Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.44

Martin M. Winkler (ed.), Return to Troy: New Essays on the Hollywood Epic. Metaforms, 5.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2015.  Pp. x, 284.  ISBN 9789004292765.  $163.00.  

Reviewed by Ruby Blondell, University of Washington (


Martin Winkler has devoted a distinguished career to films about antiquity, but Wolfgang Petersen's Troy (2004) clearly occupies a special place in his heart. Winkler's first collection on the subject, which was published as soon as humanly possible after the film's release,1 is now followed by the volume under review.

As Winkler explains in his Introduction ("Troy Revisited"), the new collection was prompted by the appearance, in 2007, of the director's cut (15). Winkler treats this version as "definitive" (164). Yet it was distributed in a different form from the theatrical release (DVD), for a different and much smaller audience (presumably, afficionados of the original), under a different set of cultural and economic imperatives (especially concerning sex and violence), and for different viewing conditions (primarily at home on the small screen). All this raises certain questions about the film as a hermeneutic object. But these are not addressed in Return to Troy. Like Winkler's first Troycollection, his new book focuses primarily on the film's relationship to Homer, treats it essentially as a text detached from the contexts of production and consumption, and pays little attention to the film as film.2

The present volume is, however, distinguished from the first by the participation of two non-academics, namely Wolfgang Petersen and his son Daniel, who served as his father's personal assistant on Troy. Winkler's Chapter 1 ("Wolfgang Petersen on Homer and Troy"), records an interview with the director. It contains no revelations, but remains a useful assemblage of the director's views, hitherto expressed in scattered form across the international mass media. Daniel Petersen's Chapter 2 introduces a refreshing note for a scholarly volume. Aptly titled "Live From Troy: Embedded in the Trojan War," it is journalistic, impressionistic, and breathless, providing an enjoyable "you are there" immersion in the down-and-dirty process of epic film-making. (One learns, for example, how to make blood spout effectively (33).) Harking back to a time before Hollywood was completely conquered by CGI, the account inspires a proper awe at the epic labor that underlies the making of an epic film. Daniel Petersen also supplies a selection of production stills. At some cost to the other contributors, these provide the book's only illustrations.

Outside these excursions into the world of practical film-making, the book's main agenda is to respond to critics of Troy who objected to its departures from ancient sources (especially Homer), by demonstrating that Troy is "more Homeric than most of the film's critics have realized" (116). Such criticism was widespread in the mass media, but Winkler is concerned more narrowly with views expressed by professional classicists. His treatment of these critics is tarnished, however, by stereotyping them collectively as cantankerous "guardians of the classical flame" (3). Such polemic is insulting to thoughtful scholars like Daniel Mendelsohn and Charles Chiasson. Nor would one guess, from Winkler's tone, at the abiding love of even the schlockiest ancient world films among professional classicists (at least of my acquaintance).

This defensiveness—also a feature of Winkler's first Troy collection3—is not just a matter of rhetorical framing. Demonstrating the film's Homericity is the overt goal of several contributions. Chapter 3, by Eleonora Cavallini ("In the Footsteps of Homeric Narrative: Anachronisms and Other Supposed Mistakes in Troy"), responds systematically to the kind of objections indicated by her title. In Chapter 4 ("Petersen’s Epic Technique: Troy and Its Homeric Model"), Wolfgang Kofler and Florian Schaffenrath argue for the Homericity of Petersen's narrative technique. Winkler's Chapter 5 ("Troy and the Cinematic Afterlife of Homeric Gods") is intended to prove that the film "is less superficial and more Homeric than cursory classicists might acknowledge" (151). At fifty-seven pages, this chapter is by far the longest—a fact Winkler justifies on the ground that omitting the gods has been "the chief point of criticism" of Troy (14).

Does Chapter 5 earn its extra length? Yes and no. Winkler's enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of him. (We do not really need e.g. seven pages on Godard's Contempt.) Yet he addresses a problem central to the representation of myth on screen: the portrayal of the supernatural. Winkler argues, rightly, that omitting the Greek gods from Troy was not a radical move by classical standards (think Lucan), and that even the Homeric gods correspond to psychological states (though they cannot be reduced to them). He also argues, more contentiously, that Greek antecedents may be found for Achilles' words to Briseis, in Troy, about the Meaning of Life ("The gods... envy us because we're mortal, because every moment might be our last. Everything's more beautiful because we're doomed," 139). This claim, like many others in the book, had me wishing that the question it addresses had been framed differently. Rather than defending the alleged Homericity of Achilles' words, it might be more productive to ask why the film-makers chose to reconfigure their story's Greek antecedents in precisely this way. The chapter is also obfuscated by an unexamined use of the language of realism (e.g. 122, 128, 130), which can mean many things (especially in cinema). This is particularly unfortunate given that Petersen himself insists strongly on the "realism" of his approach to ancient myth (18, 21, 25; cf. 130–31).

Chapter 6, "Achilles and Patroclus in Troy," by Horst-Dieter Blume, compares these two characters with their ancient antecedents. In Troy they are presented, notoriously, as cousins—a fact that stirred up considerable controversy (though not primarily among scholars). Blume spends disappointingly little time on this. He does point out that the film is actually "Homeric" in this regard. (The two men are indeed cousins in early Greek tradition.) But this rather misses the point. At issue is not —or not merely—superficial "accuracy" to Homer as a source, but a deeper sense of authenticity: how to convey the intensity of the bond between the two men in a way that will make sense to a modern audience.4 There are political implications too, since many viewers were angered by the film's refusal to acknowledge Achilles and Patroclus' cultural status as gay icons.5 But Winkler and his contributors show little interest in audience reception outside the academy.

Winkler's introduction notwithstanding, few contributors pay more than lip service to the director's cut. One exception is Bruce Louden in Chapter 7 ("Odysseus in Troy"). The new cut, unlike the theatrical release, shows emissaries arriving in Ithaca to recruit Odysseus for the Trojan War. Louden argues that the scene is "a kernel" of the Odyssey, whose addition "deepens" the film's generally Iliadic portrayal of Odysseus as a consummate diplomat (190).

The most effective use of the director's cut is, however, by Barbara P. Weinlich—the only contributor who studies Troy closely as film. In "A New Briseis in Troy" (Chapter 8), Weinlich goes beyond obvious changes in the director's cut, like the addition or removal of whole scenes, to look at such quintessentially cinematic factors as shot length and distance. She concludes that this version foregrounds Briseis' agency and engages the audience more fully and sympathetically with her emotions; the result is a more assertive, independent, and empowered Briseis, one who is less "stereotypical" and more "feminist" than her counterpart in the theatrical release (199). This short (twelve-page) chapter is a lucid, responsible, and convincing analysis, which clarifies, for a presumptive audience of classicists, some of the ways in which film editing can shape meaning. It is also the only contribution that I wished were longer. Weinlich's account of Briseis as a "modern liberated woman" (202), could be enriched, for example, by locating her among the available paradigms for "modern" female heroism on the Hollywood screen.6

Chapter 9 ("The Fall of Troy: Intertextual Presences in Wolfgang Petersen’s Film"), by Antonio M. Martín Rodríguez, discusses Troy's indebtedness to an oddly eclectic group of precursors, including the Aeneid, Robert Wise's 1955 film Helen of Troy, and the Lord of the Rings movies. The Aeneid is a worthwhile comparandum (especially considering that it was one of the screenwriter David Benioff's acknowledged sources: cf. 109). Lord of the Rings makes no direct reference to the Trojan War story, but qualifies, in Martín Rodríguez' eyes, as an "unconscious" use of the classical tradition (205)—the kind of reception more suggestively dubbed "subterranean" by Monica Cyrino and Meredith Safran.7 This approach raises serious difficulties, however, which the author does not address.8 His discussion of Wise's epic might might seem to stand on firmer ground (219–21; cf. 213). But Petersen explicitly states, in this very volume (19), that he intentionally avoided ever seeing Wise's Helen of Troy. The methodological obstacles this raises are not insurmountable, but they do need to be tackled.

The final chapter (but for a brief coda by Winkler) is Jon Solomon's "Homer’s Iliad in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture" (Chapter 10). This is vintage Solomon: a treasure trove of arcane information from the late 19th century to the present, ranging from the birth of Ajax cleanser—"stronger than dirt"—to the use of Troy as a personal name, to Achilles, a 1995 claymation short by Barry Purves, which Solomon discreetly describes as "experimental" (252) (it is also very sexually explicit). Solomon argues that the Iliad's presence in pop culture has been relatively limited (as compared with the Odyssey), thanks to Schliemann's archeological discoveries, which effectively demythologized the Trojan War.

The book as a whole seems oddly insulated from the wider world of 21st-century classical reception studies. According to Winkler, his contributors refer to the "most important" scholarship on Troy that has appeared since 2007 (5 n. 11). But "importance" is a matter of judgment.9 A broader theoretical framework might have forestalled some of the book's weaknesses. It is wearisome to keep reading—over and over again—the well-worn justifications for studying popular culture, when such battles were fought and won long ago. Nor is it customary nowadays for scholars to judge a film's quality by its "accuracy" to ancient sources, or, indeed, to justify their objects of study on grounds of artistic excellence. Yet Winkler defends Troy for its supposed "superiority" over lesser efforts that he condemns as "tasteless," "silly" (5), ""weak and puerile" (6), "inane" or "bland and thoroughly unappealing" (14). It is not clear how such personal (and unsubstantiated) value judgments contribute to scholarship (as opposed to the art of reviewing).10

The book would also have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. There is a good deal of repetitive plot-summary, not to mention the endless justifications for studying this film. Typos are few, but there are some solecisms ("a white, hirsute beard," 206), and it is disconcerting to see Thetis identified as a mermaid (173).


1.   Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic, reviewed in this journal by Mary-Kay Gamel (BMCR 2007.08.09).
2.   Jon Solomon, who contributes to both books, is the only participant in either who holds a position in Cinema Studies as well as Classics or Archeology.
3.   See e.g. Jonathan Burgess, "Recent Reception of Homer: A Review Article," Phoenix 62 (2008) 190.
4.   For this conception of "authenticity" see Mary-Kay Gamel, "Revising 'Authenticity' in Staging Ancient Mediterranean Drama," 153–169 in Theorising Performance, edd. Edith Hall and Stephe Harrop (London 2010).
5.   See e.g. Anneliese Cooper, "'Troy' Turns 10," Bustle May 14, 2014 ("Troy Turns 10").
6.   See my remarks on Briseis in "'Third Cheerleader from the Left': From Homer's Helen to Helen of Troy," Classical Receptions Journal 1 (2009) 4–22 (also in Ancient Greek Women in Film, ed. Konstantinos Nikoloutsos, Oxford 2013).
7.   Classical Myth on Screen (New York 2015) p. 5.
8.   See my review of Cyrino and Safran in Classical Review 66 (2016) 282–4.
9.   There is no mention, for example, of Gideon Nisbet's Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (Exeter 2008; first edition 2006).
10.   For thoughtful comments on the difference see Michael Wood, "A Critic Explores the Finer Points of Finding Fault," New York Times, February 4th 2016, p. C1.

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