Troy (Petersen, 2004) — 10 Years Later: Part III

In Part I of this essay, Jeremy Purves gave a critical reception history of Troy, questioning how well film critics knew the source material.

In Part II, he discussed, in depth, the criticism that the gods were removed from the film.

“The truest tale in the world is the Iliad or Siege of Troy. Wars never begin in hatred; they either arise out of the honourable affection a man has for his own possessions; or else out of the black and furtive affection he has for someone else’s possessions … The Greeks and the Trojans did not hate each other in the least; there is scarcely one spark of hatred in the whole of the Iliad, save that great flare that comes out of the hero’s love for Patroclus. The two armies are strewing the plain with corpses and dyeing the very sea with blood from love and not from detestation … A real soldier does not fight because he has something that he hates in front of him. He fights because he has something that he loves behind his back.”
–G.K. Chesterton

Think for a moment. How interesting is it that the Iliad is one of the most famous and inspiring stories in the history of the world? (As legend has it, Alexander the Great always kept copy of the Iliad under his pillow.) I bet this seems strange to many of us now, living with our modern ideas of morality, with our culture’s sensitivity to individual “natural rights,” with our entertainment’s cardboard cutout characters who are designed to be identified with, sympathized with, copied, emulated, worshipped, cheered for, etc. It is quite true that the Iliad does not possess our modern sensibilities, whether in politics or in entertainment. Instead, I would suggest that it possesses a number of classical themes that our modern views of the world could profit by. In their masterful book, Who Killed Homer:? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath defend the value of classical literature and discuss the main classical themes of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In chapter four, they go to the trouble to list and explain these themes. Let’s consider how the film Troy invokes a few of these themes.

 

A Classical View of Materialism and the Martial Code:

Hanson and Heath write, often focusing on the character arc that the Iliad gives to Achilles:

“Homer depicts a culture where possession of distributed war booty is tangible and is the sole evidence of honor, and where honor is what men are to live and die for … Yet Achilles in the Iliad undergoes a gradual but startling transformation in his view of such rewards and of the society itself, which uses them alone to define and calibrate honor. He understandably grows incensed (his fellow Greeks agree that he has been wronged) and withdraws from battle when his prize, a captured girl, is taken from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks. The consequences of this anger (the first word of the epic) – all of the subsequent events occur because of his withdrawal from battle – lead Achilles alone to the realization that the entire martial system of honor is bankrupt and based on a lie. Homer has first presented us with the heroic code and now at once has undermined it. Even at its simplest level of interpretation – our value is not determined by the size of our house, the speed of our car, the age of our spouse, or the price of our tennis shoes – Achilles’ new awareness runs counter to the materialism of many of [us today] … No one at the beginning of the Iliad wants material things more than Achilles; at the close, no one wanted them less.” (Hanson & Heath, pgs. 194-195.)

One of the many reasons that I appreciate Troy as a film is that I believe it captures this theme of Homer’s. Towards the beginning of the film, Brad Pitt’s Achilles is arrogantly confident in his own abilities. He has swallowed all the claptrap about fame and having his name remembered across the ages. When Hector hears his grand talk about the world remembering the war for a thousand years, he rebukes the idea with a clear sense of moral realism, “In a thousand years the dust from our bones will be gone.” But the film’s early Achilles cannot even comprehend this point of view. “Yes, Prince, but our names will remain,” he replies, as if that were a counter-argument. When Achilles’s mother tells him that he can either choose a wife and a family and live long and happily as a human being or he can choose to join the Trojan War, make a name for himself that will last through history, and die young, you can already tell what his choice will be. His contempt for Agamemnon’s greed seems just, but his own greed is only of a different variety. “I want what all men want,” he declares, “I just want it more.”

While the film shows this, it also shows how Achilles is not just talk. If there is one vice that he lacks, it is hypocrisy. In fact, the very essence of his character is against it. “I hate that man like the very Gates of Death / who says one thing but hides another in his heart.” (Fagles, Book IX, 378-379.) Thus, Achilles has personified the perfect warrior. Pitt has to be given credit here because he worked hard to successfully portray a man who has spent his entire life doing nothing but focusing, like the ideal single-minded athlete, on perfecting his physique, his strength and his fighting skill all to the point to where he can win any fight with any other man in the world. “Epic” battle scenes in movies are a dime a dozen now. CGI has allowed every director who desires to show grand, sweeping battles with thousands of men fighting thousands of men (or monsters). But unlike every other hero in a war film, even unlike Wallace in Braveheart or Maximus in Gladiator, Pitt’s Achilles does something different. In every battle scene that he appears in, Achilles’s fighting practically looks like dancing. Somehow Pitt has managed to make fighting look, not just badass or intimidating or powerful, but graceful. Achilles literally dances through the enemy, tearing through every enemy soldier who stands in his path, with grace.

(Fun fact: In what is perhaps one of the greatest ironies in the history of cinema, Brad Pitt literally tore his achilles tendon while making this film. Production of his scenes had to be halted for him to recover.)

Peterson sets this up well, with the beach landing scene towards the beginning of the film. James Horner’s score works well here, soaring and rhythmic to go along with the pulling oars on the Greeks’ triremes. The tension of the scene builds slowly, but keeps increasing. At one end, the sheer number of ships looming on the horizon is probably the worst sight that the men and women of Troy have ever seen. At the other end, by leading the landing without Agamemnon’s permission, Achilles appears to have recklessly maneuvered himself against impossible numbers on the beach – a suicidal maneuver that then actually succeeds. It’s not until the end of the battle that you realize how carefully orchestrated the whole thing was. Achilles, in conformity with his ego and desire for fame, has maneuvered himself so that his ship is clearly leading all the rest of Agamemnon’s ships. He is first and in front of everyone else. He has aimed his landing straight at the temple of Apollo, the highest and most visible point of the entire beach. All the other men in all the other Greek ships can’t help but watch in awe as Achilles and his men fight at a disadvantage, running uphill in the sand and fighting their way against a larger force. Achilles here outruns the rest of his own men and alone fights his way up the steps of the temple of Apollo, mowing down every single opponent with an ease that seems theoretically impossible. (This scene also shows visually how quickly the Trojan War could end if Achilles is fighting.)

Here, Achilles has mastered the martial code. He can kill anyone and he can take anything he wants. He has dared to do the sorts of stunts that almost any other soldier dies doing. If you have any military training at all, you can’t help but admire the idea of a man doing this because you know how hard it would be. Every member of a trained military force has had to practice some form of hand-to-hand single combat. When you do that, you can’t help trying to be the one who can beat anyone else. Mathematically, every single soldier who tries this will fail – except one. Pitt’s Achilles has become that one. And Petersen’s Troy shows all this only as the introduction to his character.

As the film progresses, all Achilles’ grand talk about his name being remembered fades. There is a point in the film where Achilles, influenced by Briseis and her questioning of his “martial code” decides that he would like to marry, settle down and have a family. He even asks Briseis if she would be willing to leave the Trojan War with him. Homer’s Achilles eventually reaches this point at the end, partly because of Priam and partly because of the explicit influence of the gods. Pitt’s Achilles reaches it mostly because he learns to start loving a woman. Given that the film’s Briseis is developed enough to have this influence, it is not unbelievable that she could influence Achilles. One of the questions that the viewer is presented with is whether her influence will be enough at the end.

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