Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats.

This film was made for no cost to raise money for the American and Norwegian cancer societies and it feels cruel to be looking at it critically. On the other hand Herzog with a camera and a group of volunteers would create Aquirre. A herzog film it ain't. But neither is it Plan Nine from Outer space

It does claim to be a version of Beowulf.

And Yes, Beowulf is played by an “African –American” and if you can’t deal with that then don’t buy the film, otherwise for less than twenty dollars it’s a donation to a good cause and the outtakes are hilarious.

The director said his model was “high school movie on steroids” and the film does feel like a grade ten production. Though most grade ten art classes I know would have done a much better job of the graphics, some of which are simply bad. It’s a pity they didn’t go the Todd browning route. When his budget for Dracula was slashed the extravagant outdoor sets and props were cut out and the story focussed on the human interactions at the heart of the story. (Ok, so there are some bad flying bats and drac’s death off stage “urgh” isn’t good, but the scene with Dracula on the stairs with the cobwebs is spooky even now.) In Beowulf Prince of the Geats the three fight scenes, especially the one in the mere, are embarrassing. However, there are moments in between, when the actors act, and the film works as a watchable film.

As a version of Beowulf?

The questions with any adaptation are: better than, less than, equal to? Does the version send me back to the original to look at it in a new light?

The second of those questions might be irrelevant here as the I’m not sure how well the writer knew the poem. In the documentary on the Dvd he keeps referring to Vikings, and the story itself begins in “Southern Denmark AD 866”. There are lots of minor changes, some of which are driven by the logic of earlier changes, some of which simply seem random.
There are two significant changes to the story. The first is the frame that explains why Beowulf is African We’ve had Beowulf with a Scots accent and Beowulf with a cockney accent, and neither is “authentic” so why worry about the actor’s “colour”. A few racists will jump up and down but so what?

Instead we get the story of how his father travels from Africa to Denmark (in his outrigger canoe?) The map suggests he came down the Nile. There’s nothing impossible about this. To celebrate the five hundreth anniversary of Columbus’ landing a lone sea kayaker paddled from Spain to America. It’s just unnecessary, and it forces the film into places, like the “African Village”, which are the more cringe inducing parts of the film. The film begins with Unferth finding his way back to the village. Somehow he knows their language well enough to tell the whole story. This all seems to be a mistake. We could have done without it.

The other major change is to Beowulf’s character. We have an older Beowulf who has “pacifist” stamped on his forehead. When the obvious usurpation attempt occurs (itself a logical consequence of the way the character is written) he isn’t strong enough to defend himself and has to be rescued. What’s worse is he doesn’t seem that interested in defending himself. He’s too nice. In fact he’s downright cuddly. This is hardly the admired war hero who batters his enemies into submission and goes off boldly to take on the dragon “most eager for fame”.

But the biggest change is that we have yet another self-doubting Beowulf. Here the self doubt is expressed in Beowulf’s slightly puzzling mantra “not a risk to the tribe’ and the fact he seems to be attempting suicide at one point… In the story world of the poem when the monsters are beating down your door and winding up to rip off a few heads and feast on a half dozen freshly Killed family and friends the last thing you’d want is a hero who wants to analyse his motives, question his self worth and speculate about the ethics of his actions. (or get suicidal after every victory).

Why this insistence on the flawed and or self doubting hero ? A modern distrust of heroism? We’ve been conned by the metaphor of the enemy at the gate so that we can’t see that in Beowulf’s story world its not a metaphor. There really were bad things in the darkness. For us there was either no enemy at the gate or if there was, we were left with the nasty suspicion that our own actions brought him there. In the world we live in now, unthinking military heroism makes us profoundly suspicious (until the enemy really is at the gate and then I think we’d prefer our military not to need counselling before they can operate).

But in the story world of Beowulf, a hero who went in for endless self analysis and doubt wouldn’t be a hero for very long and would be worse than useless. Ironically that means the hero of the thirteenth warrior is probably the closest of all the versions to the Beowulf of the poem.

Anglo Saxon poetry has several examples of reflective speakers who analyse themselves and their actions, but you don’t find these in “heroic verse”.

So go to the web site and buy the film. You’ll laugh you’ll cry and it might save a life.

1 comment:

Anne Gilbert said...

The trailer did look kind of, well, odd, but since Beowulf is essentially "world literature" I didn't mind too much. And, as you say, the cause is worthy, even if the film isn't all it might be. I think you gave a fair review of the thing.