Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review: Beowulf, Prince of the Geats

I’ve written about Beowulf: Prince of the Geats several times before in this space, and have an article coming out in the Old English Newsletter about nationalist reaction to it. I’ve spoken in public forums about it, and am scheduled to speak on it at the International Medieval Congress this year, as well as the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association meeting.

All that being said, I still had not seen the actual film until just recently. I had a copy of the script, access to their Yahoo group, the run of their e-mail archives, etc., but none of that is quite the same as seeing the film. So, here’s my review, at long last.

Let’s start off with the basics – B:PotG is a no-budget film. Not a low-budget film, a no-budget film. The filmmakers wanted to raise money for the American Cancer Society, so the entire thing was done for free. Everything was donated, and no one got paid.

The film has garnered some controversy because Jayshan Jackson, a black actor, was cast as the young Beowulf (I give more details of how that came to be in my other posts and upcoming article). In order to explain this, the story of Beowulf is sandwiched between a narrative about how Beowulf’s father was an African explorer who wandered up to Geatland, and how Unferth used his old maps to sail back down to Africa, to tell his tribe the story of Beowulf – essentially, the story we know today.

In terms of the story itself, the film is relatively faithful to the poem. Though the dialogue isn’t taken from the poem, it runs through the narrative basically scene-by-scene. There are a few little oddities – such as the references to the Freawaru digression – where you can see places the filmmakers are trying to draw in even more of the poem. I appreciated the effort, but didn’t really feel like they worked. Actually, the African-explorer frame narrative worked better, I thought.

Grendel and his mother (referred to as “Helldam” in the film) stick closely to the troll image that Beowulf & Grendel got right, and the Zemeckis Beowulf got oh-so-wrong. While I liked the tall, buff Christian Boeving as Grendel, Joe Thomas (who plays Eglac) is so huge, Grendel looked a little diminished. Still, this is one of the few Beowulf film adaptations in which Beowulf actually rips off Grendel’s arm (instead of blowing it off, or grabbing it in a chain, or whatever) – a scene that worked for me.

Deborah Smith Ford’s Helldam is fast, very fast – which unfortunately means we don’t see much of her on the screen. She’s mostly a blur, and although it meant we don’t get much of DS Ford, I think the general notion that where Grendel is preternaturally strong, his mother is fast, works for explaining how she is just as deadly. Unfortunately, Helldam is also in the scene that I think works the least: the skiing scene. Yes, skiing. I’d have preferred a slightly slower, less manic Helldam, and more Ford.

Ah, yes, the dragon! Why does everyone always leave out the dragon? Fortunately, B:PotG does not make this mistake, and we have the dragon scene very much like it runs in the poem. One notable addition is the character Nils, who is a young usurper-type with a plan to kill the dragon with a trebuchet. Normally, I’d have found that addition annoying, but the authentic trebuchet (not a model) appealed so strongly to the medieval geek in me that I kind of wanted Nils to win, just to see a dragon killed by a trebuchet.

Beowulf is depicted as a warrior driven primarily by his own insecurities. He is clearly an outsider (though born of a Geatish mother and raised among the Geats), but his greatest fear is that his weakness will make him a danger to the tribe. In the flashback, it isn’t exactly clear what happened to cause him to fear this, but he is certainly motivated by some childhood trauma. We end up with a Beowulf who is so powerful that he can tear the arm off a troll, but is still human enough that he vomits after the fight. He’s more Batman than Superman.

The most interesting character was Unferth. In a poem of mostly static characters, he is the one who undergoes the greatest change, and the film reflects this. He is also sent off with Beowulf at the end of the Grendel’s Mother episode, so Unferth acts as eyewitness to all the events of Beowulf’s life, eventually becoming Beowulf’s best friend. Too often Unferth is played off as a straight villain; it was nice to see him portrayed more as Saul/Paul than Judas. I especially liked Bob Elkins’s performance as the older Unferth.

Aristotle might have dismissed spectacle as the least important part of tragedy, but film-watchers today expect a high-gloss production. It is here that Beowulf: Prince of the Geats may disappoint some of its younger viewers. No budget is just that – NO BUDGET. As a result, you’re definitely going to see the seams in the special effects. Very often, the green-screen is very obvious, the models are clearly models, etc.

I wasn’t put off by that, however. Actually, I found it a little charming. It reminded me of a combination of Land of the Lost, and the old Ray Harryhausen films, and community theatre. I felt like the shots were better, and the acting better showcased, where it was staged like a theatrical production, without vast vistas – the exception being the scene on the boat in the rain, which looked very good and convincing. Younger people who don’t remember watching Ultraman and Spectreman might find the cheap spectacle off-putting, but old, er, more mature people like me will probably view it like the shows from our childhood.

Frankly, the spectacle gets at exactly the problem with so many Beowulf productions – money, but no passion. Here, we had passion, but no money. Some of the actors were no doubt cast because of their passion for the project. The sets were all produced on donated materials and labor, and in some cases, it shows. The same is true for the models, and the computer FX seems at least a generation out of date. All those criticisms aside – how slick a production can one reasonably expect for no budget? Considering that constraint, the film is a small miracle, and a welcome antidote to the slick-but-stupid Zemeckis Beowulf.

One more thing: The DVD extras has a bit about “Viking Camp.” I really want to go to Viking camp! You can buy the DVD here.


  1. Thanks for the review. I have a minor quibble. You mentioned that you'll be giving a paper at the International Medieval Congress. The annual conference in Leeds is the International Medieval Congress ( The one in Kalamazoo is the International Congress on Medieval Studies.
    Michael Garcia

  2. See, now that's just confusing. Couldn't we have called Leeds the International Medieval Parliament, or something?

    Of course, everyone in the biz just called them "K'zoo" and "Leeds," so I guess the actual names are for outsiders only.