Myth-busting Beowulf

Some reviewers of Robert Zemeckis’ latest animated feature film will undoubtedly base their critiques on how faithfully his Beowulf compares to the original 8th century English epic poem.   Suffice it to say that liberties were taken, but the changes that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery made in their script yield a far more interesting story.  

Every high school graduate knows the basic story of Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, defeat of the monster, and consequent assumption of the Danish throne.  So why retell it unless there is something to add?  This film adds a dimension that seems very appropriate in 2007 America, and it isn’t just the third dimension which Zemickis exploits with his groundbreaking 3D motion capture process.  Apart from the spectacle Beowulf brings to the screen, it debunks the whole idea of heroic myth-making, while it heroically makes a myth. 

When Beowulf (Ray Winstone) tells the story of the rival who challenges him in swimming, he explains that he lost the match because of the nine sea monsters he had to dispatch along the way, but his trusty sidekick Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) points out in an aside that the last time Beowulf told the story there were only three sea monsters. These asides alert the viewer to the gap between the legend (largely created by Beowulf himself) and the man.  

We also see in the visuals accompanying his story that the reason he lost the race had nothing to do with sea monsters, but his pursuit of a far more alluring mermaid, foreshadowing his vulnerability to the seduction that will come later, when he meets Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie).  Far from killing her, as he sets out to do, Beowulf yields to her advances, although that’s not the story he tells afterward.

Throughout the film we see the way that heroic exploits are amplified
in the telling.  What's interesting is that the characters listening are not always inclined to believe.  The king’s advisor Unferth (John Malkovitch) didn't believe Beowulf's sea monster story.  Nor did the king believe that he had killed Grendel's mother.  Wiglaf and the Queen didn't really believe him either, but in this movie, a hero seems to be such a necessary thing that the other characters are willing to suspend their disbelief when Beowulf asks them to.   Still, there is a strong sense that heroes have a particular time and place.  By singing their praises eternally we risk the loss of future heroes.  Indeed, the film suggests that there will be no more heroes in the age of Christianity because no mere mortal will ever measure up again. 

In the end Beowulf does redeem himself, and, by virtue of the fact that his people have put their faith in him, his whole kingdom, by killing the dragon.  There's also a lot of nice parallelism in the film. It opens and closes with a character holding a golden horn. Just as Beowulf amputates Grendel's arm to launch his reign as king, he cuts off his own arm to end it.  Beowulf emerges from the sea to begin his battles in Denmark and subsequently returns to the sea at the end in a funeral pyre.  These parallels help unify a story that, although, well known, takes many stylistic liberties.  The real pleasure in viewing Beowulf comes from realizing that ancient leaders used the same tricks modern leaders use to make themselves appear more heroic.  The myth-busting at the core of this film assures we remember heroes are all too human.

Joseph Christopher Schaub, CineMatters: December 2007.