Detailed Summary of the Terry Rossio/Ted Elliot "Chronicles of John Carter" Screenplay for John McTiernan

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Well, we call this the “John Carter Files” for a reason — I would like for it to evolve over time into a comprehensive resource for anyone investigating John Carter, and that includes the Books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the comics, and the movie including all of the prior failed efforts to get it made.

In 1990, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot wrote a version for John McTiernan, who was then attached to direct.  This was at the beginning of the period when Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar were developing it for Disney under the Cynergi label.  Close to $10m would be spent on development before Disney would release the rights.

Here, then —


based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’


Screenplay by

Terry Rossio


Ted Elliot

3rd Revised Draft

March 12, 1990


  • 1990’s Train Station, EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS arrives, is met by ABNER.
  • Horse drawn carriage, Abner and ERB talk, we learn Captain Carter has died and left everything to ERB.  We learn there will be no service; Carter  was entombed immediately at his request.
  • At an observatory on the estate that night, Burroughs opens a manuscript — “A Princess of Mars”, and begins to read.
  • Arizona: CARTER (in VO) says that after the war, “with my home and only means of livelihood gone, I decided to revive my fortunes and go in search of gold.”
  • Carter is described: “Longish black hair, whipsaw build”; he and POWELL are workign with pickaxe and they find a vein of gold.
  • Bandits arrive and try to take over the claim; Carter defeats them, but lets them go. Powell is concerned — should have killed them.
  • More trouble with bandits; Powell is wounded, dies; Carter ends up in a mine shaft; there is a strange blu-ish light;  WHOOMPH he disappears. (p 13)
  • Carter arrives at the interior of the ATMOSPHERE FACTORY on Mars.  A cougar skeleton is lying next to him.  There are other skeletons
  • He discovers his leaping ability.
  • He is in the Atmsophere factory engine room — bolts of energy are shooting about, noise is deafening.
  • Finally he sees THE KEEPER……”tall, ramrod straight posture, wizened brow”
  • The Keeper speaks — language is gibberish, singsong, clicks and gutterals.
  • The keeper makes an adjustment; something happens (we’re not sure what) and he is now speaking intelligibly — Carter can understand him.
  • On the CONTROL LEVEL of the Atmosphere factory, Carter is on a couch.
  • The Keeper explains:  “Your situation is this.  You were caught in the mining transference beam and brought here.”  Carter: “Where is here?” Keeper: “An atmosphere factory on Barsoom.”  Carter laughs.
  • Carter asks:  “Are you St. Peter?” (Unclear whether serious or joking — could be played either way.)
  • Keeper has no time for this. He explains that he’s placed a device on Carter’s head that makes his language intelligible to Carter.
  • Carter seems to believe he’s on Mars now.  “Can you send me back?” No, the Keeper can’t.
  • Keeper explains….atmosphere is deteriorating, he has to mine rare elements no longer available on Barsoom.  Carter got caught in the beam.
  • While they talk, someone enters the Atmosphere Factory.  Keeper becomes aware of the intrusion.
  • The intruders are three “red-skinned men”:  SABOTEUR, ASSASSIN, and SWORDSMAN.
  • Battle ensues….Carter kills the intruders but the atmosphere factory is damaged.  The Keeper tells Carter: “You must search for the ancient cities and enlist their aid in repairing this factory…..the planet is wise, when she saw us threatened, she brought you here……I will need engineers, metallurgists, and bonders….”
  • Carter straps on the gear of one of the dead men and sets out on his quest. It was mentioned that the “red-skinned” men were bearing “Thark” weapons, so Carter is now armed as a Thark. (p24) END OF ACT 1
  • HELIUM: A magnificent walled city, of spires, graceful curves, and twin towers, surrounded by hydroponic farmland.
  • A Zodangan airship.”size of a dirigible”, but with a topdeck “profile of a sailing galleon.”  We overhear a Helium politician and military man talking about how they are surprised that the backward Zodangans have been able to “resurrect the technology of old Barsoom” — since they barely understand it.
  • A diplomatic recepiton is going on– pomp and pageantry.  Zodanga is described as more “overtly militaristic”.  While it’s a diplomatic reception, there are rumors that war between Helium and Zodanga may be imminent.
  • SAB THAN, Zodangan leader, is a dashing figure.  He is pitching the idea in conversation with unnamed Heliumites that Helium should join with Zodanga against their common enemy, the Tharks.
  • From a balcony somewhere  above, DEJAH THORIS (and it is specified that it should be pronounced “Dee-jah”) looks down on Sab Than with KING (not Jeddak) MORS KAJAK, her father.  We learn that Sab Than will ask Dejah to marry; she doesn’t want to; she is faced, however, with the dilemma of royals — forget her own wishes in order to forge an alliance.   We understand that it is up to Dejah Thoris to make her decision–her father will not force her.
  • Down on the ballroom floor — a Helium COMMANDER is about to get into it with Sab Than and PRAETOR, the head of Sab Than’s Praetorial Guard, when Dejah Thoris, looking “stunningly beautiful”, makes her entrance.
  • Sab Than and Dejah do a ceremonial dance, like a waltz, “save that her hand rests open palmed on his heart, and both his hands rest on her shoulder blades”.
  • Sab Than presses his suit, asking for her answer.  Eventually uses the term “my princess”, whereupon she ends the dance.
  • Sab Than steps onto the balcony, looks up to his airship, where a ‘TALL, ROBED FIGURE” looks down. Sab The figure lifts his hand briefly — Sab Than smiles, and sips.
  • A SECOND ATMOSPHERE FACTORY (THE NORTHERN FACTORY); In mountainous territory KANTOS KAN (who is described as bearded, with an eyepatch) arrives in a flyer with a crew of four.  There are two other flyers on the ground.  (Flyers described as being from the “Golden Age” of Barsoom. They “resemble an open cockpit set in a gyroscope..  They can vertically lift, hover, move in any direction without turning — the cockpit rotates within the gyroscope.)
  • Kantos Kan and company enter; find the female KEEPER dead with a SLEEGAT (“armadillo like creature”) leeching to her body.  Kantos Kan kills it — then they discover evidence that the klling has been done by…..THARKS.
  • JOHN CARTER (returning after 8 pages absence), in a DESERT, comes upon Thark incubators.  While Carter is exploring the incubator, the wall crashes open and a seven foot hight Thark named DOTAR comes in.   Dotar is confused by Carter carrying a Thark sword.  Meanwhile a Thark Caravan arrives; thoats and zitidars (no mention of six legs);  Tars Tarkas is in charge; there is a Thark named ZAD who is close to Tars.  Tars instructs Dotar to kill Carter; but Carter gains the upper hand.  He elects not to kill Dotar, however; then Dotar gets the upper hand.
  • SOLA, watching, turns away, drawing hisses from others around her.
  • Carter is about to lose — then wins by throwing his knife and killing Dotar with it.
  • Tars Tarkas is intrigued.  Turns out it’s an authentic Bowie knife.
  • Tars tells Carter “You present a problem for us,” because Carter by his prowess has earned a spot among the Tharks, but he’s not a Thark.  Carter ends up as a prisoner with certain freedoms — and Tars will take him to Korad where “the Jeddak will decide your fate”.
  • HELIUM GREENHOUSE:  Sab Than approaches Dejah who is gardening in a palace greenhouse. The King is there.  Then Kantos Kan and the Commander enter — Kan delivers the news of what he found at the Atmosphere Factory.  We learn that the red-Martins don’t even know where the atmosphere factories are (they are hidden in mountain crevasses, etc) — and Dejah isn’t even sure they exist.
  • Kantos Kan reports that Tharks did it — and then Sab Than says they discovered a similar attack, also by Tharks, on another factory.
  • We learn the green men are vicious, etc — but Dejah says they weren’t always that way — there was a time when they were peaceful.  Kantos Kan says the clans of Tharks are gathering at Korad.
  • Kantos Kan leaves; Dejah chases him down the corridor: “I need a flyer.”  She wants to go speak with the leader of the Tharks.
  • Kantos Kan is reluctant but he orders it and he agrees–she will go in one flyer, with two officers accompanying here.
  • AT THE INCUBATORS:  Carter has been given Dotar’s belongings and weapons, a Thark tradition.
  • Dotar’s servants are supposed to go with the gear, but they balk. Zad is hostile to Carter; Carter says he doesn’t need the servants –then Sola steps up and says she will tend to Carter’s wounds.  Zad: “Yes, let the two who are but PRETEND Tharks be together.”  Carter says okay.
  • Later, the Tharks are destroying the unhatched eggs. Carter has questions; Sola answers; learns that hatchlings don’t know who their parents are, and vice versa.
  • They ride off — Carter rides a thoat for the first time and gets thrown, ends up in a cart, not happy about that.  A hatchling snuggles up to him: “Don’t get too attached, I won’t be here long.”
  • ZODANGAN BATTLESHIP, HELIUM.  Sab Than in  small transport flyer arrives.  He announces; we return to Zodanga
  • Later, Praetor and Sab Than practice swords.
  • The KEEPER, (who from here on is referred to as RENEGADE), is there.  Clearly he’s in league with Sab Than.
  • Renegade’s alliance with Sab Than is based on Sab Than wanting to control Barsoom — and Renegade wanting to use technology to restore the glory/splendor of “old Barsoom”.   Renegade is not 100% Sab Than’s man — alliance of convenience?
  • From the deck of the battleship, Sab Than sees Dejah Thoris departing, supposedly in secret, for the Tharks. He immediately realizes what she is up to and orders that she be intercepted and taken captive.  Sab Than:  “She is far too independent. I will have to break her of that.”
  • THARK ENCAMPMENT.  Tharks are training thoats by whacking them on the head with clubs. (There have been other references to Tharks controlling thoats cruelly, with clubs.)
  • Carter “breaks” a thoat, Virginia style, shows the Tharks a thing or two.  Names the thoat “Beauty”.
  • Tars Tarkas observes, then: “Break camp. We continue to Korad.”
  • The Thark caravan moves out.  Carter is riding Beauty. He and Tars Tarkas bond a bit, then–
  • Dejah Thoris flyer, pursued by three Zodangan flyers, comes into view.  She is forced down, behind a ridge.  Carter leads the Tharks rushing to the crash site.
  • Carter defends Dejah from Zodangans…..especially Praetor, who escapes the Tharks.  Dejah taken prisoner.  She makes a signal to Carter; he is confused; she is disappointed:  All hope is gone, her expression seems to say.
  • The Tharks march her off.  Carter starts to intervene; Tars Tarkas tells him to back off; reluctantly, he does.
  • Later, the caravan continues.  Sola senses that Carter wants to assist Dejah Thoris.  She explains that it will reflect badly on Tars Tarkas if he intervenes; that Dejah will “fall under the province of the Jeddak” as soon as the reach Korad.
  • KORAD.  Deserted ancient city.  Tharks are gathering there.
  • Encamped in the city , Carter shaves with his Bowie knife.  Sola brings food.  Carter asks about the gesture that Dejah made; Sola interprets “To whom are you loyal”.  Carter discovers that his response, which was to repeat the gesture, means “I am loyal only to myself.”  Oops. No wonder Dejah doesn’t like him.
  • Carter looks up, to a window above, which is where Dejah is being kept.
  • Tars Tarkas brings Woola and leaves the calot with Carter, explaining that the creature will keep Carter from wandering into danger.  Woola eats the rest of Carter’s meal, plate and all.
  • Sola asks what “thank you” means.  Carter explains; she likes the novel concept, learns to say “You’re welcome.”
  • Later, Carter is walking along near Dejah’s building. Woola acompanies.  Carter playfully tries to elude woola by leaping to a balcony.
  • Some creature (we know it will be a white ape) is stalking Carter.
  • Carter slips into Dejah’s quarters.  They talk. He apologizes for not knowing the signal or giving a correct response.  He is distracted by her “abbreviated outfit”.
  • They manage to get alone ….they talk…..Carter learns of “old Barsoom”……finally Dejah asks whey he won’t look at her directly and he explains Virginian concepts of appropriate attire. She is amused, then angry – “I can’t trust someone who won’t look at me.”
  • She is about to storm off when an “otz” attacks — “huge, ape-like creature”.
  • Carter, with Woola’s help, overcomes the otz, but when it’s over, Dejah’s comment:  “Never charge an otz.  Wait for it to attack; elude it; then flee.”  She’s unimpressed with Carter.
  • Zad appears; says Carter shouldn’t be with Dejah, then tries to kill Woola, who has been wounded. Carter objects.  It’s a standoff when a Thark servant arrives, saying the Jeddak commands the presence of “the two half-limbs”, Carter and Dejah Thoris.  Zad relents; Woola will not be killed.
  • AT THE CRASH SITE:  Kantos Kan and Sab Than are there.  There is no evidence other than Dejah’s flyer — no hint that Zodangans were involved.  Kantos Kan goes off — Sab Than and Praetor are alone.  Sab Than tells Praetor to make sure that it is he, Sab Than, who finds Dejah — not Kantos Kan.
  • Suddenly there is a bolt of lightning…….Sab Than and Praetor are concerend–there is no ‘weather’ on Barsoom.  This is disturbing to them……
  • AMPHITHEATER:  All the Tharks are gathered, pomp and ceremony.  Carter is presented to TAL HAJUS.  He gives satisfactory answers, and Tars Tarkas vouches for his abilities.  Tal Hajus approves Carter as a Thark of the clan of Jed Tars Tarkas.
  • Dejah is brought before Tal Hajus.
  • “I am Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, daughter of Mors Kajak, Jeddak of Helium”.
  • Everyone is impressed.
  • Dejah pitches that Tharks must stop destroying atmosphere factories and live in peace with the red men.  Tharks are indignant — we didn’t destroy atmophere factories.  Tars Tarkas realizes that Dejah thinks they did.
  • Tal Hajus rejects her proposals, tells her that he will kill her as a lesson to all the red men — painfully and horribly.
  • Carter wants to protect her; Tars says he can’t challenge Tal Hajus – Carter can only challenge Tal Hajus by first challenging Tars Tarkas. Does he want to do that?
  • They lead Dejah away; Carter makes the gesture of loyalty to her; Sola sees this.
  • Later, Carter goes commando and slips into Dejah’s cell.  It’s revealed to Dejah that Carter has been at at atmosphere factory and that red men attacked — carter shows her insignia he took from one of the bodies; she recognizes it as Zodangn.  JC reveals his mission, to reach Helium and find scientists to help with the atmosphere factory.  Dejah is shocked.   In the heat of the moment, Carter says the next man to hurt Dejah “will have to get through me, my Princess.”
  • She is shocked at the words, but realizes he doesnt’ understand the meaning, relents.  “When you learn our ways, remember what you said — and that when you said it, I smiled.”
  • They slip away to the thoats.  Sola is waiting, unexpectedly.  She has food and supplies.
  • Sola is going to sacrifice herself to help them escape.  Carter pleads, then commands her to come with them. She relents and does so.
  • DEAD SEA BOTTOM.  A Martian centipede.  Carter, Dejah, and Sola race by.  Dejah is on the thoat with Carter, asleep in his arms. They talk; he describes Virginia…”River and rains”, she said, dreamily.
  • Sola realizes they are being followed.
  • They turn to face; it is Woola.
  • Woola has followed; wounds are bandaged, but Woola is weak.
  • They put Woola on a sling between two thoats and continue.

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