'Beowulf': War Porn Wrapped in a Chippendale Dancer's Body


When Zack Snyder's 300 hit theaters in March, critics flagged the eerie timing of the legendary Greeks vs. Persians battle splashing across big screens just as the White House was ratcheting up its war of words against Tehran. Slate magazine's Dana Stevens spoke for many when she called the film "a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to war."

The accusation stung the filmmakers and terrified Warner Brothers, which did everything it could to discourage political readings of the film. But could the studios blame anyone for wondering if a comic book-inspired historical fantasy was being employed as part of a coordinated propaganda campaign? Hollywood showed its willingness to participate in post-9/11 myth making with films like Flight 93.

So it's not much of a leap to project current events (and fears) onto screens showing director Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Like 300, Beowulf is an animated gore-fiesta that should have 15-year-olds around the country screaming for a sword and a trip to the nearest Blackwater recruitment office.

Beowulf, played by Ray Winstone, arrives in Denmark not as a king, but as a famed mercenary. Like today's Pentagon-contracted security firms, he claims not to be interested solely in money, yet heartily indulges in the king's munificence. The mercenary-hero proceeds to do battle with three monsters -- a sort of Axis of Medieval.

The three beasts in the film in fact line up pretty well as stand-ins for Iraq, North Korea and Iran. Beowulf slays the first beast (Grendel/Iraq) easy enough, but he loses his soul in the process and becomes prisoner to the battle's legacy. Because of the second beast's potent demon powers, Beowulf decides not to slay it at all (Grendel's mother/North Korea). The third monster is the biggest (Iran/the Dragon), and when Beowulf finally gets around to charging its cave, the battle ends in their mutual death and the destruction of the citadel.

Beowulf's heroic but tragic end, like that of King Leonidas in 300, makes it hard to fit the story into a neat neocon narrative. Both men fail, while the war party in the United States seeks total victory -- "an end to evil," in the words of Richard Perle. The film takes an even sharper turn away from gung-ho militarism when Beowulf turns and sees that his final enemy is not so monstrous at all. Alas, the dragon is just a man in his own image.

Beowulf, Chippendale warrior?

Beowulf is both politically and sexually unsure of itself. Like 300, this CGI-enabled parable drenches its young-male target audience in PG-13 homoerotica. Star Ray Winstone's rippled abs and marble pecs dominate many scenes, and the script is a steamy bathhouse of macho staring contests, ribald jokes and tender but tense moments between friends-to-the-death. The undercurrent of gay sexual tension is so loud and proud that it's hard to see how anyone could deny it. Yet a Gaylinkcontent.com critic writes that the film is not exactly homoerotic because "the shame in the film is not homosexuality, but the low sexual willpower of the male heroes."

But what does shame have to do with anything? Beowulf revels in the beefcake torso of its male star, whose flesh gets more screen time than that of his female co-star, Angelina Jolie. Even Anthony Hopkins' King Hrothgar gets a gratuitous ass shot in the first scene.

In the most bizarre example of the film's obsession with Winstone's computer-enhanced body, Zemeckis has him strip naked to battle Grendel. In the original poem, Beowulf just takes off his armor. But here, in the mead hall before the battle, Beowulf lies naked in a position of amorous waiting, arms behind his head, muscles glistening in the lamplight. In a David-like film study of the male form, Beowulf looks up languidly at his best friend, who grumbles in jealousy that there are "too many untended women here. A warrior's mind must be unblurred."

Then there is the jarring utterance of Queen Wealthow, played by Robin Wright Penn: "There have been many a brave soldier come to taste my husband's mead."

The first hour of Beowulf so bursts with this kind of thing that it can only be a matter of time before gay bars start popping up named "The Mead Hall."

Like the refusal of 300 to acknowledge the sexual reality of its subject -- the script actually has the Spartans mocking the Athenians for being "boy lovers" -- Beowulf is careful to disguise its nude male imagery amid typical examples of adolescent homophobia. When one of Beowulf's soldiers accuses another of being gay with an effeminate gesture, a friendly frolic ensues, much like the ones found in any ass-pinching football locker room or paddle-smacking fraternity -- half jocular wrestle and half dry-hump.

This homoerotic/homophobic tension in the film is doubly striking, given another of the film's notable themes: strident, Nietzschean anti-Christianity.

This theme is unveiled in the film's early minutes, with John Malkovich's character, the venal drunk Unferth, explaining the new Roman religion to a small group in hushed tones, as if he were explaining some new street drug. "This is how it works," he says. "After you die, you wouldn't really be dead -- providing you accepted him as the one and only god."

Later, after Grendel attacks the castle, Unferth asks King Hrothgar, "Should we pray to the Roman god Christ Jesus? Perhaps he can lift our affliction." To which Hrothgar responds: "No, no, no. The gods will do nothing for us we cannot do for ourselves. What we need is a hero."

Enter the mercenary Beowulf. But even heroes are no match for the new god Jesus Christ. After the religion has gained a foothold in the land, an aging Beowulf mutters, "The age of heroes is over. The Christ god has killed it, leaving humanity with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear and shame."

It is lines like this that make you wonder about these new-generation war films. Are they, as the filmmakers maintain, nothing more than cutting-edge comic book remakes of old poems and stories? Or are they in fact slick propaganda with amazing f/x intended to get and keep kids pumped up for our multigenerational fight against the evil-doers?

Beowulf offers a third possible reading. Perhaps it is intended as a post-9/11 parable, but one with a very different message from that found in the "fascist" 300. It is possible to read Beowulf as a not-so-subtle radical critique of greed, bloodlust, the desire to enter the lairs of others and obliterate all enemies. As Angelia Jolie tells Beowulf when he storms her treasure-cave seeking revenge: "Underneath your glamour, you're as much a monster as my son."

Beowulf does not disagree.

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