The Anti-Blockbusters: Beowulf and Grendel

By | May 31, 2018

We are in the midst of Summer Blockbuster season (see our rundown at this link), but in case you would like a respite from the mega-dollar, CGI-overload films, here’s a look at some genre entries from the past decade or so that delivered great movies without relying on a big-budget or excessive special effects.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: While not the action movie you might expect, this one plays on the familiar tale to act as a parable for our own times while also delivering a sleeper of a fantasy film.

Anybody who has had a class or two in Western Literature will know Beowulf as the aged (some might say musty) epic poem about the titular hero who (Spoiler Alert!) defeats the wicked monster Grendel and his mother as well as a menacing dragon. This work has made it to the big screen several times including the 1999 film starring ex-Highlander Christopher Lambert as well as the big-budget motion-capture adaptation from Robert  Zemeckis in 2007. In 2005, another spin on the classic tale came out from Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson which, unlike the more Hollywood-ized versions, presented an introspective, somber approach, and a damn good fantasy film.

In this movie, King of the Danes Hrothgar lives in despair as the monstrous Grendel wages war against his people and has slain many of his warriors. He sends for the aid of the legendary Beowulf who arrives at Daneland accompanied by his troop of warriors. They face off with  Grendel, but the monster will not fight them and instead flees which prompts Beowulf to wonder about the claims Hrothgar has made against the creature. Beowulf eventually finds that when Grendel was a child the Danish king killed his father for stealing a fish, though he spared the youth out of pity. However, after Grendel matured, he held a grudge against Hrothgar and his men, leading to the current situation that Beowulf has been called on to resolve.

Beowulf and Grendel was produced on a much more modest budget than the Robert Zemeckis version that hit the theaters two years later and it also steered clear of the typical Hollywood style CGI-overload, action story. Instead, the creative team for the movie used the tale as a parable of sorts for modern times. Beowulf is far from the blood-thirsty stereotype typically associated with the character – though he is surrounded by plenty of others that fit this mold. Instead, we see him as a warrior with an introspective side that questions whether force is always the correct first option in dealing with a potential threat. Now you could quite rightly argue that this gives as a very historically inaccurate view of people living during the Anglo-Saxon age, but then let’s spend a few hours reviewing the historical gaffs in a film like, say, BraveheartBeowulf and Grendel does not pretend to offer a history lesson or a faithful adaptation of the original poem. Instead, it uses that familiar tale as a common reference point which acts as a mirror on our own world.

The movie can easily be seen as a response to the interventionist policies of the United States during the 00’s, but don’t mistake this as a myopic, reactionary film with a singular political agenda. It questions the blind reliance on force through the irony of historical figures heavily associated with the warrior culture. And the Beowulf of this film gives us less of the dashing, violent hero type and more of a thinker and strategist with a conscience who understands, maybe even fears, the consequences of violence in the world where he lives.

Along with the less action-oriented, more contemplative story, the movie gives us strong performances by its very capable cast led by Gerard Butler (who would later do a very different turn with a historical character in 300). Also, the austere landscapes of the on-location shooting in Iceland lend an air of stark beauty and authenticity to the film, enhanced by the striking cinematography that brings the movie to life.

This one may disappoint those looking for the action film that its source material might suggest and it will certainly not help anybody with their upcoming English Lit test. But for those looking for a well-crafted story that will engage the mind and just might cause you to ponder the consequence of violence, be sure to give this film a look.

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