Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Troy (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 2004)


Warning: this is a really long post. I have a crazily busy weekend coming up so this is several days’ worth of blogging at once.

OK, here’s how this is going to work. I actually like Troy. I really do. I think it’s fun, it’s suitably tragic, it has lots of hot men in it, I like what they’ve done with the costumes and sets and I think most (though unfortunately not all) of the performances are good. Yes, it’s no classic – it’s no Gladiator. But it’s a good evening out, or it was, when it was in the cinema.

I also have no problem with the fact that the story has been altered. Greek mythology was an ever-changing thing and no two versions were ever the same. Helen, for example, was variously kidnapped, seduced, went off willingly or, in one version, sent off to Egypt for the entire ten-year war while Paris took a phantom image of her to Troy. Every Greek writer adapted the story to suit his (unfortunately it was generally his) own era and culture. I think it’s entirely appropriate to change the story to suit modern audiences. (I am less forgiving when it comes to actual history rather than myth, though even there I am not totally unbending, as my love of Gladiator will tell you.) Having said that, this post will include a lot of commentary on the changes that have been made from Greco-Roman myth and from the Iliad in particular. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, I hope that anyone who is less familiar with Greece and Rome will find the differences interesting. Secondly, the film did, to some extent, market itself as an adaptation of the Iliad, so it seems right to explore just how the story has been adapted. (Though the Iliad only actually covers a tiny fraction of the story, from the taking of Briseis by Agamemnon to the meeting between Priam and Achilles). Thirdly, some of the changes are quite dramatic and while I totally respect the filmmaker’s right to make said changes, it can be a bit jarring on first viewing if you know other versions of the story.

So, disclaimers out of the way, I am going to re-cap, and in places, try to recreate my reactions to the film when I first saw it, five years ago, in the cinema. I was with a group of friends from uni and we were all in the middle of our Ancient History exams...

We open with some exotic wailing, as the soundtrack (by James Horner) tries to be the soundtrack to Gladiator (which was by Hans Zimmer, with Lisa Gerrard).The Bit With The Writing sets out the scene, which has been altered from classical versions. In the traditional myth, Helen had many, many suitors who all vowed to uphold the right of the eventual groom to her hand (and the rest of her). As a result, when Paris abducted her, they were all forced to go and help Menelaus get her back (though some of them went to quite some lengths to try to get out of it – Odysseus pretended to be mad and Achilles lived in drag with a group of maidens – which sounds like an episode of Blackadder to me...). Even in Antiquity, the idea that a great war might be started over a single woman sounded a bit odd and was ripe for mockery by writers like Petronius and Lucan. I really like the solution here – once the situation is set up, and we’ve established the tense peace between Menelaus and Troy and Agamemnon’s ambition, it really does make sense that Paris’ act, which becomes deliberately aggressive in addition to damaging Menelaus’ honour, would kick everything off. The abduction/seduction of Helen becomes the trigger that sets off an already volatile situation, rather than the sole cause of the war.The reference to the ‘emerging Greek nation’ is a bit off though – no such thing at that time.

Mmm, Sean Bean’s voice. Odysseus by way of Sheffield – fab. Also, a neat encapsulation of a major theme of the Iliad – the attempt to win eternal fame and glory through battle.

Brian Cox as Agamemnon – nicely evil. He sends what looks like a hobbit to fetch his best fighter, Achilles, as played by Naked!Brad Pitt. I’ve got nothing against Naked!Brad Pitt, which is very nice to look at, though I could do without the two naked women entwined around him. Unfortunately, his performance as Achilles is as flat and cardboard as a MacDonalds hamburger. Brad Pitt is fine when he’s required to play a good-looking modern man, but between this and his dismal performance in Friends (no comic timing whatsoever) he’s not currently my favourite actor.

The Greeks are wearing some very short skirts indeed – apparently accurate (not my area of expertise!) but a little silly looking. Agamemnon hates Achilles – oooh, Foreshadowing...

Sparta. Mmmm, Eric Bana as Hector. Orlando Bloom as Paris doesn’t look quite as good as he did in The Lord of the Rings, but he’s perfectly cast. Poor Diane Kruger has to look like the most beautiful woman in the world, with a face that launched a thousand ships – an impossible task for any woman. I think she perfectly attractive, but I wouldn’t know really.

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? (Christopher Marlowe, Dr Faustus)

Her line about how she used to be just a ‘ghost’ sounds really... odd. It sounds very much like something you’d write, not something you’d say. This version goes for an equally passionate love affair on both sides, of course – we’d feel no sympathy for Paris if he was a rapist.

The Trojan costumes look a bit silly too, but they’re such a pretty shade of blue, I forgive them. Mad Eye Moody (Brenden Gleeson as Menelaus) is *very* cross when he finds out what’s happened though, and we see Agamemnon take advantage of that (still keeping it nicely plausible).

Achilles is fighting what looks like a member of Hansen c1995 (otherwise known as Patroclus). The film has, perhaps wisely, sidestepped the debate concerning Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship (the Iliad suggests that Patroclus is older and they’re just good friends, later Classical readings assumed that they were lovers and some made Patroclus the younger, as in this case Achilles would need to be the more macho one. The film makes them cousins – a blood relationship that allows them to depict them as very affectionate without complicating the later romantic subplot with Briseis).

Mmm, Sean Bean. Odysseus wants Achilles to fight to protect his own behind. Achilles checks with his Mum, who’s paddling – is she, as in the Iliad, a sea goddess? Does she just have hot feet? Who can say? She does, however, explain Achilles’ choice – between a long, happy, unknown life and a short, violent, famous one – and Julie Christie is, as ever, great.

Love the shot of the thousand ships. Very cool.

Lawrence of Arabia is Priam, king of Troy. He’s good as ever, though a bit wide-eyed, naive and ineffectual for such a powerful figure. For an even better Peter O’Toole-as-a-king performance, see The Lion in Winter. Briseis has been changed into a priestess of royal birth, presumably to give her a relationship with Priam, Hector and Paris and increase her emotional investment in what happens to them.

Priam expects the gods to do everything for him. Grr. No ancient ruler would actually behave that way (they might tell their people they behaved that way – there’s a difference). On the other hand, this is mythology, so I guess they can do what they want.

Aw, look at how cute little Astyanax is. Sniff...

There’s some random fighting showing how, in this version, Achilles gets hold of Briseis. In traditional myth, the first to disembark on the beaches was killed. James Horner’s music is now channelling his early film score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and my head is filled with images of the Enterprise and the Reliant flying around a purple nebula and Ricardo Montalban hissing at William Shatner.

Oh – now the score’s turned into Horner’s score for Titanic, and I’m picturing the ship going slowly down while Kate and Leo run for their lives.

They’re still fighting. Ooh, look at the blue of that sea and the heat of the sun... I need to get back to the Med sometime soon...

I think Brad Pitt is doing Joey’s ‘smell the fart acting’ from Friends. Achilles doesn’t respect the gods – I smell a modern writer inflicting his own views on an ancient character. There’s only one Ajax, which is good, as I can never remember which is which out of the Greater and Lesser Ajax. Achilles and Briseis meet. This is a tricky part for the filmmakers. They want their hero, Achilles, to have a (female) love interest, because in our Western culture, heroes always have a love interest. Briseis is the obvious solution, but the traditional story – Achilles kills her father and kidnaps and presumably rapes her and Briseis’ opinion on the matter is never considered, though she mourns when Patroclus dies – would completely destroy any audience sympathy for Achilles. So the two of them walk a fine line, with Achilles as abductor and Briseis as prisoner, trying to avoid implying rape or Stockholm Syndrome in their relationship.

Now we reach the plot of the Iliad as Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles and Achilles goes off in a sulk, refusing to fight any more. Then there’s lots of scenes of Helen and Paris feeling guilty. Good – so they jolly well should.

A-ha! Big battle time. Well, almost. The movie hasn’t taken ten years to get here (though it feels like it) so everyone is still just as young and pretty and the armies are at full strength. It’s time for the duel between Paris and Menelaus, which comes to an abrupt end in the Iliad when Aphrodite forcibly whisks Paris away for some hot lovin’ with Helen. Obviously, they’re not going to do that in the movie (the entire divine machinery, the actions of the gods, has been removed, which is wise – modern audiences just wouldn’t buy it in an epic war film, though it might work better in the Odyssey and Jason and the Argonauts just about gets away with it). Ah yes, there goes Paris, running away – wait, what’s Hector doing? What’s going on? OH MY GOODNESS THEY’VE KILLED MENELAUS!

They killed Menelaus! They killed Menelaus! Huh?! How could they DO that? Menelaus is destined to eventually win, get Helen back and go back to live a long, happy life in Sparta – in fact, he ends up better off than any other member of the Greek army (including Odysseus, who has ten extra years of sailing, loses all his crew and still isn’t finished when he gets home). What’s going on? My world is crumbling!!!

OK, so now we know - all bets are off. Up to this point, all the changes have been relatively minor – even things that seem big, like changing Briseis’ social station or Agamemnon’s motives for fighting – haven’t really affected the plot in any truly significant way. But this is a major change – this is becoming a completely different story. Suddenly, I have no idea what’s going to happen next. Paris does correctly grab Hector’s knees in supplication though. Nice touch.

More fighting. Achilles whinges about how they’re doing it wrong. Ajax, whichever one he is, goes down (they’ve killed Menelaus and Ajax? I’m so confused!). I’m also disappointed, as one of my favourite images from the myth (and I’ve temporarily forgotten which version its in – possibly the Odyssey) is of Ajax (presumably the Greater one) carrying Achilles’ dead body out of the battle while Odysseus fights off anyone who comes near them. It’s an honour thing. (Followed by fighting and suicide. That’s Greeks for you).

Achilles rescues Briseis. Homer would have thought that was very strange (in the poem, his problem with Agamemnon taking her is that its an affront to his honour, not that he cares about her). They hadn’t invented chivalry in archaic Greece. Sex follows, still trying to walk the fine line that keeps it romantic and not extremely dubious. Briseis obviously wasn’t terribly attached to her vows of celibacy.Mmm, Sean Bean is back.

Mmm, Sean Bean

Hansen member c1995 is having a patriotic moment (about an as yet non-existent country). So he steals Achilles’ armour, goes off to fight, and gets himself killed by Hector. His death is really nasty, all gurgling blood – yuck.

Big sulks from Achilles. He doesn’t cry for his mummy though. My favourite bits from the Iliad are the sections he spends hanging around on the beach, weeping and asking his Mum to solve all his problems for him (Zeus owes her a favour apparently). Hmpf.

Hector shows Andromache a way out and explains what traditionally happened to her in Greek myth – Astyanax was thrown off the walls and she was taken as a slave. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the beautifully tragic scene from the Iliad where the baby is frightened by Hector, in his armour and helmet, but never mind. Orlando remembers what he can do (shoot things) and goes back in to Legolas mode.

Mmm, shirtless Eric Bana. All leading up to the tragic duel between Hector and Achilles – tragic because, no matter what version of the story we’re in, Hector is ten times more sympathetic than Achilles but Achilles always wins. The fight itself looks pretty well done to me, but I’m not a very good judge of these things (I switch off during fight sequences, except for the ones in Gladiator, which are more interesting).

Achilles defiles Hector’s body and Priam comes to see him to beg for it to be returned, and we’ve reached Book 24 of the Iliad. Peter O’Toole is excellent. Brad Pitt looks constipated. He does finally cry though. Priam takes Briseis back with him, which an ancient Greek so would not do – she’s damaged goods now after all.

We’re moving into the last part of the film now, and Odysseus has his bright idea (‘well we all jump out of the rabbit – Lancelot, Galahad and I...’) There’s just no getting away from the fact that Priam has to be spectacularly stupid here – ‘Beware Trojans, they’re complete smegheads!’


Beware Trojans, they're complete smegheads!


And so we come to the destruction of Troy. O’Toole can’t quite match the sheer tragic power of John Gielgud and Judi Dench’s two seconds in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, but he does pretty well.

Andromache leads a small group of the young and the old, including Helen, to her secret escape route. Paris finds a young man called Aeneas helping his old father out, and gives him the sword of Troy and tells him to lead their people! Hehe! Go Aeneas! – and all five of us giggle with glee. The rest of the cinema, who probably haven’t read the Aeneid, stay silent and look over at us, wondering what’s so funny. Andromache and little Astyanax get away – hooray!

Agamemnon attacks Briseis at an altar and Achilles kills him. We’re miles away from Greek myth now, though the incident does strongly recall the rape of Cassandra at an altar. Paris thinks Achilles is attacking Briseis and shoots him, fist of all in the heel – nice touch. That’s a bit closer to the usual version too, though at the end, Paris is still alive and Agamemnon is dead – this is not the usual way round, though it is much more satisfying.

And one last time – mmm, Sean Bean. He calls Hector ‘tamer of horses’, his poetic epithet – very cool. The credit says ‘inspired by the Iliad’, which seems fair. Weird song though, presumably an attempt to get an Oscar nomination. If only this movie had been better received, they might have made the Odyssey with Sean Bean in it, and I would really like to see that. I guess I’ll just have to go watch The Fellowship of the Ring for the umpteenth time instead...


View of Ithaca, Odysseus' home, from Kefalonia


*It has come to my attention that Briseis may have killed Agamemnon. It was pretty late by the time I got to that bit and I wasn't paying attention. Either way, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are going to be disappointed.

19 comments:

  1. Funny you should mention the bit when Paris 'call me Orlando' Bloom puts Aeneas in charge of the escaping Trojans - I remember Orlando (being Oliver Reed) says 'what is your name, boy' and this bloody kid who looks about eight says 'my name is An-i-ass.

    When I saw it in the cinema, I quite audibly said 'you know who he is, dickhead, he's your cousin'.

    That is all.

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  2. We were too busy laughing, then realising that the rest of the cinema was looking at us like we were stupid

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  3. I managed to miss this when it came out and never got around to seeing it. I think I could live with some of the changes, but killing off Menelaus and Agamemnon while letting Paris live is going too far.

    Random thoughts: Wasn't Achilles hidden away among the girls somewhat against his will? Unlike Lavaeo... err, Odysseus, he wasn't the sort to avoid a fight.

    I think there may have been a version where Astyanax survived and went on to found some city or tribe or something, but I'm not sure. Not in the "official" cycle, but somewhere. I'll see what I can find.

    My favorite story about this film is that Petersen brought in a leg double for Brad Pitt, because his calves weren't "heroic" enough.

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  4. Astyanax: According to Brill's New Pauly, a late scholiast on Il. 24, 735 (where Andromache forsees him getting tossed off a tower) says that he lived and founded a new Troy.

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  5. Do you mean the same Achilles who spent most of the 'Iliad' refusing to fight at all? He hid with the women to avoid going to war in the first place.

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  6. Thetis hid Achilles among the girls of Skyros, because he was prophesied to die there. It wasn't his idea and he was found either because he showed interest in the weapons Odysseus brought or because there was an alarm while Odysseus was there with weapons. The only reason he sat out most of the Iliad (and that was really no more than a couple of weeks in 10 years of war) is because Agamemnon wounded his pride as a warrior by taking away his booty, er, um, war prize. He was sulking and trying to make Agamemnon acknowledge his value as a fighter, not dodging combat.

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  7. I didn't know there were other versions of this tale! I've only read the Illiad. I really enjoyed this movie when it came out, like you said -lots of pretty guys! ;o) And Greek mythology on-screen?!

    But I was upset with those major changes... killing off Menelaus and Agammemnon?! wtf???

    And at the moment the Med is equally blue and warm... you should return!

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  8. Oooh, don't make me jealous Cris! I can't travel to the Med again until I've finished the thesis. Hopefully I'll be there in October - there'll be less blue but the wine will still be good!

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  9. Nah, it should be just as blue in Oct! Just perhaps a few more waves if the Autumn storms kick up a fuss... ;o)
    In October I'll be enjoying the red and golden hues of the changing trees in the Ardennes... I love the Mediterranean blues, but I miss the golden leaves!

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  10. Oooh, sounds nice! I'd complain about our weather, but its actually nice and hot at the minute (so, of course, everyone is complaining anyway...)

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  11. I wrote about Troy at the time, and it ended up on the OU website here. There are a couple of errors - Lynn Fotheringham pointed out that I read Homer through the lens of Classical Greek authors, and I wince at the comment about 'the armour of Odysseus', but the rest of it I still think is sound.

    I also wrote a piece for CA News about homoeroticism in Troy and Alexander. There I argued that all the gayness in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus that the script removes, is then put back in the mise-en-scene. Not since Batman and Robin have I seen a film so fetishistically interested in the male body, and the mock fight between Achilles and Patroclus reminds me of nothing so much as the sexually-charged swordfight between Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones in The Mask of Zorro.

    I also still think that Sean Bean is a natural Menelaus, but is too straightforward to be Odysseus. My perfect Odysseus is actually Viggo Mortensen, who has the mercurial quality needed for a man whose first words to anyone are almost always a lie.

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  12. That's true, Troy is pretty interested in admiring all the pretty men - but I think the prize for fetishism of men's bodies has to go to 300 (I have heard that all their chests in that movie were digitally enhanced - no idea if that's true, but they do go into battle in their underwear!)

    Viggo would make a good Odysseus too, though somehow I imagine Odysseus as someone shorter...

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  13. Yes. I meant that Troy was the most interested in the male body I'd seen at that point since the later Batman films, and you're quite right that 300 has since surpassed them both. (The digital enhancement of the pecs is apparently true.)

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  14. I think the mostly naked men with glorious musculature was more for the women who got dragged along to the theater for the Epic War movies.

    (Though, for Troy, I'm pretty sure I dragged my husband, and not the other way around. He cringes at movies like these, and their lack of accuracy. You should have seen him wince through Alexander.)

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  15. I still say Sean Bean is best as Sharpe....he isn't made to be Odysseus

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  16. Hello! I like your review. This is a rather belated post, but I've only just seen the film (Didn't want to,forced to, a friend GAVE it to me, oh dear).
    I had expected to be annoyed by the film maker's titallating the audience with - as you say - a relationship between Briesis and Acilles that is suspiciously on the fringes of Stockholm Syndrome and with the threat of rape in the air, for as you say, for sure in the Illiad Achilles may be assumed to have raped Brisies, but the film makers couldn't go along with that without making Achilles an outright villain.
    I think the film makers were sneaky in that they made Briesis enough of a strong character to placate any feminist critcism, but in fact, also made her powerless. For instance, the issue of her 'being in a position to kill him'. I don't for a second believe that she could have sneaked up on an experienced warrior undetected, and it seems obvious that he isn't taken by surprise, is playing mind games, letting her think she can kill him if she wishes, knowing of her moral scruples and that if she tried, he could overpower her in a trice.
    He does manipulate her throughout, and as in the good old syundrome, he is sometimes caring, sometimes abusive - as when he takes his rage at Patrocles' death out on her by half strangling her.
    I assume at the end we are meant to be very sorry for him as he dies at the end, saying that she has 'brought him peace' (as he goes cross eyed and looks more as if he's had one Jack Daniels too many and
    is worried that he might be sick on her rather than as if he's dying, no blood coming from his mouth or anything nasty like that). I don't understand why I couldn't manage it, when I am notorious for bawling at sad endings, and can only put it down to my not liking the basis of the relationship.
    Do tell me what you think?

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  17. I've never been that wild about Achilles in the poem or the film, so I don't usually weep for him! And his relationship with Briseis is certainly strange. But I love Hector in both, it's his death that's really tragic.

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  18. Yes, I liked Hector too, very sad. I wonder how that adorable baby was chosen?

    Did Brad Pitt filch some baby oil, as he was smothered in oil, his skin looked really weird for sure, a body builder I know insists he's wearing a rubber suit and if you look carefully you can see the join. I fell about laughing at the thought...

    In the Iliad Acilles isn't sympathetic, I agree. No doubt captives like Briesis did suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, not exactly recognised in the Bronze Age. Briesis' opinion of Achilles' taking her captive would have been thought no more relevant than that of a horse Achilles had taken from its owner, but various modern writers want to soften this, as you say...

    I ususally find Brad Pitt a good actor, and I suppose he was deliberately playing an arrogant so-and-so with little feeling for anyone (witness his rough treatment of one of those gorgeous girls whose got an arm draped about him in her sleep at the beginning and his sneering remark to the small boy.) until he begins to Learn to Feel (wrinkling his forehead up at the unfamiliarity of the sensation). But why did he have to use only about three expressions and wear pink lipstick and a denim skirt?

    I did think the way the film-makers held the threat of rape in the air between Achilles and Briesis to titilate (sp?) the audience while they covered themselves by having him save her from another ugly gang rape was devious (How anyway, did he just happen to come upon them at the exact moment? ESP?) and her falling for him suddenly could only be explained as a good old attack of Stockholm syndrome.
    Good talking to you.

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  19. I like Pitt in most things, but there's a couple of places he falls down for me - this, and that Friends episode he guest starred in, where he showed he has a surprising lack of comic timing!

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