Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Film that Cried 'Beowulf'

Robert Zemeckis is a fine director of films, but even he must have thought he had bitten off more than he could chew by attempting to do a 3-D film which is mostly CG and part real actors blended together, using a dark Scandanavian legend as its script.

'Beowulf' is an olde Englishe heroic poem that dates probably around the 8th or 9th century dealing with 6th century events, legends, myths, though the oldest manuscript dates to about 1010. Many of those of us who were college English majors had to read this thing in the ancient script. Here is the first page of the oldest copy of the poem to the left here. Good luck, as it looks like the runes from a Tolkien manuscript. Which brings up an important point. A good deal of Tolkien's ideas for his enormous brooding myth came from Norse and Swedish mythology. Both Tolkien and Lewis were profoundly interested in that material, and discussed it at Inkling's meetings in the Bird and Babe pub in Oxford. After having an impressive version of Tolkien's masterpiece, could Beowulf also be translated effectively to the big screen?
Well the answer is both yes---- and no, as we shall see in a moment.

But for those of you who didn't have the pleasure of deciphering olde Englishe, here is a brief plot summary. Beowulf is a hero of a tribe called the Geats (Scandanavians who migrated to eastern England), and he shows up in Denmark to slay the monsters plaguing a group of lusty Danes who have been terrorized by a monster named Grendel (not to be confused with Gretel). Grendel it seems attacks a Danish meade hall named Heorot, killing a few people and otherwise putting a damper on celebrating in the meade hall (not a good thing during those long gray winter months in Dane land). Along comes Beowulf, slays Grendel, but the problem doesn't stop because there is Grendel's mother, and she is right royally ticked off. (Did I mention she's a seductive water demon played by Angelina Jolie). He has to deal with her, and then finally with a dragon in which battle he is mortally wounded.

No happy ending here, but then remember 'Hamlet' was also a play about brooding and troublesome Danes, some of whom have death wishes. It does appear that some of the characters in this story were real historical Scandanavian persons (for instance the Danish king, played by Anthony Hopkins, whom Beowulf comes to help), but one must remember this is a drinking song poem, and is surely mostly fiction.

But what about the movie itself. Surprisingly, since there is considerable violence in this film, it still gets a PG 13 rating. And though the movie aspires to be like an epic telling of a tale, it clocks in at a mere 1 hour and and 54 minutes-- think Beowulf Lite, less filling, tastes great. Let me say firstly that the 3D effect is indeed eye-popping. One finds one's self ducking swords and other flying objects from time to time that keep leaping off the screen at you. And in the acting department, Hopkins is still Hopkins, but this is not Oscar material here. Ray Winstone plays Beowulf, though only from the neck up. And the rest of the cast can only be called less than great Danes. This movie tends to show why the Dark Ages were labeled that-- the sky is dark, people and monsters can be brutal, and what could be worse than running out of meade and not being able to party? The meade hall scenes seem like something straight out of a frat movie, and the singing is just as bad. If Zemeckis is trying to convince us of the barbaric character of the age, he succeeded.

But what is interesting in this film is the distinction made between a hero, like Beowulf and 'the God Jesus Christ'. At one juncture in the film the Danish king is ask, after a raid by Grendel, if they should pray to and invoke 'the new Roman god Christ'. No, says the king, we don't need a savior god, we need a hero. There is one other slam at Christianity in this film. Looking back wistfully at the deeds of Beowulf as now past, one character bemoans that all the heroes are dead, and we are left only with the weeping martyrs of Christendom, which are seen as no substitute for heroes.

Now what is interesting about these observations, is while it is indeed based in some things going on in the original poem, they play very well today in western culture, a culture which exults heroes in the form of National Guard ads before the movie about service at home and abroad, has TV shows about 'Heroes', makes Marvel comic movies about heroes, and so on. Heroes with strength and courage, but also feet of clay are much preferred to a sinless savior who dies so that we might live differently than we do. We don't want to live differently. We want to party down, and then have a hero rescue us when we go too far.

But as Zemeckis so aptly portrays things-- Beowulf, hero though he may be, becomes an ongoing part of the problem, when he is seduced by Grendel's mom, and produces yet another monster which plagues the land. Heroes, as it turns out, cannot escape their fallen desires and lusts, and so while they can stop the bleeding for a while, they cannot save us from our darker natures and worst selves and are no final solution to the things that bewitch, bother, and bewilder us. This portrayal of Beowulf makes Oedipus Rex look appealing, almost.

As you will have gathered, I don't think this is a great film, but it is in small ways thought provoking, and certainly it makes for remarkable viewing with the 3 D effect. I certainly wouldn't take my children to this movie. It is too dark, and violent, and disturbing in various ways. But Zemeckis is to be applauded for the attempt to make a film in which hero worship is both portrayed, and unmasked in various ways. This is a film with which Freud and Jung would have had a field day.


Matt Akins said...

My wife and I saw this (in 3D) at the local theatre over the weekend, which I thought was interesting, because the only 3D movies that we had seen had been at the IMAX theatre before, due to the need for two projectors to get the digital, polarized light to show up correctly. I agree with Ben's assesement of the film, and we were also suprised at the PG-13 rating not just because of the violence, but also because of the (almost) nudity in several scenes. The digital imagery is very detailed (almost too much) to the point where you can make out individual hairs (including the ones that seemed to be be all over everyone's noses...)

Unknown said...

Interesting about the digs at Christianity since the poem displayed the Danes as almost proto-Christian and to be pitied for their ignorance. Though it sounds like that's not the only departure from the manuscript.

Rev Tony B said...

By comparison, you might be interested in the King Arthur novels of Bernard Cornwell ("A Winter King," "Enemy of God," and "Excalibur"). Very good novels, written in a more authentic 6th C Britain than the Mallory-type legends, and written from the point of view of a pagan spearman and companion of Arthur, who is dictating the story late in life after he has become a Christian and a monk. There are interesting comments expressed about how the Christians were viewed by pagans of the time, how Mithraism worked, etc. Yes, it's fiction, but it is very well done as a portrait of the period.

bethel said...

Dear Ben,

It may be only my imagination but I thought Ray Winstone sounded like Sean Connery at times (well they both originate from UK, that's for sure)

Jabs against Christianity as wimpy is commonplace - it appears 'holiness' is equated to being a 'wimp' or worse. As for the genre, isn't true the Nordic and Celtic legends in general do contain some element of the tension of Christianity as 'encroaching' on the old religion?

Overall I thought the story did have some moral to it - for one, 'Pride is the Curse' as the poster says it and the other being that brawn or beauty is surely no judge of character.


SJBedard said...

Ben, what did you think of the Beowulf and Grendel movie of a couple of years ago? Aside from the profanity, I thought it was pretty good.

Josh said...

Hey Ben,

I have some personal questions I would very much like to ask you. You gave me your e-mail once but I lost it. Would you care to answer them?

thanks Josh.

Anonymous said...

Despite the bad reviews that I've heard from everyone I still want to see the movie. I'll make sure to bring my xbox controller if I end up making it to the theater.

Unknown said...

I walked out of that movie saying that was one of the coolest and worst movies I have ever seen.

Ralph Hitchens said...

Haven't seen the movie, & probably won't -- from the trailers it seems graphically "over the top" and that doesn't interest me so much. On the other hand, despite its implausibilities and occasional anachronisms, I really did enjoy The Thirteenth Warrior, which I believe actually captured the Norse spirit of the original poem.

Re. what rev tony b said, Cornwell's King Arthur trilogy as well as his 4-part (so far) series set in the time of King Alfred do paint a largely negative picture of early Christianity. Clerics in these novels are, for the most part, fanatical when not cowardly and selfish, a poor contrast to the warrior virtues of the various pagans. Cornwell's bishops and priests are always ready to undermine the efforts of decent rulers to either wage war effectively or rule with justice and fairness.

Josh said...

Hey Ben,

Oops, I think my question come out a little weird. I have questions about attending Asbury while pastoring a church and caring for my family.

my e-mail is at rexjacklucy@hotmail.com

Michael Gilley said...

Hey Ben,

This is off topic but I wondered if you have had the chance to read Piper's new book written in response to Thomas Wright's work? If so, could you post on your thoughts? Thanks and God bless!

Michael Gilley

Jo Anne said...

Your comments about the heroes of the National Guard were troubling. My husband served 15 yrs. in the Navy and the 10 in the National Guard. Heroes...well, maybe not in your opinion and an over-used word in mine, but not worthy of the innuendo

I remember Beowulf (not from *college*...no intellectual here) but from high school. Loved how the teacher presented it, had us reading it out loud...I'll never forget it.

Doubt I'll ever see the movie. I'm sick of blood and guts. There's a lot of that in the real world so I'm not interested in paying money to see it.

Don't you think we have to be careful not to judge history by our own PC standards and our polished form of Christianity? The world of Beowulf and his time was pretty illiterate about the theology of the Scriptures...thanks to arrogant and ignorant clergy looking down on the *lay*people as too ignorant to understand the Word of God.