Saturday, December 01, 2007

Ben Witherington reviews: Beowulf

Ben Witherington reviews: 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.

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