“In any case, this poem is a miracle. Its bitterness is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjections of the human spirit to force, that is, in the last analysis, to matter. This subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to its own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is. No one who succumbs to it is by virtue of this fact regarded with contempt. Whoever, within his own soul and in human relations, escapes the dominion of force is loved but loved sorrowfully because of the threat to destruction that constantly hangs over him.”
– Simone Weil
It has now been ten years since Wolfgang Petersen’s old-fashionedly classic film on the Trojan War was released. In hindsight, some of the controversy that roiled round the film at the time now seems rather silly. But then much of the criticism the film took was much worse than silly. Much of it consisted of a sort of “chronological snobbery” in which critics produced excoriations upon the story’s outdated ideas. Often a film will inevitably include a certain amount of modern sensibility adapted to the telling of an ancient story. But no serious film critic should ever criticize a film for those cases when, against the odds, it successfully avoids doing so. Complaining that the filming of a story, thousands of years old, is not anachronistic enough is just plain absurd.
I’ll make two admissions up front. First, I enjoyed Troy very much. In spite of its changes to the narrative, it kept the spirit of the story as much as a film could be expected to do so. Second, I felt it was rather embarrassing to read many of the reviews that were written about it back in 2004.
“The main problem with this film, wrote Adrian MacKinder (for Future Movies) tendentiously, “is that the central story itself doesn’t really lend itself to a modern audience.” If, like me, you are rather hoping that MacKinder was intending this strange statement as a criticism of the modern audience, he quickly lays any such hopes to waste and continues: “Trouble is, the character of Achilles isn’t really very nice and while that needn’t be an issue in itself, the developments of the narrative elements that the script has drawn from the original source make it very difficult to find sympathy for his cause.”
It is difficult to calculate just how many assumptions MacKinder had to get horribly wrong in order to write a conclusion like that and then to mean it as a criticism of a film based on the Iliad. Does he not realize that Homer never intended Achilles to be very nice? Does he believe that “a modern audience” always demands the main character be one that they can “find sympathy” for? Above all, has MacKinder ever wondered if just maybe Achilles not being very nice is, perhaps, one of the entire points of the entire story? (“Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles / murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, / hurling down to the House of Death many sturdy souls / great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, / feats for the dogs and birds …” – Fagles, Book I, 1-5.) Has he considered that the question of whether Achilles will change or not has something to do with why so many human beings across the history of time have so loved this story?
But MacKinder is not alone. The contempt with which some of Troy’s reviewers treated the Iliad was at least honest. They were the brighter film critics who at least understood when they were criticizing Homer himself. Their comments would range anywhere from summarily dismissive (“The movie is loosely inspired by Homer’s ‘The Iliad,’ the least rousing of the famous bard’s major poems about the Greek conflicts and the intervention of the gods.” – David Keyes, Cinemaphile) to contemptuously enlightened (“What modern audience would buy the notion of Zeus meddling, U.N.-style, in warfare between humans?” – Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com).
The advantage that Keyes and Zacharek possess over other film reviewers is some apparent knowledge of the literary source. There is obviously a problem here. I suggest that it is cultural in nature while also informative for us now. In order to think a little deeper about this, I will first discuss some of the criticisms of the film, and then for the second part of this essay, I will discuss what classical themes the film gets right.
I. Achilles the hero?
First, it is very interesting to consider how the character of Achilles tremendously affected the way in which many film reviewers like MacKinder were able to view the film. Emanuel Levy complained that “Pitt comes across as a sleek, narcissistic, anachronistic warrior, highly aware of his unmatched combat prowess.” Felix Vasquez Jr. (Cinema Crazed) complained that “from beginning to end he’s this cliché, machismo fueled, egomaniacal caricature I couldn’t connect with.” Also failing to feel connected with Achilles, Jonathan Romney (The Independent) thought that Pitt’s Achilles came “across as petulant, wooden and boorish,” while Rick Kisonak (Film Threat) thought he came across as “a brooding side of beef.” “As I watched him vacillate between ninja and navel gazer,” Kisonak wrote, “I found myself wondering how common a problem mood swings were 3000 years ago.”
Now to complain that Brad Pitt made Achilles too arrogant, narcissistic, egomaniacal, moody or petulant is one thing. The Achilles of the Iliad was all those things and to criticize Troy for portraying him this way is merely criticizing Homer.
“‘Wine-bibber,’ he cried, ‘with the face of a dog and the heart of a hind, you never dare to go out with the host in fight, nor yet with our chosen men in ambuscade. You shun this as you do death itself. You had rather go round and rob his prizes from any man who contradicts you. You devour your people, for you are king over a feeble folk’ … Achilles abode at his ships and nursed his anger. He went not to the honourable assembly, and sallied not forth to fight, but gnawed at his own heart, pining for battle and the war-cry.” (Butler, Book I, pgs. 7, 12.)
In contrast, dear old Roger Ebert, God bless him, thought that Pitt made Achilles too complex. “If Achilles was anything,” Ebert wrote in the Chicago-Sun Times, “he was a man who believed his own press releases. Heroes are not introspective in Greek drama, they do not have second thoughts, and they are not conflicted … Pitt is modern, nuanced, introspective; he brings complexity to a role where it is not required.”
But a further problem is that, in order to make this criticism, you have to ignore that Achilles, of both the Iliad and of the film, changes. His character is rare in ancient Greek literature, and as compared to almost everyone else in the story, in that he is introspective enough to learn something from what happens during the war. And to criticize Troy for making Achilles unlikable is to remain utterly and determinedly unconscious of how his initial unlikability serves the story.
For instance, Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family’s PluggedIn) disliked the film because he disliked Achilles’ moral character: “Because Achilles is played by Brad Pitt, the character may come across as more heroic than he should. He’s like a modern-day, prima donna athlete — a prideful, conscienceless free agent out for personal glory. He just wants his name in the record books. That would be no big deal if his selfishness proved to be his downfall. But this isn’t a cautionary tale.” No? Then what kind of tale is it?
II. A Romance for the Ages?
Many reviewers of Troy criticized the film for not romanticizing the love story between Paris and Helen enough. They found the romance, as a motivation for the entire Trojan war, simply unbelievable. “My major complaint,” wrote Louise Keller (Urban Cinefile), “is that the all-important forbidden love affair between Paris and Helen, which prompts the Trojan War, captures neither our hearts nor our imagination. No, siree. Orlando Bloom is disappointing as the cowardly yet idealistic Paris, while Diane Kruger, although lovely to look at, is bland.” Bloom’s “Paris,” gripes Joe Lozito (Big Picture Big Sound), “comes off as such a whiny priss that not only is it impossible to understand why Helen would fall for him, but he makes you sad that the war started because of this wimp.” These two young people “are about the most worthless, spoiled, self-absorbed characters in history,” grumbled Ken Hanke of the Mountain Xpress, “Their great love — spawned, it seems, from a one-night stand — is never believable for a moment, not in the least because it’s hard to imagine either one of them tearing him or herself away from a mirror for long enough to notice anyone else.” These criticisms are a simple case of modern critics mistaking later romanticization of Paris and Helen for Homer’s Paris and Helen. Paris, by the way, is portrayed by Homer as a weakling.
Orlando Bloom’s main task as Paris was to be weak, naive and impulsive and he was. Remember, in the Iliad, this a romance where Helen refers to Paris by saying “This fellow was never yet to be depended upon, nor never will be, and he will surely reap what he has sown.” (Butler, Book VI, pg. 76.) Helen’s character is, in fact, questionable in Homer in ways that she is not in the film. In the Iliad, after going with Paris to Troy, she starts wishing for her own husband again (Fagles, Book III, 167-174). And let’s not forget Hector’s tirade at Paris upon finding him huddling behind the walls of the city:
“Hector raked his brother with insults, stinging taunts:
‘Paris, appalling Paris! Our prince of beauty –
mad for women, you lure them all to ruin!
Would to god you’d never been born, died unwed.
That’s all I’d ask. Better that way by far
than to have you strutting here, an outrage –
a mockery in the eyes of all our enemies. Why,
the long-haired Achaeans must be roaring with laughter!
They thought you the bravest champion we could field,
and just because of the handsome luster on your limbs,
but you have no pith, no fighting strength inside you …
So, you can’t stand up to the battling Menelaus?
You’d soon feel his force, that man you robbed
of his sumptuous, warm wife. No use to you then,
the fine lyre and these, these gifts of Aphrodite,
your long flowing locks and your striking looks,
not when you roll and couple with the dust.” (Fagles, Book III, 43-65.)
III. Kissing cousins?
Third, it is rather amazing how many different film critics claimed, wink wink, nudge nudge, that Petersen changed Homer’s story so that Achilles and Patroclus were cousins instead of lovers. Peter Rainer (New York Magazine) tells us that Achilles’ “character has been cleaned up for the movies, though. For one thing, Patroclus … is now his cousin – just in case all that Greek male bonding seemed suspect.” Emanuel Levy pointed out that the film “plays it safe” because “Patroclus is made to be Achilles’ cousin.” Alex von Tunzelmann (The Guardian) complained that Patroclus had “undergone a radical straightening process” which made her “wonder why they bothered making a film about ancient Greece in the first place.” Madeline Miller, author of the Achilles/Patroclus romance novel, The Song of Achilles, was overcome with indignation. “It was just incredible how they had to make Patroclus a younger cousin of Achilles,” she said. “They established a close kinship link between them, so that there wouldn’t be any possibility of an erotic dimension to Achilles’ feelings.” Tim Robey (The Telegraph), David Cornelius, Erik Childress (eFilmCritic.com), Gabriel Shanks (Mixed Reviews), David Keyes (Cinemaphile), James Keast (Exclaim Magazine) and Garth Franklin (Dark Horizons), among others, all made the same criticism, as if it were the most obvious thing about Troy.
What does it say about each of these reviewers that, before making this claim, they did not bother to read or reference Homer? I ask this because Achilles and Patroclus are not lovers in the Iliad. How do I know this? Because I read the Iliad. In fact, Petersen deduced correctly that Achilles and Patroclus are cousins from what Homer explicitly wrote. Throughout the entire work, Homer establishes that Achilles is the son of Peleus and Patroclus is the son of Menoetius. At the very beginning of Book XVI, Achilles refers to “Menoetius son of Actor” and “Peleus son of Aeacus.” (Fagles, Book XVI, 15-17.) Aeacus and Menoetius were brothers, both sons of Aegina. Therefore, it was Homer, not the film Troy, who said Achilles and Patroclus were cousins (once removed, to be precise). In fact, Homer doesn’t just say that Achilles and Patroclus wer family. He even goes to the trouble to describe sleeping arrangements inside their tent. On one side Achilles sleeps with his woman and on the other side “Patroclus slept with the sashed and lovely Iphis by his side.” (Fagles, Book IX, 810-816; Butler, Book IX, pg. 114.)
It is true that, even since ancient times, some critics and historians have speculated on whether the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus might have been homosexual. But this idea has never risen above speculation and has been aptly summarized by classicist Camille Paglia as merely “a Hellenistic fantasy not in Homer.” The theory has obviously become more popular in modern times. Social theorist David Halperin has alleged that Achilles and Patroclus were homosexual. This is supposedly the only explanation for why Achilles is so angry when Patroclus is killed. But Halperin is the same theorist who also proclaims the evidence conclusive that David and Jonathan were lovers. The fact remains that speculating theorists like Halperin are the ones who are changing the story. Petersen, by having Achilles call Patroclus his cousin in the film, is following Homer. To criticize Petersen for “changing the story” in this way can be chalked down to one the dumbest criticisms of the film so far.
IV: Idealizing the Male Body
Yet another criticism was that the characters in Troy are … scantily clad. I was surprised, reading through the reviews, how many critics thought this was worth pointing out. Just in case you wouldn’t have guessed, a few of the heroes go shirtless. “Director Wolfgang Petersen,” declares Maryann Johanson (Flick Filosopher), “has clearly heard the cry throughout the land for more male nudity in Hollywood films.” “[T]hey are all too aesthetically perfect,” frets Dustin Putman, “with their hair coifed and flowing and their muscles bulging amidst metal armor, to pass themselves off as people who might have lived in approximately 1250 B.C. There are times, indeed, when ‘Troy’ seems more concerned with showing off its male cast member’s naked torsos.” James Kendrick (Q Network) thought the film was “undermined by the fact that most of the characters resemble gleaming supermodels in fashionable armor.” “Petersen’s skimpily-clad sirens are the men” Jonathan Romney points out for us in The Independent. “If all that matters to you is the prospect of seeing nearly three hours of hunky guys in leather miniskirts,” mocks Ken Hanke, “then this is the film for you.”
Now look here, in Ancient Greece, people treasured and idealized the human body in ways that are quite different from the way our modern society overly sexualizes and fetishizes it today. Also, the people in Ancient Greece who wore the least clothes were athletes and soldiers. Athleticism, physical exercise and aiming for physical perfection were ideals highly honored. The heroes depicted in Greek art were often depicted in ideal physical forms, more often than not in the nude. Athletics was often considered one of the most important “subjects” taught in Greek schools. It was further considered closely related to the soul because it was taught that intellectual health and physical health directly complimented each other, and this was the way towards spiritual harmony. Read Plato’s Republic.
In comparison to much of Greek art that specifically depicted the heroes of the Iliad, Petersen’s film doesn’t even come close. Any minimal nudity in Troy is only a matter of seconds, and to notice every time a Greek hero goes shirtless is to have abnormally one track mind. If any critic wanted to insist upon artistic or historical accuracy in Troy, he could probably have made fun of the film for the opposite reason – its characters wearing too much clothing. It is unfortunate that showing skin in modern society must always mean sex and inevitably sends off red lights and alarm bells in the mind of the viewer. It makes one wonder whether our view of the human body is less healthy than that of the ancient Greeks.
V. Family Feuds and Personal Combat
Fifth, there are other ways in which modern sensibilities discourage critics from accepting the Iliad story as Petersen portrays it. In another variation of this complaint, we can read Hanke’s difficulty: “That even the most doting father and the most tolerant brother could possibly fall in line with this rather than pack Helen off back home and send Paris to his room for a few days is far harder to swallow than the idea of all this being the result of the machinations of constantly bickering gods and goddesses.” Havens (Film Jerk.com) understands the story in the same way: “Despite the pleas of his brother Hector, Paris refuses to give Helen up. Priam, the King of Troy and father to Hector and Paris, knows that if Helen is returned to Menelaus, he would also have to deliver his son to what is certain to be his execution, deciding to lead Troy into war.”
Yet it is made clear early in the film that Menelaus had only agreed to peace with Troy against the wishes of Agamemnon. And Agamemnon is absolutely enthused when Helen runs off with Paris – because she has finally provided his desired pretext for destroying Troy. It is with delight and laughter that Cox utters the line: “I always thought my brother’s wife was foolish woman, but she’s proved to be very useful.” Petersen is not making up this element of the story. Even in Homer, there are clear indications that the Greeks are much more interested in destroying Troy than in winning Helen back. There is one revealing scene when an important character says as much and then Agamemnon cheerfully agrees with him. (Butler, Book VII, pg. 89; Fagles, Book VII, 460-470.) Then there is another scene where Hector reasons to himself that offering to give back Helen would, at that point, accomplish nothing. (Butler, Book XXII, pg. 283; Fagles, Book XXII, 125-151.) In the film, the character of Paris, along with his belief that he is why the Greeks are at the city gates, is played almost humorously. The moment that Bloom’s Paris declares to everyone, “There won’t be a war! … Tomorrow morning I will challenge Menelaus for the right to Helen,” it is difficult not to laugh. Even Andromache gets this: “Fifty thousand Greeks didn’t cross the sea to watch your brother fight. You know this,” she warns her husband in a different scene.
Even one of my favorite film reviewers, Jeffrey Overstreet (Looking Closer), cannot bring himself to excuse Hector for fighting Achilles. Overstreet writes that Hector “folds far too quickly after his initial protest of his brother’s hormone-driven foolishness. And when [Achilles] challenges him to a one-on-one … in front of the main gates, he goes out to accept the challenge in the name of some kind of ‘honor’ that out-ranks the importance of his wife, child, and the people depending on him for battlefield performance.” But Overstreet is not so much criticizing the film as he is criticizing the Iliad (to give him credit, he at least admits as much). And Overstreet is in good company, as Roger Ebert could not comprehend any of the scenes of single combat either. “So dramatic is that development,” Ebert wrote, “that the movie shows perhaps 100,000 men in hand-to-hand combat, and then completely forgets them in order to focus on the Patroclus battle scene, with everybody standing around like during a fight on the playground.”
But this is not only even a criticism of the Iliad. It is, in fact, criticizing an ancient military tradition. Single combat between champions was considered, in ancient history, a legitimate method of settling wars and battles without greater loss of life. It is a tradition far more ancient than the Iliad. The Ancient Egyptian “Tale of Sinuhe” (set in the Twentieth Century B.C.) refers to the settling of a battle by single combat. Chapter 17 of I Samuel refers to the same tradition in the story of David and Goliath. There is overwhelming historical evidence that this was regularly practiced in Ancient and Classical Greece. And, there are even references to it occurring during the the time of the Roman Empire. The historian Livy refers to Marcus Claudius Marcellus challenging the king, Viridomarus, to single combat in the Battle of Clastidium and Livy also refers to the Roman campaign in Gaul, where Titus Manlius’s defeat of a giant opponent in single combat ended a battle of the Romans against the Gauls.
Troy not only explicitly refers to this tradition in the very first scene of the film, but also explains it for the modern viewer. Before a battle in Thessaly, Agamemnon quips that he doesn’t want to watch another massacre and suggests: “Let’s settle this war in the old manner: your best fighter against my best.” “And if my man wins?,” asks the opposing king. “We’ll leave Thessaly for good,” responds Agamemnon. When Achilles refuses to fight for Agamemnon, Nestor changes his mind by arguing for the good that the single combat could accomplish in spite of Agamemnon’s greed: “Look at the men’s faces,” Nestor tells Achilles, “You can save hundreds of them. You can end this war with a swing of your sword. Let them go home to their wives.” Of course, this did not always happen with the understanding that both armies will quit and go home. But even during regular battles, single combat between opposing champions would often the turning that would determine the difference between winning and losing.
This is why Hector seeks out Ajax during one fight in the film, and it is why all the other men stop fighting each other to watch what they believe is Hector fighting Achilles. They are watching something important, because if one defeats the other, then they will mostly consider the battle decided. At the film’s climax, Hector is not committing suicide. The odds are against him given Achilles’ reputation, but if he were to kill Achilles in single combat, the war would likely be over. Agamemnon has already gone to great lengths to prove his army ineffectual without Achilles. How could Hector’s risking his life to try for that chance – a chance that if successful would save both his city and family – not be honorable? Hector’s decision to fight Achilles was not about his ego or about bragging rights. Achilles, in Hector’s eyes, represents the end of Troy. Hector is the best warrior that Troy has to offer – if anyone can, only he can stop Achilles. Both his very real sense of honor and his moral code (one that is quite different from that of Achilles) leave him with no other choice.
Furthermore, criticizing Priam and Hector for not forcing Paris to given Helen back to the Greeks is both short-sighted and unrealistic. Whenever they talked about doing so in the film, it was merely wishful thinking. Indeed, the film even has one scene where Hector physically stops Helen from going back to the Greeks. She tells him that the war is all her fault and so she is going to fix it by going back. Hector, by this time, has reconciled himself to the political and historical reality. “It’s too late for that now. Do you think Agamemnon cares about his brother’s marriage? This is about power, not love.” The insult to Menelaus (even greater than wife-stealing because it also involved a case of wife-stealing while under the hospitality and protection of the husband) was made as soon as Paris took her away. But even so, there is no reason to think that the insult itself was the cause of the war. The main point to keep in mind is that any consolidated political or imperial power would dearly have wanted to control Troy’s commanding position in Anatolia. If even the slightest insult could have been used as an excuse by Agamemnon, then it would have been used. This fact, along with archeological evidence of Troy’s being sacked, only serves to confirm the historical events that served as the basis for Homer’s story. In his A History of Greece, historian Cyril E. Robinson writes:
“Troy stood in a commanding position, controlling the entrance to the Hellespont. Upon a site so strategic many early cities had risen and fallen. Soon after 1300 the last of the important settlements rose on this spot upon the ruins of a predecessor which had enjoyed much contact with Mycenae before falling victim to an earthquake. This last city clearly was destroyed by violence and set on fire; its conquerors did not settle in the land they had won, but departed leaving the inhabitants to build again, but never on so grand a scale. So much archaeology reveals, and does something to confirm tradition’s story of the Trojan War.” (pg. 19.)
In his book, The Trojan War, historian Barry Strauss also explained why Agamemnon could use Helen’s elopement with Paris as an excuse for the war, in spite of other realities:
“The modern reader is skeptical of Homer. Surely, something as big as the Trojan War was about more than a case of wife-stealing. In ancient times others felt similarly, and the Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 485 – ca. 425 B.C.) quoted the opinion that the Greeks were fools to make a fuss about Paris and Helen and got to war. And so they would have bene if the only reason for the Trojan War had been the beautiful wife of Menelaus. In fact, the Greeks had many reason to make war on Troy, involving both domestic politics and foreign policy. Yet Homer is not mistaken but merely authentic. The Bronze Age was an era that preferred to put things in personal terms rather than in abstractions. Instead of justice, security, or any of the other issues that would be part of a war debate today, the Bronze Age tended to speak of family and friendship, crime and punishment. Near Eastern kings proclaim in their inscriptions that they fought to take vengeance on their enemies and on rebels; they fought those who boasted or who transgressed their path … We would, therefore, expect the Bronze Age to put the causes of the Trojan War in personal terms – murder, rebellion, or even wife-stealing – rather than the aggression, competition, resentment, covetousness, and insecurity that underlay the conflict. But these latter factors were there.” (pgs. 17-18.)
Petersen’s attempt at portraying the film in more human and historical terms than Homer’s mythological poem also appears worthwhile when we remember that the siege and sack of Troy really happened. The fact that archeologists have confirmed the historical record, that there really was such a city, that it really was destroyed by a Greek invasion force, that there really was an Agamemnon, that there is historical and linguistic evidence that many of the characters in the Iliad are not merely figments of Homer’s imagination, can restore for us some of the sense of reality that ancient hearers of the narrative poem would also have felt.
VI. All about the Iraq War…really?
Sixth, it is amusing how stretched the comparisons, between Troy and the American war in Iraq, appear to us now. “The bootleg of this movie is liable to be a big seller in Fallujah,” remarked John Beifuss (The Commercial Appeal). A number of critics seemed to want Troy to be an allegory for the war in Iraq. Johanson (Flick Filosopher) wrote that Agamemnon “here is basically the Dubya of his day, Helen his WMDs (though of course she does actually exist), and Achilles his Haliburton contractor *cough* mercenary. *cough* …”
David Edelstein (Slate Magazine) is also thinking of President Bush when he writes that “Agamemnon, sends men off to kill and be killed to serve a grotesquely private, power-mad agenda—something to do with making a show of his might to scare the whole world into submission. Truly, a Troy for our time.” The film is “a topical treatise on what happens when soldiers blindly follow their leaders into war,” wrote Brunson (Creative Loafing), “… it can’t just be a coincidence that his Iliad adaptation is full of exchanges that dwell upon the reasons that nations elect to go to war, as well as the toll that such battles inflict upon everyone involved.
Certainly, there are numerous lines that could easily be applied to the White House warhawks, the mess they’ve created in Iraq, and the soldiers that are being sacrificed to further their own insidious agendas …” John R. McEwen (Film Quips) summarized the plot as a “selfish and petty political leader takes his country to war for spite, sending thousands to die so that he may gain power, put his name in the history books, and settle some silly score between him and another ruler. Jeez, that’s exactly what’s going on right now!”
No, it’s not a coincidence that there is dialogue in Troy on why nations go to war. This would be because the Trojan war was … a war. Never mind that production for Troy began before the war in Iraq began. The very conflict that begins the story, between Achilles and Agamemnon, between commander and soldier, is about why they are fighting the war. Achilles rebukes Agamemnon just as many a soldier throughout the entirety of military history has wished to rebuke his own commanders:
armored in shamelessness – always shrewd with greed!
How could any Argive soldier obey your orders,
freely and gladly do your sailing for you
or fight your enemies, full force? Not I, no.
It wasn’t Trojan spearmen who brought me here to fight.
The Trojans never did me damage, not in the least,
they never stole my cattle or my horses, never
in Phthia where the rich soil breeds strong men
did they lay waste my crops. How could they?
Look at the endless miles that lie between us …
shadowy mountain ranges, seas that surge and thunder.
No, you colossal, shameless – we all followed you,
to please you, to fight for you, to win your honor
back from the Trojans – Menelaus and you, you dog-face!” (Fagles, Book I, 175-188.)
Caroline Alexander, classics and history professor, writes in her fascinating book, The War That Killed Achilles, that it is no coincidence that the story begins with this conflict. According to Alexander, this is the theme that underlies the whole of the Iliad:
“Given the wide array of topics available, the Iliad’s selection of the narrowest sliver of the least consequential period of this all-encompassing war – a quarrel between a warrior and his commander during the protracted stalemate of the siege – is striking. Behind this choice there undoubtedly lay a much older epic song built on the familiar theme of wrath, revenge, and the return of the slighted warrior. As it is, the Iliad’s chosen structure necessarily rivets attention on Achilles. This epic rendering thus focuses less on the launching of fleets or the fall of cities than on the tragedy of the best warrior at Troy, who, as the Iliad makes relentlessly clear, will die in a war in which he finds no meaning.” (pgs. 13-14.)
If the film Troy could possibly be properly compared to the Iraq War that began at the time of its filming, it could be applied properly only in the sense that the themes of the Iliad can be universally applied to every war. Achilles, even at his most arrogant, has given us a lasting ringing challenge to any instigator of an unjust war:
“‘Yes!’ – blazing Achilles broke in quickly – / ‘What a worthless, burnt-out coward I’d be called / if I would submit to you and all your orders, / whatever you blurt out. Fling them at others, / don’t give me commands! / Never again, I trust, will Achilles yield to you.” (Fagles, Book I, 342-347.) “No, what lasting thanks in the long run / for warring with our enemies, on and on, no end? / One and the same lot for the man who hangs back / and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits / for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death.” (Fagles, Book IX, 383-387.)
Almost all the reviewers I read treated both Troy and the Iliad as if the story were designed to glorify war. But Homer was doing something much more complex than that and what I find admirable is that Petersen’s direction shows that he understands this. “Don’t waste your life following some fool’s orders,” warns Pitt’s Achilles to Patroclus. “You know I don’t want to fight,” Hector tells his wife, “I want to see my son grow tall.” “War is young men dying and old men talking,” Odysseus reminds Achilles. These are not just anti-war clichés and no nonpacifist need be afraid of them. Anyone who has served in the military knows the danger of serving under incompetent or vain commanders. Every veteran of a war should know the horror of what it would mean to fight and kill for an unjust cause. Troy is a film that immediately asks the viewer to think about this, and it introduces the character of Hector as an advocate for this view:
Paris: “Then I’ll die fighting.”
Hector: “Oh! Now that sounds heroic to you doesn’t it? To die fighting. Tell me, little brother, have you ever killed a man?”
Hector: “Ever seen a man die in combat?”
Hector: “I’ve killed men and I’ve heard them dying and I’ve watched them dying and there’s nothing glorious about it – nothing poetic. You say you want to die for love but you know nothing about dying and you know nothing about love.”
George Wu (CultureVulture) is one critic who understood this. I appreciate that Wu could make the following distinction: “Petersen doesn’t cater to audience bloodlust the way Mel Gibson or James Cameron sometimes do in their films; he emphasizes the circle of violence at work in war. Each unprovoked attack brings about an even more vicious retaliation with a beloved character on each side often paying the price until the final result is mass atrocity. The cost of war is horrific, a lesson even Achilles learns.” I think that Petersen’s doing this follows the spirit of Homer’s story. This is, I would suggest, one of the reasons why so many thousands of us have found the Iliad to be universal and transcendent by nature. It is why this story can appeal to anyone in the world.
I hope all this does not come across as too pedantic for the reader. Furthermore, I also honestly hope that it is not a quixotic enterprise to affirm what ought to be simply a truism. I used to think this would have been a rather obvious point – namely, that there is something to be said for, when attempting to professionally review a certain type of film, to first acquire some knowledge of the actual historical or literary source upon which the film itself is based. That aforesaid knowledge could then allow the professional reviewer to distinguish between criticisms of the original source and criticisms of the film. What surprised me was the discovery, upon reading review after review of Troy, that so great a number of professionally published reviews manifested an inability to appreciate or understand the original source. In fact, it became clear that many of Troy’s critics had appeared to never have read the Iliad.
This being the case, in Part Two I will discuss how the film actually engaged with Homer’s work selectively, and how Wolfgang Petersen made a number of interesting decisions in telling a story that, however many years ago, used to be beloved and familiar to everyone.