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Published:  September 13, 2004

Author Details
Author:  Dr. Paul Streufert
Dr. Paul Streufert is currently a professor at the University of Texas in Tyler.
Thoughts Of Troy: A Review Of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy
by Dr. Paul Streufert
Going to the movies is my guiltiest pleasure. My love of film began at an early age, and I prize it as one of the gifts of my mother. We both share the love of writing and storytelling, and on numerous occasions—at the cinema when I was younger, and through TV as I grew older—love of movies was something we shared . In the early 1980s, my family moved from a small town in Michigan to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and among the treasures of this eclectic city we found a gem, the Oriental Theater on Downer Avenue. The Oriental was built in the 1920s and is a lavish, opulent, truly unique spot for cinema. Its posh red carpets, concession counter ivory inlays, and lotus-positioned Buddha statues, gracing the walls of the two-thousand-seat auditorium, dazzled me. It was a museum as much as anything, but its patrons—often fashionable young adults, much hipper than my square mid-western self or parents—lent it a sense of uniqueness and fun. In my trips there, I soon understood that it was a gathering place for people who loved stories, especially older ones. In the years shortly after we arrived in Wisconsin, The Oriental was a revival house. It showed old movies on its gigantic screen—often a double-feature—and it was there that I cemented my love of visual narrative. My first experience with Casablanca was at the Oriental Theater, in a double-bill with Hitchcock’s Notorious. I remember stealing away with my Mom, on a school night no less, to see Hitchcock’s Saboteur, and cheering along with the rest of the audience at the film’s outdated, yet oddly moving, World War II era patriotism. My parents introduced me to James Dean—Rebel without a Cause and Giant—one marathon Saturday afternoon. Though the Oriental later began showing new releases in a search for higher profits, it remains my favorite place to watch film. When I moved away from Milwaukee, first in college and then beyond, I carried my love of stories with me, and pursued the academic study of literature. In college I chose the Classics as my field, and dedicated my time less to the movies and more to meticulous learning of Greek and Latin, the original languages of the texts I most wanted to read. Though I would not say that there is a direct link between my experiences at the Oriental Theater and my eventual decision to study, and later teach, Classical literature, the fact remains that I still love good stories, particularly older ones. Given my interest in cinema and the literature of the Greeks and the Romans, I pay particular attention when Hollywood dips into the Classics, and, in May of 2004, we are finally seeing a feature-length adaptation of one of the greatest works of western literature, Homer’s Iliad. I’ve waited with great anticipation for this film, trying to keep my hopes in check, sure that the filmmakers would find a way to ruin this fantastic, important, and compelling narrative. To my surprise, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is a solid and powerful film, one that adapts Homer with graceful innovation and manages to retell the story in ways significant to a twenty-first-century audience.

My initial pre-release trepidation about Troy stems from a similar experience four years ago this May. The spring of 2000 saw the release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, a film which promised a return to the sword and sandal epics so popular in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, Gladiator has made good on its promise, as the renewed interest in Greece and Rome has encouraged the production of numerous films, including the intriguing Julius Caesar mini-series on the USA network, as well as two forthcoming projects—one to appear on HBO and the other on ABC—which will chronicle Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire, while examining one of its most fascinating figures, Caesar Augustus. While I admit that Gladiator’s fight sequences were dazzling, the film was a tremendous disappointment, particularly in terms of story. Since the writers of Gladiator based their work on an historical situation rather than on an historical work per se, the screenplay lacked depth and subtlety. The film is a simple revenge story, and misses no opportunity to direct and manipulate the audience's emotions. The central character, a Roman general named Maximus, whose family the evil emperor Commodus murders and whom he sells into slavery, is flat and uninteresting. The bad guys are easy to spot and the noble are made so by the injustice of a despicable crime. The story requires little thinking, which perhaps explains its popularity with the motion picture academy. The time I spent watching Gladiator made me wish I’d been re-watching Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, a picture which shows Rome in all of its moral and ethical complexity.

The most daring thing about Troy is its kinship with Homer’s Iliad, specifically its refusal to clarify good and evil, and it is in this respect that it triumphs over Gladiator. As in its ancient predecessor, Achilles is a troublesome hero. He occupies the central position in both texts, and clearly motivates much of the action. Readers of Homer’s Iliad and viewers of Troy will likely identify with Achilles through much of text. His military prowess, good looks, and ambivalence toward the motivations for fighting the Trojan War all contribute to his appeal. At the same time, Achilles makes poor decisions in both texts. His refusal to fight, after being dishonored by Agamemnon, comes at a terrible cost for his fellow Greeks. Here Homer and Petersen follow the etymology of the hero’s name: in Greek, “Achilles” would have been “Akhileus,” or “he who brings pain to the people.”(1) In the film’s final act, Achilles commits a horrible act, one with moral, social, and theological implications. After murdering the most likeable character in the text, the Trojan Hector, Achilles ties the corpse’s feet to his chariot and drags the body through the dirt, thereby dishonoring Hector and his family, and refusing the hero his proper place in the Underworld. In discussing the Iliad and Troy with students, friends, or colleagues, I am impressed at the audience response to this moment in the texts. Sometimes readers seem puzzled, troubled that such an identifiable character as Achilles would do something so horrible. It is in this moral ambiguity that the story makes its most important point. Homer, and now Petersen and Benioff, are exploring the ramifications of rage. I fear that this plot point in the film may alienate viewers, yet I applaud the choice to remain true to the ancient text at this moment, even if it denies the viewer a character whose heroism goes untainted by emotion or poor decision making. Even Paris and Helen, whose affair sets off the tragic events of Troy, generate more sympathy than one might imagine. The duel between Brendan Gleeson’s swaggering Menelaus and Orlando Bloom’s terrified and mismatched Paris ranks as one of the film’s best scenes. Though the cuckolded Menelaus technically holds the moral high ground over his treacherous Trojan guest, one can’t help cheering when their fight takes an unexpected—and Un-Homeric—turn. The only concession to be made on the point of moral ambiguity in Troy concerns the character Agamemnon, played brilliantly by the character actor Brian Cox. His Agamemnon acts with unchecked selfishness, and his preening arrogance provides the audience an outlet for our rage. Even if Agamemnon appears as a matinee villain, his characterization here mimics that of Greek mythology. In Greek Epic and Tragedy, Agamemnon is consistently portrayed as a foolish, opportunistic, and occasionally evil leader. Playwrights like Aeschylus and Euripides mined the dramatic possibilities from this character, and the Agamemnon of Troy closely resembles the one found in the Oresteia and the Iphigenia at Aulis.

Some of the early criticism directed at the film concerns its historical inaccuracies. Such criticism fails to account for the fact that Homer should not be read as an historical document. Homer’s—or rather the Homeric poets’—chief concern was the telling of a compelling story. There is no way the historical Trojan War—if indeed there was one—happened on the scale as reported by Homer. Inconsistencies in the Catalog of Ships, a large section in Iliad Book Two, make reading Homer literally an impossibility. People who quibble about the scope of the invading Greek forces as shown in the film should take the ancient poets to task as well for exaggerating the numbers. We must be careful not to hold the text to an anachronistic standard. The accurate reporting of the facts of the Trojan War was not the intention of the poet or poets who composed the Iliad. Their ostensible goal can be found in the poem’s first line: “Menin aeide thea, Peleiadeo Akhileus …” (“Sing goddess, about the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus …”). The Iliad is a poem about the social, psychological, and theological ramifications of rage.

Those who demand a more complete—read “accurate”—picture of the Trojan War story, should also acknowledge that Homer’s Iliad is not the sole narrative source for the Trojan War cycle of myths. Indeed the poet left out a number of important and interesting plot points. When I teach the Iliad, students are often amazed that the poem contains no Trojan Horse, no mention of an Achilles Heel, nor any hint of the central hero’s impeding death at the hands of Paris, among the most well known plot points in popular mythology. One ancient source even contains stories about various Greek soldiers’ attempts to evade service at Troy. According to legend, Odysseus feigned madness while Achilles, that model of Greek masculinity, dressed as a woman in hopes of missing the embarkation to Asia Minor. Homer and Petersen, as storytellers and crafters of the myth, both wisely omit this detail. Innovation on myth is a characteristic of Greek storytelling. Those who criticize Petersen or screen-writer David Benioff for killing off Menelaus part-way through the film—according to Greek legend Menelaus and Helen went back to Sparta and lived happily ever after—should then also criticize Sophocles for the eye-gouging scene in Oedipus the King. This play, considered by many to be the quintessential example of dramatic writing, did not follow the story of its sources slavishly. According to older versions of the story, Oedipus went on ruling Thebes, unmutilated. If Sophocles can be allowed to innovate, we must allow Petersen and Benioff the same privilege. They are the narratological descendants of Homer, offering their version of a story that will hopefully last at least another 2800 years.

Unfortunately, not all of Petersen and Benioff’s innovations are daring or satisfying. They might have taken a bolder stand in the portrayal of the character Patroclus. In the film, Patroclus is Achilles’ cousin, a youth under the protection of the great Greek fighter. As in Homer’s Iliad, his death at the hands of Hector motivates Achilles’s rage at the Trojans and sets into motion the story’s denouement. In the poem, the relationship between these two characters is much more complicated. Patroclus is the therapon of Achilles. While the therapon—literally “ritual substitute”—can simply be a servant or attendant, the word implies a deeper, more complex relationship. Historically, the therapon stood in as substitute for execution, a sort of scapegoat figure on whom the community could heap blame. Also, the Iliad implies a very close, perhaps even homosexual, relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Like the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh, who loves and loses his side-kick Enkidu, the Achilles of epic poetry goes insane with grief at the loss of his friend. This insanity causes him to do terrible things: insult the gods, practice human sacrifice, and refuse a dead body burial, all taboo in the Greek system. Troy ignores the narrative possibilities of this sort of relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and, like Gladiator, chooses to make the murder of family the motivator for rage and revenge. Additionally, Petersen and Benioff’s Achilles falls in love with a captive Trojan, Briseis. In Homer’s original, Briseis represents not an object of affection, but a symbol of Achilles’s power. When Agamemnon steals that symbol, Achilles seeks to restore his honor and undermine the general by leaving the war. In Troy, the hero and his captive develop a romantic relationship, one that seems particularly absurd given the brutality of the situation. Better to have left Briseis as a silent index of Achilles’s honor as in the original. Indeed the film uses a twenty-first century sensibility in its construction of gender, and it is here that the film digresses most from its ancient sources. The vision of masculinity in Homer’s Iliad often surprises modern readers. Rather than the strong and silent heroes of the American Old West, Homer’s heroes act impulsively and emotionally. They cry openly during assemblies with the other men, they insult each other with regularity, and in Book One, Achilles must be restrained from killing Agamemnon by the goddess Athena. An often overlooked aspect of Achilles’s character in the Iliad is his immaturity; he often goes to mother to complain about his treatment at the hands of the other heroes. Several years ago in a senior-level Greek literature class, a blunt student referred to Achilles as a “titty-baby.” Her observation was an astute one, and says a great deal about both ancient and twenty-first century views of manhood.

Perhaps Petersen’s greatest triumph in creating Troy is his deft ability in casting. Brad Pitt fits the part of Achilles brilliantly, capturing this complex character’s swagger and arrogance, even as he tempers it with frustration and humanity. The character of Achilles, who must inspire both attraction and revulsion, must have been too interesting a part for Pitt to refuse. The other Greeks, Brian Cox as Agamemnon, Brendan Gleeson as Menelaus, and the underused Sean Bean as Odysseus, are well cast. The casting of the Trojans was even more important. As in Homer’s Iliad, the Trojans are often more likeable than the Greeks, and the casting of Eric Bana as Hector and Peter O’Toole as Priam reveals Petersen’s understanding of that dynamic in the ancient poem. The other production values, particularly the sets and the costumes, make Troy a watchable and enjoyable spectacle. Hopefully this film will both inspire further cinematic looks at the ancient world and encourage other filmmakers to embrace the moral complexities of ancient literature.

For further reading:
I highly recommend Stanley Lombardo’s translation of Homer’s Iliad. It is widely available and published by Hackett Press. Unlike many translations of Homer, Lombardo’s captures the urgent and vernacular flavor of Homer’s dialogue.

For further viewing: Classics on film.
Greece
Oedipus Rex, Pasolini (1967)
Trojan Women (1971)
Clash of the Titans (1982)
Medea, Lars Von Trier (1988)
The Odyssey (1997)
Alexander, Oliver Stone (2004)
Untitled Alexander Project, Baz Luhrmann (2005)

Rome
Spartacus (1960)
Satyricon, Fellini (1969)
I, Claudius, BBC (1976)
Gladiator (2000)
Rome, HBO (2005)
Empire, ABC (2005)
Notes
  • See Gregory Nagy’s The Best of the Acheans for a full discussion of names in the Iliad.