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Old 30th October 2005   #1
Join Date: July 2005
Posts: 1,784
Default ''Troy'' and its Byronic Hero

(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, May 23rd, 2004.)

Now that the film is in general release, it might be worth saying a few words about Wolfgang Petersen's Troy--both because the movie has come up repeatedly as a topic of discussion on this forum, and because the characters and events surrounding the Trojan War provide the underpinnings of our Web project.

Regardless of how the film is received by the public, as a work of art, Troy is a significant achievement. The true measure of any historical film is in how successfully it dispenses with contemporary morality, and immerses itself in the prevalent aesthetic and ethical values of the time period in which it is set. And while Troy makes many concessions (unfortunate ones) to the sensibilities of contemporary audiences, it is far more in tune with the Classical ethos than we have any right to expect from a Hollywood "epic."

Like the Iliad on which is it (very loosely) based, Troy hinges on the character of Achilles--and Achilles is, in every way, the strength of this movie. The rest of the characters generally fall into the "good" or "bad" categories of the Judeo-Christian value system, which is anachronistic for this period of history (e.g., the "good" Hector, and the "bad" Agamemnon). But Achillles is much closer to the Classically-inspired Nietzschean conception of the protagonist who operates outside the boundaries of conventional ethics. Homer, and the Greeks of Antiquity, would have understood this character very well--and admired him on his own terms.

The official Troy Web site ( describes the character of Achilles thus:

Arrogant, rebellious and seemingly invincible, Achilles has allegiance to nothing and no one, save his own glory. It is his insatiable hunger for eternal renown that leads him to attack the gates of Troy under Agamemnon's banner – but it will be love that ultimately decides his fate.

Achilles is the most genuinely Classical element in this film, and perhaps the closest thing to a Byronic Hero that the cinema has yet produced.

As for the acting, Achilles is hardly the role for which Brad Pitt was born, but Pitt keeps his performance within a reduced emotional range, which makes the depiction seem plausible. An ideal portrayal of Achilles would demand a "rhetorical" style of acting, but the pre-Stanislavsky manner of performance has all but vanished from stage and screen (which, incidentally, is why sublime characters such as Melville's Ahab and Brontë's Mr. Rochester--to say nothing of Marlowe's "overreachers"--are never convincingly portrayed in modern motion pictures). It is easy to imagine a hundred ways in which the depiction of Achilles could have been ruined, but Pitt carefully avoids the more obvious pitfalls, and so one can deem his portrayal a qualified success.

Aesthetically, the filmmakers were wise to conceive of a lean, athletic Achilles, rather than a hulking, steroid-inflated Terminator. In one telling moment during the brilliantly choreographed fight with Hector, Achilles adopts a stance reminiscent of the Borghese Gladiator, and looks for all the world like the flesh-and-blood original of that iconic masterpiece:

Achilles's movements are tiger-like and precise, and the film in general provides the most convincing one-on-one battle sequences since Braveheart. It presents a manner of combat that looks ferocious, but not theatrical, and avoids restorting to any "martial arts"-type movements.

We have discussed the issue of Diane Krüger's validity as Helen before, but it is worth reiterating the benefits of having the actress gain weight before playing the part. The contrast between her, and the positively cadaverous actress who plays Hector's wife, is obvious. Krüger is still far too thin to be an icon of Classical beauty, but at least her figure is soft, rather than hard, and she does possess real feminine allure (which is more than one can say for 99% of the Hollywod A-list). In particular, the actress has a lovely mouth, and in these days of plastic surgeons implanting foreign matter into every part of the human anatomy, it is most refreshing to see an actress without collagen-bloated lips. Ms. Krüger may not be Shannon Marie or Valerie--but then, who is? If she were a size 14, Krüger would make a lovely plus-size model--and a very believable Helen of Troy.

At any rate, the filmmakers do give their Helen a dazzling array of gorgeous outfits, fabulous accessories, and exotic hairstyling, which helps create the impression of the character as a great beauty, for whom it would be well worth fighting a war.

The architecture of the film's sets is more Neoclassical than historically authentic, but this, too, was probably a wise choice on the filmmakers' part--both for visual impact, and due to the difficulty of creating the city of Troy out of sheer conjecture. Much of the city's look is based on the paintings of John Martin, that great master of the Sublime, as well as on the Prussian Neoclassicism of Friedrich Schinkel. In the final scene of the movie, the burned-out Troy looks for all the world like Unter den Linden in Berlin, 1945.

The script is "topical," but not excessively so. There are many obvious and deliberate parallels to the Iraq conflict, but none that ruin the integrity of the story. The "classical primer" details are delightful, and anyone who remembers their Classics 101 lessons will delight in the moment when Paris offers the sword of Troy to Aeneas, telling him to take the refugees of Troy to a new land (i.e., Rome), there to build for themselves a new home. (Could this be a signal that the director intends to follow-up this film with a screen adaptation of The Aeneid?)

Some critics have complained about the absence of the Greek gods in Troy, but in restricting themselves to the "human story," the filmmakers avoided the mistakes made by their predecessors. Past efforts at depicting Classical Antiquity on screen floundered due to the absurdity of having human actors interacting with stop-motion menaces, and white-bearded "gods" standing on fluffy clouds. By grounding this film in the real world, the creators of Troy acknowledge the fact that Homer's epics were not the B-movies of their day, nor mere escapist fare, but a vital record of the cultural heritage of the Greeks, and a serious chronicle of the conflict on which their civilization was built. Achilles is an extraordinary warrior--but a plausible one. Odysseus is the "man of many wiles"--but one who has sound and pressing reasons for devising his famous stratagems. Even that fabulous element, the Trojan Horse, has a credibly "rough" look, as if it were genuinely hammered together out of shipwrights' materials.

* * *

Troy's greatest value is its ability to bring history to life for a modern audience. And not just any history--Classical history, which is the foundation of Western society. Let us hope that seeing the dynamism of Achilles on screen will prompt many individuals to discover the heritage of Antiquity for themselves: to read the great epics, to visit the world's museums--and more importantly, to appreciate what they read, and what they see.

The creators of Troy apparently have such a goal very much in mind. The movie's Web site includes an effective multimedia page, created in cooperation with The British Museum, which chronicles the interpretations of the Trojan saga throughout history. It is viewable from the link provided below, and well worth a visit--before, or after, one sees the film.

- Click on ''View Collection,'' once the download completes

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