If you ask anyone with a degree in classics or ancient history about Troy, chances are they’ll tell you they hate it. Ohh it’s terribly inaccurate, they’ll say, coins weren’t even INVENTED in the bronze age! The Trojan war lasted for ten years not 3 days and it had gods in it, and no-one says rosy-fingered dawn even ONCE! Homer must be turning in his grave! They may shake their heads at this point and look sad. They may, if they’re an undergraduate and a bit hyperbolic, say it hurt to watch. Secretly however, most of them are lying to you. Classicists and historians secretly bloody love Troy because it’s a ridiculous pile of tosh and it’s thus absolutely hilarious. Most of us gave up caring about accuracy a long, long time ago because worrying about “accuracy” is killer boring. Who REALLY wants a story to be told the same way every single time?(0) Even the Greeks didn’t bother with that. We WANT to see what people have done with the worlds and people and stories we love. We like it. (shhhh)
What’s appealing for people like me (aka, institutionalised overthinkers) is that Wolfgang Petersen and David Benioff decided to make a film that pins its heart on its sleeve, then spends three hours pointing at that sleeve and shouting “look look, my heart is pinned to my sleeve!” Which is brilliant for people like me, because it means we can write about it, and that’s our favourite thing. See look, I’m writing about it now. I could probably write a book about Troy, hell people HAVE written books about Troy, but for now I’m going to focus on things that I found most interesting when I watched last week during the train journey from hell.
In part, Troy’s openness about its intentions is because of Homer’s original text. It, along with the Odyssey (a better book, *cough cough*), ends up being a sort of codification of Greek culture and identity: what a good Greek person does in certain situations, what is important to Greeks and how to deal with things.
Here’s an incomplete list of things that are important according to the Iliad and the Odyssey: Gods, correct religious observance, male honour, female chastity, wrath as a virtue, being a good host and being a good guest. One of the main reasons that the Trojans are bad guys in the book is that stealing your host’s wife is very poor guest behaviour.(1) And is a terrible, terrible insult to your host’s honour. Now, because the Iliad contains so much narrative that acts to provide examples of good or bad behaviour for Greeks, these exemplars have to be adapted for modern audiences with modern mores. Which means that any adaptation of the Iliad that is even tangentially faithful ends up being an accidental manifesto of idealised behaviour in a specific culture by the writer/director.
And so it is with Troy. And weirdly, as a result of this, the heroes and villains of the Iliad are flipped. Achilles becomes a selfish, oversexed bag of dicks, all threesomes and crop tops and waxing and being mean to small children. He is still a warrior, but now he’s described as a warlord and that’s definitely not a good thing. He is consumed with his honour, but personal and familial honour are now selfish and silly and pointless. Attributes the Greeks desired are, in Troy, reviled.
The true villain though is Agamemnon, a power mad imperialist tosspot whose favourite things are crushing kingdoms beneath him, receiving presents from subject kings and raping ladies. All frankly weird(2). The Trojans meanwhile, spend their time being perfect kings (Priam), perfect sons /husbands/fathers/hairy hotties(Hector) and declaring that they’ll never be ruled by another nation while resisting the mad imperial desires of Agamemnon.
This is the kind of narrative jiggering that is making Homer turn in his grave. The reason Petersen/Benioff had to come up with all this Greek imperialism silliness is that gathering a huge army, sacrificing your daughter and then spending a decade sitting on a beach staring at a city just for a girl seems totally bloody ridiculous to modern eyes. But Agamemnon does it, so we’re going to have to come up with a better reason. What’s the only reason Petersen can think of for doing such a thing? Money. But Money is bad? So the Greeks must be bad. Logical for sure, but also hilarious. And frankly, an uncomfortably intimate look into Petersen’s mind.
Which brings me to my second point. Petersen has to do all this because he has decided for some reason that he wants to make a “realistic” version of the Trojan war. One that conforms to his ideas of realistic rather than, say, a Greek’s or mine or yours. Which results in a tangle of plot wrangling and a whole lot of weirdness for a classicist.
The first thing he does is take the gods out. If you’ve read the Iliad then you’ll know that this is the height of hilarity, because the gods in Homer aren’t just disinterested sky pixies, they’re characters. Main characters. Whose whims and arguments and powers have huge effects on the narrative. Several times, in order to save the lives of their favourites, they PICK PEOPLE UP AND MOVE THEM OUT OF THE WAY. Their interactions with each other and with the mortals are fundamental to the Iliad. But Petersen wants this to be “real” and “human” so gone they are, and with them half the book. Though the characters still talk about the gods plenty, as mystical forces unreachable and disinterested.
Achilles himself is borderline atheist and openly irreligious (cutting the head of a statue is the kind of thing that would get you exiled in classical Athens incidentally), while at the other end of the spectrum is Priam, the doddery old man listening to omens and priests instead of good mortal logic. Hector fills Petersen’s ideal spot, as the agnostic who honours the gods but doesn’t let them dictate his life. As presumably Petersen does and in a way that is laughable in the context of the Iliad itself. But this is “real life” and the “real” Trojan war. And real life for Petersen doesn’t really include religion. Indeed, he has his Hector tell Paris that “Gods won’t fight this war for us.” Which, had he read the book, he would know wasn’t true.
The next bit of “realism” is that Paris and Helen have to be deeply in love with one another, properly. In a tragic, Romeo and Juliet, “I’m not afraid of dying, I’m only afraid of tomorrow, when you leave…” way. This means that they take up a good portion of the first bit of the film. You’d think the film was about them and their love affair from the first hour as Petersen desperately tries to convince us that they are a fated couple, crazy in love on both sides, both willing to die for the other; that Menelaus is a terrible child rapist that Helen has to escape from(3), and that Paris is a good catch despite being wimpy eyelinered twerp. Still, better than his Greek incarnation which is deranged woman stealer who sets out on a mission specifically to abduct Helen because Aphrodite said he could have her, thus massively pissing off Menelaus and Agamemnon and letting a war happen.
Agamemnon’s mercenary imperial ambitions are linked to this new “realism” too, as I already said, if you were paying attention. A war for a girl is a rubbish reason once the idea of honour is cast as being petty. Again, Hector tells the audience what Petersen wants us to believe: “Only children and fools fight for honour” he tells Achilles, “I fight for my country.”(4) So Menelaus and Agamemnon have to have a “good” and “realistic” reason.
Which all brings us back to the beginning: as a result of all these little choices and decisions, a big decision was made to make the Greeks the bad guys. As the invading force,(5) led by the man Helen is running from and is frightened to return to, whose main warrior is horrible to children and refers to himself as inhuman.
And then the Greeks win, and Petersen gets a bit pornographic with the gore. How many children do we really need to see thrown down stairs and women snatched up? The destruction of Troy is total and horrific, and we empathise with the fleeing Trojans (including Aeneas, who is given the special Trojan sword by Paris and manages to mispronounce his own name. Paris has to pronounce it right for him, and Paris is a complete moron so that doesn’t give one much confidence for Rome. Or for any imaginary Petersen adaptation of the Aeneid). Quite what the point of this is, I have no idea. Unless its the theory posited in footnote five, in which case Petersen is even more tedious than I suspect he is.(6)
All this comes together to make a ridiculous film, full of mad lines like “IMMORTALITY! TAKE IT! IT’S YOURS!” and “LOOK UPON ME AND DESPAIR!” and the repeated insistence that Patroclus is definitely definitely Achilles’ cousin and not his boyfriend, god I can’t believe you’d even think that how gross what’s wrong with you. Because apparently Petersen, and the culture he is representing here, is really, really uncomfortable with gay people. And for people like me, who have attempted to make their obsession with a dead world into a viable career, it’s brilliant, full to the brim of things to think about and fascinating new interpretations of a millennia old story. And while I could pretend to care about the general public’s reception of it, right now I don’t. And I’m going to watch it again. With a notebook.
(0) For a good recap of Troy, with comparisons to the various Trojan war myths, see my good friend Juliette’s blog.
(1) Of course, if you know your Greek mythology, you know that this isn’t entirely poor Paris’s fault. it was brought about by the Judgment of Paris. He was asked by the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite which was the most beautiful, because he was considered by the gods to be the fairest mortal alive. Each naturally offered him a bribe, because who doesn’t want to be the hottest goddess: Hera offered to make him king of all of Europe, Athena offered to make him a great warrior and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, who was Helen. Paris picks Aphrodite, gets to take Helen home with him and causes a massive fuss for a decade and the deaths of thousands. Regrets, he’s had a few…
(2) Worth putting next to 300 too, which is fantastical but which I think the Greeks would have prefered as an image of themselves: they resisted imperialism fiercely and were independent to a fault. They rarely trusted the people from the next city over, and it took drastic threats like the Persians or the theft of a woman to unite them. This is the image you get in 300, while in Troy you are told that the Greeks united involuntarily, under the command of a dictator-king, an image the Greeks would have violently rejected. While we’re at it, I think the Greeks would have enjoyed the 300 depiction of the Persians as giants, literal monsters and sex fiends too.
(3) Interestingly, Petersen and Benioff have Helen declare that she was 16 when she was married to Menelaus. To an American audience, this likely sounds terribly young and is two years below the American age of consent. In much of Europe, 16 either is or is above the age of consent, and is the legal age of marriage. So, this throwaway line is a fascinating little glimpse into the way that Troy has been constructed to reflect the morals and mores of one specific culture and a specific point in time.
(4) Another little pointer that this film is a snapshot of a specific form of American culture. Honour is weird, Gods are distant and uncaring, patriotism above all.
(5) Only the laziest of viewers would suggest this was some kind of commentary on the Iraq war so I won’t.
(6) I’m pretty sure 5 is right. I could make a case for it, but I think I’d die of boredom. Was anything made between 2004 and 2006 that wasn’t an ill-informed, reactionary commentary on Iraq?