At one time the word “hero” was simply a designation given to anybody born from the union of mortal and God, but that was in simpler times when the Gods would routinely roam the earth, ravishing comely mortal maids, and scattering progeny everywhere. With the coming of monotheism, that just wouldn’t do. God singular couldn’t be seen getting it off the local tavern keeper’s daughter and begetting heroes all over the place. So instead of actually being the child of a God, a hero became a mortal who was able to perform tasks that required abilities beyond what is considered normal for humans.
Ever since, we’ve been inundated with tales of heroic deeds by men and women of valour, honour, and good breeding. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that anybody dared write a story with a person of lower status as the hero, and even then The Barber Of Seville was greeted with near riot when it was first performed, as the concept was considered so outrageous. Today it’s quite acceptable for anybody to be a hero. While in terms of literature that’s a good thing, when it comes to the reality of its application, the word has been diminished through overuse and abuse.
From sports “heroes” to supposed icons of society, it’s become a convenient appellant to use for propaganda and marketing. While firefighters and other folk do things on a daily basis that most of us would blanch at, they are only recognized when politicians are looking to score points or whip up sentimental support for their policies. Most of the time we still associate heroism with the ability to kill people as shown by how many decorations and medals are reserved for those who are in the military.
Martial mien, as a standard for heroic behaviour is as old as humanity, and our earliest tales and epics all deal with the exploits of men at war or quests that bring them into conflict. In fact the oldest tale written down in the English language, Beowulf is about a warrior hero and his deeds on the battlefield. Perhaps because it was the first, and all tales in English since owe it a debt of gratitude, it has managed to hold on to our imaginations where others have failed.
In November of 2007, a major Hollywood production of Beowulf, with star power on and off the screen to propel its fortunes, was released in the hopes of cashing in on that continued fascination. However, it’s not the first film in recent years to bring the thousand-year-old story to the screen. In 2005, Beowulf & Grendel, a Canadian, Icelandic, and British co-production directed by Canadian Sturla Gunnarsson from a script by Andrew Rai Berzins, and starring Gerard Butler, Sarah Polley, and Ingvar Sigurdsson, was released across Canada after a successful tour of the Film Festival circuit, but pretty much slid under most people’s radar. The first I heard about it was when my wife brought home the DVD the other night in the hopes that it would be worth watching.
I haven’t seen the recently released version or heard anything about it, but after watching Beowulf & Grendel, I feel it’s going to be hard pressed to match the job done by this production. The acting, the script, and the visual spectacle of shooting on location in Iceland have combined to create one of the most complete cinematic experiences I have experienced since Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings. What makes this even more impressive is that there wasn’t a blue screen and CGI wasn’t used. Everything was shot on location and special effects were makeup, prosthetics, and pre-computer generated technology.
The movie opens on the happy scene of a father and son playing together. Only as the camera closes in on them do we realize they are different. The father is oversized and slightly misshapen, and the child has wisps of hair dangling from his chin while his arms are covered in a fine down. The scene abruptly cuts to a shot of armoured men on horseback with torches at full gallop and then cuts back to the father and son. This is our first introduction to Grendel, his father, and the Danes. The father and son try to flee, but all Grendel’s father is able to do is place his son out of harm’s way before he turns to meet his death.
Leaping forward in time, a now-adult Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson) comes to take his revenge upon those who murdered his father. The Danes and their king (played magnificently by Stellan Skarsgard) have just celebrated the construction of their first mead hall. During the night, Grendel breaks in and slays the men who stayed to sleep off their drink. The attacks continue and word spreads of the trouble until it reaches the ears of King’s old friend, Beowulf (Gerard Butler). Vowing to take vengeance upon the villain, Beowulf sets off with a troop of soldiers to rid the Danes of their peril.
Grendel refuses to play by the rules, though, and won’t attack Beowulf and his men. While it could mean he is afraid of the company, Beowulf begins to suspect there’s more to Grendel’s unwillingness to fight than lack of courage. A meeting with the outcast witch, Selma (Sarah Polley), only confuses him more and plants seeds of doubt in his mind about the validity of his cause. Why has Grendel only attacked soldiers and never any of the women, children, or older men of the settlement? If he is the monster that he’s supposed to be, wouldn’t he be killing randomly?
When it finally becomes clear Grendel is only attacking those who have given him reason to (the Danes killed his father because he had stolen a fish, and because he was different), it’s too late to stop what’s begun and the story continues to its traditional conclusion. Instead of Beowulf wrecking wrathful vengeance in the heroic mould, he is reluctantly forced to kill both Grendel and his mother.
Gerard Butler is wonderful in the role of Beowulf, for not only does he make a convincing hero — charismatic, charming, and fierce in battle — he also does a great job of showing the turmoil that plagues his character as the film proceeds. What’s really remarkable about his performance is that he doesn’t let the character go too far the other way and all of a sudden make him an apologist for the warriors. That’s what he is; he’s not ashamed of being one, and he has no problems with using violence to solve problems.
As Grendel, Ingvar Sigurdsson has the unenviable task of trying to communicate without the use of a language that anyone else in the movie can understand. In spite of this difficulty, he manages to create a character who is more than just a monster. At the same time he doesn’t turn him into some misunderstood gentle giant. He is a fierce and primal creature who operates on an instinctive level, but the fact remains that his attacks are motivated by the same thing that motivates Beowulf and the Danes.
In the important roles of the King and Selma the outcast witch, Stellan Skarsgard and Sarah Polley respectively do difficult jobs well. Stellan in particular does a wonderful job showing the disintegration of a proud man who knows he is too blame for the attacks upon his people. Sarah Polley is compelling as the one voice who dares to speak the truth and in defence of Grendel. She could easily have played the character as angry all the time; she has great reason for bitterness, having been cast out and abused by her fellow Danes. Instead she makes the character real with a sense of humour and emotional depth.
The DVD of Beowulf & Grendel has special features worth watching. There are excerpts from a documentary made about the shooting of the movie by one of the cast members called The Wrath Of Gods. The title refers to the horrendous difficulties that beset the production shooting on location in Iceland due to the severity of weather conditions. Winds up to 160 kph, rain blowing sideways across the set, and even a volcano erupting near their location were just some of the highlights.
Cast and crew all talk frankly about their experiences working under those conditions, but never once sound like they are complaining. The Icelandic actors were prepared for those conditions and Sarah Polley had shot a previous movie on location there, but for some like Gerald Butler it was a brand new experience. They all agreed that without the weather conditions the movie wouldn’t have been the success it is.
Beowulf & Grendel on DVD is a great movie retelling of the iconic hero tale of Anglo Saxon literature, told with enough of an iconoclastic twist to call into question our definition of “the hero.” Most of all, though, it is a reminder that you can still create a magnificent cinematic experience without CGI or a blue screen in sight. Reality is still a lot more powerful than anything you can churn out in a studio or on a computer screen.