Went to see Troy on my day off. I suspected that as a mega-budget Hollywood take on one of the world’s oldest works of literature that it may take certain liberties. Then again, the director was Wolfgang Petersen who is the man who gave us the powerful Das Boot, which is famed for its accuracy. Well, right from the off it was obvious that it was bye-bye to pretty much everything except a few keys scenes from the Iliad. Right from the prologue history, or at least mytho-history, was re-written. Depressing – then again if Hollywood directors and writers consider they are able to re-write Shakespeare then watch chance Homer? Hey, he’s only the father of modern Western literature, responsible for the most important root myths of our culture…
Yep, a few scenes aside Troy is about as accurate and responsible as Braveheart or the 1950s sword’n’sandal epics which inspired Gladiator and Troy. It even cribs from modern ‘epics’ – the opening where the narration talks about men then as now being afraid of eternity and wondering if their name will echo though history is right out of Gladiator: “What we do echoes in eternity.” A later scene borrows from both Gladiator – ‘in this world or the next’ and Last of the Mohicans – ‘I will find you’. Agamemnon is recreated as a cartoon, power-hungry empire builder and Achilles is remodelled to fit current Hollywood expectations of heroism. The actions of the gods are absent. Talk about hubris, rewriting Homer.
That said, if you accept the lack of accuracy and respect for the source material and actual history – triremes centuries before they were ever designed and sailed! – it is an enjoyable spectacle. Brad Pitt does largely deliver a half-decent Achilles – a magnificent warrior but brooding, moody and obsessed with his own prestige. Eric ‘the Hulk’ Banna’s Trojan Prince Hector is pretty much spot on – a decent man, who doesn’t really consider himself a hero but who never shirks his duty to family and nation, playing his doomed hero with elegant understated ease so you feel huge sympathy for him. And wait, don’t moan that I just let slip Hector died! If you didn’t know that before seeing the film then don’t complain about me spoiling it – instead shame on you for not having read the Iliad! Why haven’t you?
Sean Bean is used sparingly but still manages to convey the craftiness for which Ulysses is rightly famed. Heavyweight Scottish actors Brian Cox and the always excellent James Cosmo add some seriousness to the proceedings although in truth neither are called on to do much more than be caricature characters but transcend this simply because of who they are. Special mention, of course, must be made of the legendary Peter O’Toole. It may have been a long time since he was Lawrence of Arabia, but O’Toole still knows how to play a heroic character, bringing the right mixture of dignity and tragedy to King Priam. The scene where he begs Achilles for the return of Hector’s desecrated corpse (a hideous thing to do to a Greek of the time) is one of the scenes to make it from the Iliad and retains the emotional punch of the original poem. And yes, ladies – and some men too I imagine – all of the leading young men (Bana, Pitt and Bloom) spend a fair few scenes in little clothing. For once a Hollywood movies has far more toned male flesh on view for voyeuristic enjoyment than female.
Use of CGI is both sparing and well-utilised. Despite some little acrobatic flourishes to his movements, the combat, even with Achilles, is free of wire-fu, gravity defying nonsense and grounded in more reality. Well, mostly – Bronze Age warriors wouldn’t do so much fencing as bronze swords aren’t up to it (indeed most weapons of the time are often almost un-edged – theses swords are stabbing weapons primarily) and Greeks of this period – and later Classical period Greece – would prefer to use their javelins more. And Hoplite style formation fighting is centuries out of it’s time period.
All in all, accepting the alterations/tinkering and remodelling of characters, compressing a ten year war into a few weeks etc I’d still have to say Troy is immensely enjoyable and well worth going to see. It’s still a gripping, powerful story of hubris, love and tragedy and the visual spectacle is stunning on the big screen. There’s even a small attempt to have individual stories as in the Iliad. Limited by the medium obviously but at least the attempt is made – I always considered the fact that the poem treats no character as disposable was one of it’s great strengths; each action or death scene is accompanied by details of the man, his age, his family, his past – the soldiers who die in the Iliad are not faceless canon-fodder, Homer makes you care about them and the people they leave behind when whetted bronze sends them to the Underworld.
Watching the landing scene, where a thousand Greek triremes beach themselves on the shores of lofty Ilium I was reminded of another titanic battle of more recent vintage and one which is much in the news due to the approaching 60th anniversary: D-Day. Once the Iliad and the mighty walls of Troy themselves were thought to be myth. As someone who has spent decades fascinated with both mythology, fantasy and history – Classical Studies at school allowed me to combine all of these (and win the School Prize, little swot that I was) – I am well aware that modern historians reject myth and folkloric traditions at their risk. There is no such thing as ‘just legend’. Exaggerated? Perhaps. Over-layered by centuries of re-telling and embroidering? Sure. But there is always an actual basis to all myth and legend.
But back to the point – watching the landing scenes made me think of D-Day. Surely one of the greatest – and riskiest – undertakings of any age of history? The largest fleet in human history and hundreds of thousands of ordinary ‘citizen soldiers’ who accomplished the impossible. These men were not scions of an immortal god, imbued with supernatural strength. They were ordinary folk who did the extraordinary. And I wondered, will people look back at D-Day in a few centuries and imagine it is mostly an inflated myth, based on a much smaller actual event? Would they believe the scale of the undertaking? As the 60th anniversary approaches and the men who took part slowly fade away into old age and death I’d argue that they are already well on the way to becoming legend, even to us only six decades later. We know it really happened and yet is already the stuff our national folklore and the ordinary men who did it seem, with each retreating years, to take on the stature of giants.
Was it this way once with a real Trojan War? Was there ever an Achilles or is he just an invention by the epic bards, added to real events to give a narrative edge to their oral re-creation of history? These events were ancient when Homer – if he really existed – wrote down these poems and almost certainly re-interpreted them for his contemporary audience. Actually viewed in that light perhaps modern tinkering with the Iliad is not without precedent, is it? Will a future writer create a future Achilles storming Gold or Omaha Beaches? So we give birth to legends. Our collective folklore moves in the modern world still – witness another epic battle of WWII, the Battle of the River Plate. One of the British warships who fought doggedly against the superior German pocket battleship Graf Spee was named Ajax. Even when we don’t know it we live in myth.