To late mythologist Joseph Campbell, there has only been one story ever told. Every myth and legend involves identical themes, and every hero undertakes the same basic journey. If he’s to be believed, there’s no essential distinction between the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, a computer-animated adaptation of which opens today, and, say, Dukes of Hazzard. While the idea that a heroic epic of sacrifice and bravery is thematically identical to a movie about hillbillies trying to poison their neighbours with methanol is somewhat depressing, the mono-myth theory might explain why Hollywood can easily rely on ancient legends when they run out of TV to adapt. Interested viewers can explore Campbell’s theory of the über-myth in the documentary series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, or embark on their own heroic journey through some DVD adaptations of classic myths and legends.
Robert Zemeckis’s new film is not the only retelling of Beowulf’s battle with the Grendel clan. In 1999, John McTiernan directed The 13th Warrior, a multicultural demystification that has an Arab writer fighting alongside Vikings to exterminate the last remaining tribe of Neanderthals, sort of like It’s a Small World with genocidal tendencies.
Another version of Beowulf stars Christopher Lambert and sets the tale in a futuristic dystopia. Sort of. The only real concession to the sci-fi conceit is the techno soundtrack, and even that only seems futuristic if rave pills are flashing you back to 1998.
A more faithful adaptation comes from the excellent 2005 Icelandic/Canadian/U.K. co-production Beowulf and Grendel. The film maintains the poem’s strange ahistoric hybrid of paganism and Christianity, though I don’t remember quite so much of Sarah Polley having sex with trolls in the Cliff Notes version.
Like Beowulf, the legend of King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail is deeply infused with Christian themes of sacrifice, healing, and unity. Also incest and dismemberment, which spices up the Sunday-school motifs with fleshy exploitation-film fundamentals. John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur retains the legend’s more salacious elements, though the broad comedy occasionally missteps and gives Arthur the nobility of Mr. Bean.
On the other hand, 2004’s King Arthur replaces magic and mysticism with gritty realism, portraying Merlin not as a wise old wizard but as a pagan warrior-priest mixed with an aging hippie trying to cure a head cold with mandrake root and half a potato.
Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991) takes the same approach, and completely re-contextualizes elements of Arthurian legend in a modern setting. Robin Williams plays Parry, an insane homeless man whose quest for what looks to be a Grail-shaped bowling trophy cures shock-jock Jeff Bridges of hubris, arrogance and guilt.
In Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Jason searches not for the Holy Grail, but rather the Golden Fleece. The legend’s imaginative creatures, brought to life by stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, prove there was more to ancient Hellenic culture than the bellowed catchphrases and mindless warmongering of 300.
In Clash of the Titans (1981), Perseus quests for Medusa’s head, and Harryhausen’s work is also the centerpiece. It’s a good thing, too, because otherwise the focus would be on star Harry Hamlin, who appears to have taken acting lessons from a sunlamp. As it stands, he gets upstaged by a robot owl with the voice of a rusty R2D2.
The acting is also not the highlight of 1960s Italian Hercules films starring Reg Park, a blundering British bodybuilder who all evidence suggests is a golem made of pressed meat. Nevertheless, 1961’s Hercules in the Haunted World is worth watching for the rich visuals of director/cinematographer Mario Bava, who drenches Hercules’s various quests in so much fog and atmosphere you barely notice his resemblance to Bo Duke.
AL KRATINA, Freelance