Beowulf (1999) poster

Beowulf (1999)


USA. 1999.


Director – Graham Baker, Screenplay – David Chappe & Mark Leahy, Producer – Lawrence Kasanoff, Photography – Christopher Faloon, Music – Ben Watkins for Juno Reactor, Music Supervisors – Patricia Joseph & Irish Lal, Visual Effects Supervisor – Alison Savitch, Visual Effects – Digiscope (Supervisor – Dion Hatch), Digital Muse (Supervisor – David A. Lombardi Jr), Illuvatar L.L.C., Men in White Coats, Metropolis Digital (Supervisor – Dan Casey), Threshold Digital Research Labs/IBM Corporation & Visionscape Imaging (Supervisor – Matt McDonald), Special Effects Supervisor – Michael Clifford, Makeup Effects – Masters FX (Supervisor – Todd Masters), Production Design – Jonathan Carlson, Weapons Design – Global Effects Inc & Rod Vass Art and Design. Production Company – Lawrence Kasanoff/Threshold Entertainment/Grendel Productions LLC/Dimension Films/Kushner-Locke Co/Capitol Films/European Motion Pictures Productions Ltd


Christopher Lambert (Beowulf), Rhona Mitra (Kyra), Oliver Cotton (Hrothgar), Gotz Otto (Roland), Layla Roberts (Grendel’s Mother), Brent J. Lowe (Will), Charlie Robinson (Weaponsmaster)


The mercenary Beowulf arrives at a castle outpost on the borderlands. He appears to have a mysterious affinity for an invincible monster that is attacking the people from within the castle. As the beautiful Kyra becomes drawn to Beowulf, she discovers that the mysteries of his birth hold secrets that have drawn him to combat the monster.

An epic poem written sometime around 800-1000 A.D., Beowulf is considered the first work of literature in the English language and is regarded as a classic of heroic mythology. Unlike most other popular legends, the only film adaptations up until the 00s had not been actual adaptations but versions that deconstruct and transpose the story – such as The 13th Warrior (1999), which rewrote the story as an historical epic about Vikings taking on leftover Neanderthals, or the Star Trek: Voyager episode Heroes and Demons (1995), which resurrected the myth as a holographic simulation gone wrong, and this, which plays it out in a mythologized post-holocaust setting.

In the mid 1990s, there were two competing adaptations of the story, one planned by Vincent Ward, director of The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey (1988) and What Dreams May Come (1998) – although neither ever emerged. The millennium and the renewed interest in epic fantasy that came with it suddenly saw a swathe of adaptations with the historically realist Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Grendel (2006), the performance capture animated Beowulf (2007) from Robert Zemeckis, the low-budget Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2007), the science-fiction version Outlander (2008) where Grendel became an alien monster, and the British tv mini-series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016).

This version comes from Graham Baker, a director who has been a minor genre dabbler with the likes of The Final Conflict (1981), Impulse (1984) and Alien Nation (1988). The film is an extremely simplistically stripped telling of the legend, only concerning itself with the early part of the story about Beowulf’s battle with Grendel in the castle and dispensing altogether with the main part of the story concerning Beowulf’s venture down into Grendel’s lair.

Christopher Lambert as Beowulf (1999)
Christopher Lambert as the mercenary Beowulf

The film’s spin is to resurrect the story as an action movie set in a fantasticized netherworld – at first glance this seems like a standard Mediaeval setting, exactly the place where one would imagine the story would take place. However, this increasingly appears to be a post-holocaust setting as P.A. systems, infra-red scopes and modern medicine also sit incongruously alongside suits of armour, swords and drafty castles. The effect is unusual and disconcerting – a world that is neither mediaeval nor rundown future. Unusually, the film just lets this sit as it is rather than offering any explanation.

Despite initial interest created by the setting, this proves to be only skin deep and the film of little substance. Graham Baker wheels out standard action moves – all the de rigeur acrobatic flips and mid-air martial kicks, while Grendel becomes a not-terribly convincing CGI copy of Alien (1979). Christopher Lambert is cast as a classic grim loner – the film even absurdly throws in a Sergio Leone twanging Jew’s Harp to accompany his entrance – but Lambert is, as always, awful, even more so when he tries to do his cute little boy thing in a role that’s meant to be grim and tight-lipped.

The most bizarrely laughable thing about the film is the production design, which sets out to create a series of interestingly offbeat weapons. However, the results end up laughably impractical – swords with serrated blades, a knife contraption that flings spinning wheels, a stake with a buzzsaw blade attached to the end of it, a collapsible ball-and-chain and a guillotine that is designed as a giant shaving razor. Most absurd is the castle model exterior, which is designed with one turret that has a giant claw that keeps clenching and unclenching while belching a jet of flame.

Trailer here

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