bible — and in the middle of a passage from Revelations, the language shifts from (subtitled) Russian to English, so that we can get through the rest of the movie without Sean Connery et al. trying to speak more Russian than they have already.

        It’s a purely cinematic device, of course, without the quasi-realistic “montage of his lengthy travels” interpretation that swan_tower points out for the 13th Warrior scene. (And without the perceptual transition that we share with Antonio Banderas’ character, from “foreign gibberish” to comprehensible language.) Still, I wonder if it might have started as an idea from John McTiernan.

        I also quite liked the scene where “Beowulf” asks Ibn Fadlan about writing, both because of its poignancy — Beowulf wondering about this mysterious art he’ll never get a chance to acquire — and because when Ibn Fadlan is asked to demonstrate it, you see him write something (in Arabic!) that a 10th Century Arab might actually have chosen.

    • mitejen says:


      I was going to rant mention this, too. I LOVE the 13th warrior, and it drives me up the wall when people cite this example of ‘why it is bad.’

      I just want to say ‘Dude, he spends eight months traveling from freaking Baghdad to Norway with these people, on horseback, WITHOUT EARPHONES OR BOOKS, his character’s main interest was languages and the spoken word since he was a poet, I think he’d eventually pick up their language.’

      Someone I knew with a Master’s in history was complaining about it, and I was like ‘you are far, far too stupid to have an MA. I wish I could make it mine by intellectually defeating you in battle.’

  2. ruinednet says:

    I loved Crichton’s work. I read Jurassic Park long before the movie, and I visualized it more like Aliens than something children would be able to watch. I just wish I could ignore some of Crichton’s other pursuits, such as his relentless crusade to disprove global warming.

  3. cornekopia says:

    What an odd, but somehow apt juxtaposition. I liked Crichton’s sequel to Jurrasic Park much better than Spielberg’s.

    • swan_tower says:

      As I recall, Spielberg’s The Lost World was half-made from recycled bits of Jurassic Park not used in the first film, and half made from stuff invented out of whole cloth, with pretty much only the title taken from the actual book sequel.

      But since I have just said absolutely everything I remember about the movie, I could be wrong. 🙂

  4. mitejen says:

    I’ll miss him too, although I haven’t read anything new by him in years. I was disappointed with Rising Sun,>/i> which I only read a few years ago.

    I loved Eaters of the Dead so much. Beowulf and Ibn Fahdlan, together at last. I wish he’d done more stuff like that, my primary area of romanticized fascination is the ancient world.

  5. kornleaf says:

    wait, Yma Sumac died?
    that sucks i loved her music, so freeking unique and awesome.

  6. misterseth says:

    It’s sad about Crighton. I remember reading one of his early books, ‘The Terminal Man’ in high school. The guy was clearly ahead of his time.

  7. pseydtonne says:

    I take it this Yma Sumac was not the same person as the performance artists for the 1980s whose real name was Amy Camus?

    I’m feeling stupid.

    • Todd says:

      The “Amy Camus” story was a rumor. She was from Peru — although many other aspects of her biography were fictional — in the grand show-biz tradition.

  8. sheherazahde says:

    Strange coincidence. When I was waiting at the garage on Tuesday to a little old lady sitting next to me was reading “Runaway Jury”. I liked that movie and I didn’t even know it was based on Chrichton.

    Oh, and I second everything said about The 13th Warrior”. Immersion is a really fast way to pick up language and I loved the way the movie illustrated that.

    I do agree with you that Eaters of the Dead is a better title.

  9. malsperanza says:

    The dramatic point of the scene is that Antonio can now understand them, but the screenwriters figured out how to express that the way it would seem to the protagonist

    Good thing this isn’t in The 13th Warrior (apparently; I haven’t seen it), because it’s a very cool idea, and now you can use it without having swiped it.

    As for the Unadmirable Crichton: I can’t say I’m sorry he’s gone. The books were ok, and some of them turned fluidly into big fat lush commercial movies (I liked The Andromeda Strain). But what an odious human being.

  10. Anonymous says:


    Crichton actually wrote and directed WESTWORLD, I don’t believe he had much to do with FUTUREWORLD, which was a disappointed compared to the original . . . but WESTWORLD was an original and truly a classic … he also directed COMA, though he didn’t write that one.

    I blogged about him today, but I tell everyone that if they haven’t read Crichton’s non-fiction book TRAVELS, they should do so asap.

    Joshua James

  11. teamwak says:

    I hadn’t heard about Michael Critchon passing! I’m very sad to hear that as I was always a great fan of his work. Andromeda Strain was a childhood favourite of mine, and I’ve been a fan from season 1 of ER. And Jurassic Park is of course a brilliant story.

    And I am a fan of the 13th Warrior too! lol. And that scene with him learning their language is the great scene from the film that sticks in my mind too. I loved how clever that scene was when I first saw it. 🙂