Volume 16, Issue 2: Ex Imagibus
Trivialization of Troy
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
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.