Greatest Literature banner


CritiqueQuotesTextTranslations • At the movies

1999, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2007, 2016

Beowulf manuscript from the Nowell CodexEarliest known manuscript
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
c. 700

Literature form

Literary, epic

Writing language
Old English

Author's country

Approx. 30,000 words

Beowulf scene 1999
The monster has the hero Christopher Lambert by the neck in the first Beowulf film.

B-movie horror

Beowulf (1999): Director Graham Baker; writer Mark Leahy; featuring Christopher Lambert, Rhona Mitry, Oliver Cotton

For some reason Hollywood producers have never engaged in bidding wars to adapt epic Old English poetry for the silver screen.

More strangely, they suddenly seemed to catch on in the dying years of the twentieth century that the old English poem Beowulf might offer some engaging plots for modern audiences.

The classic themes and characters had already been showing up in popular culture regularly. A 1990s episode of Star Trek: Voyager, for example, replayed the story with a holographic Grendel and a phaser-equipped hero.

When the movies got around to full treatments of Beowulf though, it was with mixed results, to say the least, usually recasting the characters, setting and themes to fit current genres of action, science fiction, fantasy or horror films—sometimes all at once.

The first English-language film to call itself "Beowulf" is one of the worst offenders. The 1999 film Beowulf, starring Christopher Lambert in the title role, is more a horror-cum-action-cum-scifi flick than a retelling of the Anglo-Saxon classic.

Beowulf scene 1999
Lambert's scifi Beowulf

Nonetheless, it's actually a diverting B-movie, once you stop expecting anything particularly meaningful—or anything to do with the original story.

The time period has been moved up to...well, I'm not sure exactly when. The setting seems to be some kind of future post-apocalyptic world in which medieval knights slug it out with swords and maces—when they're not using power tools to hone those instruments and intercom systems to communicate in their stone castles. (To be fair though, is this any worse than the Star Wars scifi world in which our futuristic heroes have mastered laser technology and shape it into swords for hand-to-hand combat?)

Lambert's Beowulf is a knight errant who arrives at the castle where the monster Grendel is killing folks off each night. And why don't they leave? Because the fort is under siege by other soldiers who don't want the monster to escape and therefore they kill everyone who tries to get out. Okay, so logic is not a strong point in this movie's favour.

Beowulf it seems is fated to confront the beast. He's half-god, half-man, with a shameful past requiring him to redeem himself by roaming the world on horseback with his cool crossbow, looking for evil to confront. When he finds it, he backflips all over the place until he's in position to stab the beast. The drawn-out battle scenes seem the raison d'être of the movie. That and chances to stare at the exposed chest of co-star Rhona Mitra (better known from TV's Boston Legal).

Several subplots involve secondary characters, but they never get in the way of the main action. At one point the beast massacres every non-combatant woman and child in the castle, a horrendous bloodbath of the innocent, which makes for an emotional impact...lasting about three seconds. Then it's entirely forgotten as attention is turned back to the hero's impending showdown with the monster.

Trailer for Beowulf as a horse-riding action hero.

At one point I thought the film was going to take off into an interesting psychological direction, speculating the monster was created by the mind of man—or the mind of one man in particular. But, alas, I was reading too much into it. Reading does that to you.

And, oh yes, the monster has a vengeful mother just as in the poem. Another battle. Some more backflipping and some more not-bad CGI effects.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotesTextTranslations • At the movies

1999, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2007, 2016