BMCR 2007.08.09

Troy: From Homer’s Iliad to Hollywood Epic

, Troy : from Homer's Iliad to Hollywood epic. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. xi, 231 pages, 20 pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9781405131827. $30.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The huge commercial success of Gladiator (2000), the first large-scale feature film to be located in the ancient Mediterranean since the mid-sixties, led to several other major films in the following years. These include Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), the HBO television series Rome (2005, 2007), and 300 (2007), based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about Thermopylae. The classics scholarly community has responded to this wave of popular culture artefacts by arranging panels at regional and national meetings, and several volumes offering critical analysis have been published. These include Gladiator: Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler (Blackwell 2004) and Big Screen Rome, a survey of Anglo-American feature films by Monica Silveira Cyrino (Blackwell 2005); Cyrino is also organizing a collective volume on HBO’s Rome. The volume under review offers scholarly comments on Troy (2004), a film “inspired” by the Iliad, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles, and featuring other well-known actors, a large budget, and a major marketing campaign.

Like the other volumes of this kind, this one offers a variety of perspectives. Editor Martin M. Winkler has wisely chosen contributors who believe “that simple dismissal of the film as yet another instance of deviation from a sacred tradition is beside the point,” and hopes that the volume will persuade readers “to think anew about Homer, about ancient and modern culture and their interactions, and about epic cinema” (18). He opens the collection with an introduction which provides some background on Petersen’s qualifications to direct an epic film, followed by a thoughtful discussion of the issues involved in translating an ancient text into the medium of film, and concludes it with an annotated list of selected films and television productions involving the Trojan War.

The introduction does not offer guidelines to the contributions except to say that they “examine the film from a number of perspectives” (17-18), and the contributions are not grouped in any obvious order. The first, by Manfred O. Korfmann, formerly director of excavations at Hisarlik, notes wryly that he and his colleagues were surprised to see the sun in Troy rise “from the very direction where we are used to seeing it set” (20). Nevertheless, believing that the film can “increase interest in and study of the Bronze Age” (22) he then provides a brief answer, based on archaeological evidence, to the question whether a Trojan War took place, and if so, why.

The second and fourth essays focus on Troy in literary traditions. Joachim Latacz discusses the story of Troy before and in Homer, arguing that the poet of the Iliad reframed the traditional material he had received in order to address “the urgent contemporary problem, as yet unsolved, of how the aristocracy should define itself and its rights and responsibilities” (37). He then argues that director Petersen similarly identifies the “true substance” of Troy in “scenes between individuals who are faced with critical issues” (41). Georg Danek discusses how poets after Homer dealt with the Trojan stories, including allegorical, rationalizing, and parodic interpretations. Focussing on the second- and third-century versions of Dictys and Dares, Danek argues that the film exploits some of the techniques used in these accounts, including verbal citations of the Iliad, hidden allusions, variations on Homeric scenes, Achilles as lover and hero, and the duration of the war, and discusses how these techniques create meaning in the film. This is an excellent but brief essay on an important topic that merited more detail.

British Museum curator J. Lesley Fitton had some influence on the film. Unlike Kathleen Coleman, the official historical advisor to Gladiator who was so unhappy with the film that she demanded that her name be removed from the credits (see her article in Winkler’s volume on that film), Fitton notes some of the film’s anachronisms but says that “the creative art of filmmaking took precedence over the creative art of archaeological reconstruction. And rightly so” (99), he claims, because “Homer was not an historian, and something of Homer would certainly have been lost in a purist archaeological approach” (106).

Five essays (Winkler, Solomon, Shahabudin, Scully, and Ahl) compare various aspects of the Iliad and Troy. Winkler argues that the poem “reveals features of the art of cinematic storytelling long before modern technology made this art a reality” (50) and suggests that Zeus views the battle in Book 8 like the spectator of an epic film, compares high- and low-angle shots to Homeric similes, and describes the ekphrases on the shield of Achilles as “short films expressed in words” (61). He then discusses two films, The Human Condition (1961) and War and Peace (1968), which he considers Iliadic. Of the essays in this volume this is the only one which really discusses cinematic techniques. Given his awareness of the film medium, however, it seems strange that Winkler never mentions that the Iliad itself was a performance text.

As he has done elsewhere (see his review of Stone’s Alexander, Arion Third Series vol. 13:1 [2005]), Jon Solomon argues that film requires analysis on its own terms and offers an excellent critique of “authenticity” as a criterion of judgment: “an ephemeral aspect of knowledge, subject to change from one generation to the next” (93). He outlines the differences between film and literature as media and then discusses how Troy and three other films — Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy (1955), L’ira di Achille (1962), and the TV movie Helen of Troy (2003) — present the first book of the Iliad, defending Troy‘s elimination of the gods and emphasis on love relationships.

Kim Shahabudin investigates “how cinematic narrative lets features of myth appear natural and how extra-cinematic factors encourage viewers to accept such a construction” (108), locating Troy in the category of what Bordwell has termed “classical Hollywood cinema.” To support this argument Shahabudin discusses how the film was marketed, how characters are presented as “modern character types,” how touchy subjects (e.g., Achilles and Patroclus as lovers) are avoided, and how other films influenced this one.

Stephen Scully says that he will focus on the depiction of the city under siege, but also addresses a number of other topics. Despite its diffuseness, the essay has a number of high points, including superb translations, a good discussion of the poem’s title (126), and another of the wonderful simile of Achilles’ spearpoint in Iliad 22.317-21 as the evening star, in prose that is worthy of the topic: “Just at the moment when the war music is at its loudest . . . the narrative becomes strangely serene. . . . The shield and the evening star become symbols of death in an impersonal world that only Achilles among mortals can gaze upon with pleasure” (127).

Frederick Ahl focusses on the film’s tragic dimension, arguing that Petersen “has given us a film in which war is presented in some unusual and disturbing ways and in which echoes of other wars, both mythical and historical, resonate” (167). He makes effective comparisons of Troy to Petersen’s breakthrough film Das Boot (1981), to Sophocles’ Antigone, and to Roman literature including the epic poems of Virgil, Lucan and Statius. Just as “there is no ancient epic of ‘good’ versus ‘evil'” (172), “there isn’t a right side or a wrong side in Troy” (174), although the Greeks, not the Trojans, are depicted as barbarians. (Ahl sees an inversion of the D-Day invasion of Europe, but the parallels with the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 are far more obvious.) This is the best essay in the volume, the one which goes most deeply into the fundamental questions raised by the poem and the film. Two essays focus on female characters. Monica Cyrino discusses the depiction of Helen in Homer and the film, noting how the latter consistently depicts her as sad, passive, and fatalistic. Once Menelaus is dead, her role diminishes, especially as Paris begins to focus on reclaiming the martial honor he lost in the duel with her husband, and as the love affair between Achilles and Briseis takes center stage. Alena Allen discusses Briseis’ role in Homer, Ovid’s Heroides 3, and Troy quite superficially; her discussion of Ovid completely misses the satiric aspects of the poem.

A number of the contributors note that the film depicts the love affair between Helen and Paris as merely a pretext for war, while the real motive is Agamemnon’s lust for power: “I didn’t come here for your pretty wife. I came here for Troy.” The final essay by Robert J. Rabel explores this theme most fully, though rather mechanically, in light of Niebuhr and Morgenthau’s concepts of “realist politics.”

This volume will be most useful to nonclassicists who want to know how the film corresponds to the Iliad and to what extent it reflects current thinking about the Trojan War. Several of the essays comment on prominent features of the film such as major changes to the plot, including the deaths at Troy of Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Ajax, and the rationalizing/humanizing aspects—the absence of the gods who play such an important role in the Iliad, the death of Achilles from many wounds, and so forth. A number of the contributors point out that stories about Troy varied greatly in ancient times and later, so that the film can be considered the latest contribution to an ongoing myth; Ahl goes further and states that “in comparison with Sophocles, Petersen is downright modest in his modifications” (172). Several contributors point out that love is an important theme in the film—not only the erotic love between Paris and Helen and between Achilles and Briseis, but the brotherly love of Hector and Paris, and even the love between cousins (Achilles and Patroclus, Hector and Briseis). Some essays outline a possible critique of war in the Iliad and Troy : Latacz declares “The film intends to show us that peace is far better than war. So it had been for Homer” (42) and Ahl argues that “in the world of mainstream epic the future lies with the conquered Trojans, not with the conquering Greeks” (175).

There is much reduplication among the essays, yet oddly very little explicit connection between them. Solomon, for example, refers to reports “from people who have served as historical advisors to films set in antiquity” (93) and Shahabudin to Fitton’s role as “a kind of historical consultant for the film” (109), but neither mentions Fitton’s contribution to this volume. Sometimes the contradictions between contributors’ stances are valuable, such as Danek’s discussion of the film’s use of “high poetic diction” (77) versus Scully’s critique of its “mundane dialogue” (120), and it would be helpful to the reader if such internal connections and contradictions were pointed out.

In general, the essays are quite brief; Winkler’s is the longest at twenty-three pages. Such brevity means that in some cases, such as Allen’s discussion of Briseis, the topic addressed simply is not explored in sufficient depth. Also, perhaps in an overly zealous attempt to deflect criticism of the film as “inauthentic,” few of the essays offer any critique at all. Scully and Ahl are exceptions, and their inclusion of negative judgments of some aspects (e.g. Scully on the film’s poor opening scene and the inferiority of the exchange between Hector and Andromache in the film vis-a-vis Iliad 6; Ahl on the film’s failure to include people outside the elite) strengthens their praise of other aspects.

There are three areas where, in my opinion, the volume misses important opportunities. First, there is little discussion of the tragic dimensions of the film. Much is made of Petersen’s qualifications as a director of epic, yet some of his earlier work, including Das Boot and The Perfect Storm (2000), is very dark, and one of Troy‘s most striking features (especially when compared to other Hollywood summer blockbusters) is its deeply elegiac coloring. There is no camaraderie, no joy in battle, and no worthwhile end is attained by victors or vanquished. What makes this Achilles the strongest warrior is not his physical prowess but his utter hopelessness and lack of illusion. The film’s tragic conclusion, from Hector’s death, Achilles’ weeping over his body, the scene between Achilles and Priam, and the destruction of Troy, is its most powerful sequence. Here again the essays by Scully and Ahl are welcome exceptions.

Second, the volume contains little detailed analysis of Troy *as film*. Most of the discussions focus primarily on the plot. Winkler’s essay mentions camera angles, Cyrino discusses costume and acting to some extent, Shahabudin and Scully point to the “old Hollywood look and outlook” of the film, and Ahl compares the film to American Westerns and war films. But important cinematic aspects such as mise-en-scène, montage, and music are never mentioned. To be sure, the contributors are classicists, not film scholars; yet several of them (Cyrino, Solomon, Winkler) could have explored the filmic dimensions in more depth. This would have enriched the volume and appealed to a wider audience. It would also have increased classicists’ understanding of how to analyze films effectively.

Finally, popular culture is an established field of scholarship with its own well-developed theoretical approaches, practical methodologies, and ongoing debates. Solomon’s essay includes some good comments on popular culture and refers to “the progress that scholarship in popular culture has made in the past three or four decades” (91), but goes no further. If classicists want to do effective work on popular culture, they cannot do so as amateurs. The work of scholars such as Sandra Joshel, Kenneth Mackinnon, and Maria Wyke demonstrates what can result when classicists commit themselves really to studying popular culture, with great benefit to both fields.

In sum, there are many good points to this volume, but also areas which could have been greatly improved.

List of Contents

Editor’s Introduction, by Martin M. Winkler

1. Was There a Trojan War? Troy Between Fiction and Archaeological Evidence, by Manfred O. Korfmann (University of Tübingen)

2. From Homer’s Troy to Petersen’s Troy, by Joachim Latacz (University of Basel)

3. The Iliad and the Cinema, by Martin M. Winkler (George Mason University)

4. The Story of Troy Through the Centuries, by Georg Danek (University of Vienna)

5. Viewing Troy : Authenticity, Criticism, Interpretation, by Jon Solomon (University of Illinois)

6. Troy and the Role of the Historical Advisor, by J. Lesley Fitton (British Museum)

7. From Greek Myth to Hollywood Story: Explanatory Narrative in Troy, by Kim Shahabudin (University of Reading)

8. The Fate of Troy, by Stephen Scully (Boston University)

9. Helen of Troy, by Monica S. Cyrino (University of New Mexico)

10. Briseis in Homer, Ovid, and Troy, by Alena Allen (Cathedral High School in San Diego, California)

11. Troy and Memorials of War, by Frederick Ahl (Cornell University)

12. The Realist Politics of Troy, by Robert J. Rabel (University of Kentucky)

13. The Trojan War on the Screen: An Annotated Filmography, by Martin M. Winkler (George Mason University).