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03 November 2005 @ 11:40 am
Is this the face that launched a thousand ships, and topped the topless towers of Ilium?  
My first exposure to epic poetry was in ninth grade English class, where we read selections from Homer’s Odyssey. This was also my first time encountering the story of the Trojan War, a war which this month’s issue of Archeology Magazine calls “the Western world's most mythic battle.” I began taking Latin the following year, and by the time I graduated I had read over 8000 lines of Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid, which features an entire book dedicated to the end of the Trojan War, in the original Latin. My second semester at college I took a class called “Epic and Tragedy: the Trojan War,” and having spent a full semester with the subject and touched on it in my other Classics courses, I consider myself somewhat of an expert.

I’m also a fan.

When I saw the theatrical one-sheet for Troy, I hugged it. When the website first went online, I stared at it despite its lack of substantive content. When I was student teaching in a high school Latin class and my mentor teacher went out of town, I changed her desktop from a lovely photograph of a Roman amphitheatre to the movie’s poster. And this past Friday, I spent my afternoon sewing together a Greek chiton so I could geek out at my own personal Lord of the Rings in full garb.

So, as you can tell, I was fairly excited about this movie.

The movie began with a map of the ancient Mediterranean and overlaid on top of the map a great deal of textual narration about the history of the relationship between Achilles and Agamemnon as well as Agamemnon’s ambition of controlling all the land surrounding the Aegean. Immediately my mental “Incorrect Adaptation!” flag went up, but I knew that they had to alter things from the original myth to fit Hollywood’s expectations and desires. After the textual narration ended, we were treated to a scene of battle demonstrating just how much Achilles didn’t like Agamemnon but would fight for him anyway. This scene established one of the principle tensions in the film – that between Achilles and Agamemnon, literally, or between a soldier and the king for whom he fights, more broadly. This tension tied into one of the film’s largest themes – that of glory.

Military glory is something in which modern audiences don’t seem particularly interested, so to make it one of the focal points of this film was taking a bit of a risk. The film was full of rhetoric about names going down in history and debates over whether kings or soldiers were the real players in the game of war. I wish this theme had been explored more fully – it was repeatedly mentioned but no resolution was made. Clearly, the names of both kings and soldiers have come down to us in the legend of the Trojan War, and Achilles himself was royalty in the original legend.
The film’s other great theme was love. This was played out in many different ways: first, there was the destructive love of Paris and Helen, selfish and selfless at the same time, two people concerned so much with each other that the rest of the world fell away. Then there was the relationship of Achilles and Briseis, created almost entirely by the movie’s script, in which love brought peace to a man who had previously only known war. There was also the less central but perhaps more real love of Hector and his wife Andromache, a love that included their son Astyanax.

Hector outlines for the audience the key values of the ancient world: “Honor the gods, love your woman, and defend your country.” If from “woman” you extrapolate “family,” then you have the three requirements of the Roman virtus, the quality of being a “real man.”

The gods have no physical presence in the film; one of the film’s messages seems to be that the gods hold no power. Achilles states this most outright when he says that the gods envy humans, because the brevity of our life makes it more valuable; he also shows a disdain for the gods physically by beheading a statue of Apollo at Apollo’s own temple. It would be easy to say that this attitude were one of Achilles alone rather than of the film itself, if it weren’t for the fact that the Trojans repeatedly rely on “signs from the gods” to make their decisions in battle and that those signs are explicitly proven invalid.

Family is a value distinctly present on the Trojan side but not on the Greek side; Hector defends his brother despite the fact that his brother has brought ruin down upon the city. There is a brief indication of the importance of family to a Greek when Achilles takes his revenge upon Hector for killing his “cousin,” Patroclus. Patroclus was not Achilles’ cousin in the original Iliad, but rather a very close friend. It is not a stretch to make the leap to a homosexual relationship between the two, but this would undermine Achilles’ virility and the story of his relationship with Briseis and thus was changed for the film. Achilles is, however, presented as an anomaly among the Greeks, having different values and concerns than Agamemnon and Menelaus, who seem to represent Greekdom as a whole.

Defense of one’s country is, again, a value that resonates with the Trojans more than the Greeks. The Trojans are defending their city from invasion, while the Greeks are taking the offense. It is Odysseus who asks Achilles to fight for his country rather than for a king, but these two men are the only Greeks who seem fight for that purpose.

Taken together, the portrayal of these three values tends to identify the Trojans as “Good but naïve” and the Greeks as “Bad but smart.” This sets up a two-dimensional conflict, good vs. bad, where Homer’s Iliad blurs the lines so that we don’t know who we’re supposed to be supporting.

The movie’s greatest flaw, I think, is that it jumps around from theme to theme and character to character without choosing one focus or exploring any one theme in depth. This makes it difficult for “Troy” to be a truly epic film, since one of the foremost qualities of epic is that it addresses deeper truths and does so with quite a lot of words, or, in the case of film, pictures. It is true that “Troy” is almost as long as any of the installments of Lord of the Rings but it doesn’t seem as epic as any of them. I wasn’t invested in the fate of any character in the movie, and the great tragedy of the war was dulled by the fact that many of the Trojans escaped through a secret tunnel that led to some unidentified place “outside the city.” Hector made brief mention of the horrible things the Greeks would do to the Trojans such as “throw[ing] the babies from the walls” but the movie portrayed none of this. The pathos of this great war seemed to me utterly lacking, except perhaps in that the film deviated from mythology by having the two Greek kings, Menelaus and Agamemnon, die in war thus leaving the Greeks stranded across the sea from home with only Odysseus, the leader of one small island, to take them back home.

The film provides a lot of entertainment value, in that it is beautifully designed, has well-written dialogue that is even snappy at times, contains well-choreographed fight scenes, and tells an interesting, if not particularly emotionally compelling, story. Its cinematography is a bit weak and reflects the jumpy nature of the film’s plot by having battle sequences filmed in a way that simulates a handheld camera in the middle of the battle action. I think this was intended to give us the sense of “being there” but mostly it made me want to look away so as not to get motion sickness. The other major weakness is the soundtrack, which features the tribal ululations of an unknown female and a lot of drum beats at inappropriate times.

The casting is very successful, as Orlando Bloom seems born to play a lovestruck coward and Brad Pitt to play an arrogant killing machine. Sean Bean gives what may be the best performance in the film, balancing his portrayal of Odysseus as both the trickster he is and a warm, understanding leader of Greek forces. The women in the film don’t get to do very much and all fall prey to some form of submission-to-men or another, but that’s no different from the Iliad itself.

“Troy” is fairly true to the Iliad in terms of basic plot points, despite having Agamemnon and Achilles at each other’s throats before the Trojan War begins and shortening the war from ten years to two weeks. It writes its own story of what happens before Achilles’ rage and after the death of Hector, however, and should not be used to replace the Odyssey, the Aeneid, or any other text that provides the legend of what happened after the war was lost.

If you’re looking to see some very buff men throwing spears, shooting arrows, and stabbing one another, “Troy” is the film for you. If, however, you’re looking for an accurate adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, or the legend of the Trojan War more generally, your search may continue for a very long time.
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mawombatmawombat on December 11th, 2005 03:18 pm (UTC)
For me, the most offensive thing was the changing of the relationship between Achilles and Briseis. This is a woman who, we understand from the text and from the life of women at that time, is being raped by Achilles continually. To change this to a "love" relationship in the movie seems to work the "if he loves you, it's okay" kind of crap that seems to be socially acceptable. I retch.

The other thing is that the concept of "greatness" in ancient Greek culture does not equate to "goodness" so why change it? This re-working of Achilles' character is the thing that really bothers me. Grrr.