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Volume 16, Issue 2: Ex Imagibus

Trivialization of Troy

Peter Leithart

Troy has long haunted the Western imagination. According to George Steiner, the Iliad was "the primer of the tragic art" that "set forth the motifs and images around which the sense of the tragic has crystallized during nearly three thousand years of western poetry: the shortness of heroic life, the exposure of man to the murderousness and caprice of the inhuman, the fall of the City." Ancient Greece's two great epics are about the Trojan war, and much of Greek tragedy, written centuries after the war putatively occurred, obsessively replays the war and its aftermath. Even Rome's greatest epic is about a Trojan.

Though the credits say that Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy was "inspired by Homer's Iliad," the film possesses none of the weight that the story has possessed over the centuries. In part, this is because the film gets crucial details of the story wrong. Time is radically and ridiculously compressed. A central motif in the epic is war-weariness. The Greeks have been camped on the beaches outside Troy for ten long years, but the action of the film takes place over the course of a few weeks. In the film, Achilles and Agamemnon are at odds before they ever arrive at Troy, and Briseis, the catalyst for the titanic clash of the two heroes in the epic, is taken as war booty, seized by Agamemnon, and recovered by Achilles (who dashingly rescues her from brutish Greek hoplites) all in about twenty-four hours. Achilles pouts in his ship for a day or so before Patroclus goes tripping out to fight in Achilles' armor (absurdly, without Achilles' knowledge) and to be killed, rousing Achilles from his few hours of non-combatant pique.
No one dies at the right time or in the right way. Menelaus, who legend says returns home with Helen, dies in an opening battle with Paris, less than a half-hour into the film. Agamemnon, whose bloody homecoming is one of the most famous events in Greek literature, is killed by Briseis during the sack of Troy. Achilles is still alive to sneak into Troy inside the Trojan Horse and is killed by Paris while searching the city for his beloved Briseis. Paris, the lover, survives and makes off with Helen. (Surely the dumbest moment in the film occurs when Paris, leading many Trojans to safety through a tunnel, hands over the sword of Troy to a young man he has just met, Aeneas.)
Deliberate and superficial anachronisms like those in the recent film version of Titus Andronicus can be clever and illuminating. But the anachronisms of Troy are deep and fundamental, and probably accidental. Hector is modernly skeptical about the gods, and the Trojan priest and seer (Laocoon?) comes off as a bit of a loony. Brad Pitt is simply Brad Pitt in a leather skirt. The film gestures toward a sense of historical distance by having the characters talk about honor a lot, but this utterly fails to convince. The characters in the film are as comically self-conscious about their code of honor as the heroes in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cresida, but Shakespeare knew he was writing a parody.
I have rarely been as frustrated watching a film as I was watching Troy. On further reflection, frustration is the wrong response. There is a silver lining always and everywhere. Shakespeare's play could only have been written in a Christian civilization that had relativized the Trojan War's inflated importance, and thus marked an epochal shift in Western imagination. What the ancients took as a key event of world history, Shakespeare reduced to a story of whoredom and cuckoldry, in which "war and lechery confound all."
Wolfgang Petersen has taken Shakespeare a significant step further, turning the "primer of the tragic art" into a summer blockflop. His trivialization of Troy is a sign that the Greek hold on Western man has continued to loosen since the sixteenth century, and for that reason this film is not only cause for celebration but evidence of postmillennialism.

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