Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

My thoughts on Troy

I have just been to see Troy with edling, Cat, Anna and Sam. These are my thoughts on the film, gathered together here under appropriate headings for my sake as much as anyone else's. It's a significant reception of the classical world after all, and I may have to teach it some day! I'm warning you, though - without the cuts this is An Extremely Long Post Indeed.

First of all, let me make it clear that in general, I liked the film. It wasn't perfect, but it was fun, and bringing stories from the classical world to a wider audience is entirely to be encouraged in my book. Manipulating those stories to suit our own needs and interests is also fully acceptable: better than their not being used at all. So if I seem to be picking flies, it doesn't mean I hated it. It's just a critical analysis, designed to help me work out what the film was doing.

Firstly, Troy was very much the latest in a long line, and especially a long line of classical epics.

Going back to the heady days of the 50s and 60s, I noticed that the arrival of Paris and Helen into Troy was very visually reminiscent of scenes in which we encounter Rome for the first time in a number of Hollywood epics from the era. Troy is in fact the title character of the film, but its first appearance is saved for some time, so that our anticipation gives it greater impact when we do 'meet' it, and this is a common way of treating Rome in older classical epics: Ben Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) and especially Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) all spring to mind. Troy looks convincingly bronze-age Aegean... but still, its sheer scale and the emphasis on the walls do recall previous 'first meetings' with Rome (including the first appearance of Rome in Gladiator: the walls here, of course, as so often in films about Rome, being crashingly anachronistic).

But most telling of all were the rose petals being thrown from the buildings over a suitably classical-revival style Paris and Helen. This is a hackneyed old device for representing the depraved luxury of Rome, which again appears in Gladiator, and goes back to classical revival paintings like The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema: themselves based on passing references in ancient write-ups of 'bad' emperors (especially Nero and Elagabalus). Compare Alma-Tadema's painting with this image of Paris and Helen from the film. It was, of course, an especially relevant / effective device to use at this stage in the film, because Paris, part of the Trojan royal family, was bringing about the doom of the Trojan people for the sake of his personal pleasure: hence he was indeed a depraved, luxury-loving ruler.

Independently of the older epics, I think Gladiator has had its own effects, too, especially on some of the fighting scenes. The fight between Hector and Achilles, in particular, had a real pugillistic feel to it: no nancy-boy dodging about with long swords, but plenty of meaty body clashes. Plus their costumes, of course, would not have looked too out of place in the Colosseum of Gladiator.

Then there are recent TV series: I could feel the influence of televised epics from the 90s, such as 1999's Cleopatra in the music, the make-up of the female characters, the appearance of the ordinary Trojans (on the rare occasions we caught glimpses of them) and the use of text at the start of the film to fill us in on the historical background. Hercules and Xena need mention too, if only for providing earlier models of long-haired, muscle-bound heroes in leather and feisty women (e.g. Briseis).

Finally, there is of course the inescapable Lord of the Rings. This made its presence felt in three main ways. One, the gigantic battle scenes. Two, the appearance of Troy: area before the gates shaped rather like the area before the gates of Mordor, city inside not unlike Minas Tirith, and one interior scene where the Greeks are about to break through a wooden door and a hulking great Trojan guy with ginger hair is urging his compatriots to fight on was a bit like parts of Helm's Deep. He looked a bit like Gimli for that matter, as did Agamemnon. Three, the very self-conscious device of giving Orlando Bloom (as Paris) a couple of archery scenes. This is fair on one level, since Paris in Homer is supposed to be a keen archer, and a devotee of Apollo (an archer-god). But it also back-fired a bit in my view, as it reminded us too much of Orlando Bloom the star (by recalling his most famous previous role), thus shattering the carefully-created image of him as Paris the character.

Homoeroticism. This kind of relates to the above, since depictions of male sexuality were always a charged issue in the classical epics of the 50s and 60s. In fact, the tricky issue of dealing with homosexuality in particular is one major reason why historically-based (as opposed to mythological) films about Greece were very rarely made at that time, in comparison with Roman historical films. The only real example is Alexander the Great (1955), and here dear old Alex's relationship with Hephaistion was very much cleaned up into a nice, manly friendship for contemporary audiences. Meanwhile, in 'Roman' films like Ben Hur, Spartacus and Fall... it is used as a device for making the 'baddies' (always Romans) seem worse, but even then it is generally kept very euphemistic and covert. You can read the bad guys in all three of these films as jilted homosexual admirers of the heros... but you don't have to. Yet, at the same time, the context of tunics (worn by soldiers and slaves) and gladiatorial fights in these stories also provided plenty of opportunity for presenting displays of muscular male flesh: something which would have been quite shocking in films not set in the past, and which certainly wasn't the norm.

To get back to Troy, we find that not much has changed. Displays of male flesh were ubiquitous: my friend Anna especially enjoyed these, and noted that they are (still) not common in modern films. And once again, a depiction of a homosexual relationship is there for those who want to see it, and sufficiently covert for those who don't. Patroclus, Achilles' male lover in Homer et al., is made to be Achilles' cousin in the film, so that their close relationship is 'OK' for those who might worry about these things. But it also allows the two of them to show emotions towards one another which are equally capable of a homosexual interpretation if the viewer wishes to make it: this is especially obvious in the glances and grapples they exchange when we first meet them both, practice-fighting together, and also in Achilles' reaction when Patroclus is killed.

The only thing that seems to have changed is that homosexuality is no longer used as a device for helping to turn our sympathies against a character who is meant to be the 'baddie' of the piece. Not a great advance, but it's a start: and apparently some of the forthcoming re-workings of Alexander the Great plan to either explore it thoroughly, or at least acknowledge it openly.

Mise-en-scène. That means sets and costumes to you, guv. Clearly someone had been reading about Schliemann's excavations at Troy, and to a certain extent the walls of Troy reflected what he found there, and are still popularly presented as the walls of Troy, even though they later proved to be of the wrong date for the events of Homer's epic. Some of the gold jewellery worn by the women also reflected the so-called Priam's Treasure which Schliemann claimed to have found as a hoard within his 'Troy', but which probably actually came either from nearby graves or simply from the black market. They mysteriously disappeared not long after they had been shown off to the public. I was also thrilled to see in the set for Mycenae the paired lions from the famous Lion gate there, although they did not seem to be part of a gate, but decorative sculpture in a court room. One or two elements reminiscent of the palace of Knossos on Crete were also present in Troy, such as wall-paintings and storage jars: quite a sensible move, since although this location didn't feature in the film, at least the material from it is of broadly the right era (and we don't have much, after all).

All in all, plenty of effort had been made to capture a general bronze age Aegean 'look', and on the whole it was fairly successful: certainly more so than many a classical film of the past. That's not to say there weren't anachronisms, though, which brings me to my next section...

On the anachronisms front, firstly it has to be said that although the Trojan war supposedly took place in something like the 12th or 13th century BC, the story was written down in the epic form we have in something more like the 6th century. This means that Homer's text itself has anachronisms, such as a misunderstood portrayal of how chariot-fighting was conducted, written in an age when people didn't use chariots for fighting any more, but knew people had in the past. So we could get into a debate about whether the period detail should be true to the time when the story is set, or the time when it was written down. But I am going to assume we are working with the period when the war supposedly happened, rather than Homer's day, especially because the film did not restrict itself to events covered by Homer's text, but gave a sort of amalgamation of story drawn from various ancient accounts. And some of the things below would apply even if we are looking for realism accurate to the 6th century.

1) Statuary. A general effort had been made here to pick out and use real archaic statuary of the eastern Mediterranean for the mise-en-scène. Unfortunately, most of the statues I recognised date from no earlier than the 8th century BC (so 4 centuries after the supposed date of the action). That said, I totally loved the temple which the Trojan court used as their council room: the one with a gigantic seated statue of Zeus at one end, various gods lined up along the sides, a pool in the middle and Priam's throne at the other end. Yes, the statues were a little pre-emptive, and the design of the temple too recalls the design of the Temple of Zeus at Olympias, designed by Pheidias in the 5th century BC. But still, it felt appropriately grand, and also emphasised the reverence of the Trojans for their gods.

2) Coins. These are placed on the eyes of the dead over and over again throughout the film. But coinage was not invented until the very end of the 7th century BC! Oops.

3) At the end of the Greeks' first day in Troy, Nestor presents to Agamemnon a painted vase. Sadly, it is a red-figure Attic vase, a type which did not come into use until the latter half of the 5th century BC.

4) [which I'm adding in retrospect because I forgot to when I first wrote this] Use of fire in battle scenes. This is less clear-cut as an anachronism, because the technological potential to use fire as a weapon in battle has been in place pretty much since fire was invented, and especially since man learnt to use highly inflammable substances such as bitumen. However, actually using it is a different matter, and all the evidence we have suggests that it just wasn't a standard part of battle-tactics at any period before the Middle Ages. Sure, you would set fire to a city using torches if you were sacking it. But in battlefield fights, flaming arrows and rolling balls of straw (or logs, as we had in Gladiator) were not normal weapons. Basically, it gets put into classical films by modern directors / producers who are worried that their audiences, weaned on action, sci-fi and war films replete with pyrotechnic explosions left, right and centre, will be too bored by battle scenes which just involve swords and spears. Troy was less heavy-handed with it than it could have been, as fire only seemed to appear as a weapon in the first battle when the Greeks are securing the beach. But it was still out of place even there, and will continue to grate on me every time I see it.

Doubtless there are others, but these are the ones I noticed. However, there are always going to be some in any film of this type, and as I say, on the whole I thought they'd tried pretty hard.

Plot deviations. There's room for debate here, too, as there were many versions of different parts of the Troy story in antiquity. So a) the film isn't necessarily deviating if it doesn't follow the exact same plot as Homer, and b) why shouldn't we create more versions of the myth now to suit our own ends?

That said, though, the ancients generally agreed that both Menelaus and Agamemnon should survive the war and return home to various different versions of their fate. In the film, however, they both die in Troy. Similarly, several Trojans escape who shouldn't: for example, Andromache, Hector's wife, and Astyanax, their baby son. In most ancient takes on the story, Astyanax is hurled to his death from the walls of Troy, while Andromache (along with most of the Trojan women) is taken into slavery by the Greeks. Much to our disgust, Paris and Helen escaped too, with both their lives and their liberty. This in particular can be freely stigmatised as a typically spineless and senseless Hollywood happy ending: doubtless imposed by producers who were worried audiences would get too upset if they died (Paris) or were recaptured by those nasty, horrid Greeks (Helen), and hence tell their friends not to go and see such a 'feel-bad' film.

Another significant deviation is the time-scale. The film makes it look as though the whole war took about a month. In Homer (and most other ancient accounts), it's clear that it took 10 years.

I'll discuss the effects of these changes in my next section...

Contemporary events. All good examples of classical receptions should reflect / comment on the contemporary events of the time when they were created. If they don't, they're not good art. So let me make it clear that the stuff I'm picking out here is, in my book, a good thing: it's our society using classical stories to reassess ourselves.

Returning to the deaths of Menelaus and Agamemnon, and the escape of several key Trojans (see previous section), I think here we can start to pick out some definite contemporary political relevance. The effect of Menelaus and Agamemnon's deaths is to suggest that blustering arrogantly into war, whether for passion (Menelaus) or explicit political motives (Agamemnon) will all end in tears. Although Paris starts the war by abducting Helen, this is portrayed as the result of a foolish weakness, whereas the Greeks are consistently portrayed as aggressors who seize on the opportunity for war (especially Agamemnon). Priam only wants peace (which seems to be why Hector and Paris were sent to Menelaus' court at the start of the film), and throughout the film Hector is constantly urging leniency and honour. Our sympathies seem on the whole to be directed towards the Trojans, who are victims of a war they didn't want, rather than the Greeks, who went into war willingly (nay, with gusto). We constantly hear, for example, about Trojan wives who are going to lose or have lost their husbands, but get nothing equivalent for the Greeks (and the theme of the wives left at home is there in the ancient sources, had the director / writer wished to pick it up). And the effect is heightened by giving us most screen contact with Achilles on the Greek side: the rebellious outsider who is himself out of sympathy with the majority of the Greeks for most of the film. And although there are Trojans who escape where most ancient takes on the story would have them killed or enslaved, nevertheless it is made very clear that the consequences of the war for the Trojan people as a whole are widespread pillage and slaughter, and the complete obliteration of their state.

Comparisons with the Iraq war would of course be facile... But the overall attitude to war in the film does seem to reflect a society which has recently had to come grimly face to face with its realities. We see the futility of aggression through the Greeks, and the horrible realities of victimhood through the Trojans (though, as I say, this is somewhat diffused by all the escapees). Meanwhile, there are a few specific lines scattered here and there which reinforce the (essentially anti-war) message. For instance, Odysseus' comment to Achilles, 'War is young men dying and old men talking', must be ringing true for a few soldiers' families at the moment.

I did think, though, that the episode with the horse represented a bit of a missed opportunity for exploring fears about terrorism in contemporary society. After all, it is essentially a terrorist act: sending a booby-trapped 'vehicle' into the city. And since the Greeks have already been cast as the 'baddies', they might as well be cast as terrorists alongside everything else. I don't know... maybe that element was there to pick up on but I missed it? Must see film again...

On the time-scale difference, keeping the 10-year motif would have helped to support the anti-war message, by reinforcing the portrayal of the suffering undergone by the Greeks for the sake of this (futile) war. However, I suppose the impact this would have had is achieved instead by the deaths of Agamemnon and Menelaus, and meanwhile the problem of conveying such a long time-scale within the film is neatly side-stepped.

Missing characters. OK, so the film was only something like 2.5 hours long, and not everybody could be in there. But there were two figures I especially missed: Cassandra, the mad prophetess of Apollo who speaks the truth, but whom nobody believes and Laocoon, the priest who says perhaps the Trojans shouldn't take the horse into the city after all, and is instantly killed by two of Apollo's snakes. One guy did argue against taking in the horse, but I don't think he was ever named, and anyway he certainly didn't die writhing in agony. Check out this statue for a magnificent example of how dramatic Laocoon's death by the snakes can look.

I thought for a long time that Aeneas (who went on to father the entire race of Romans) was going to have to be added to my 'missing characters' list, too, but was pleased to see him appear at last in the tunnel through which several Trojans were escaping, with his father, Anchises, leaning on his arm. Now he's one who should escape, so that's good. It was also a nice touch to have Paris handing to him the 'Sword of Troy', an ancestral emblem of the Trojan royal family, so that Aeneas effectively carries the 'torch' of the Trojan race out of the city and on into the future. However, it was a little weird that Paris didn't seem to know who Aeneas was, given that Homer has him as a member of a branch of the Trojan royal family...

Oh, and it's worth noting here that I know very well that the gods as characters are missing from the film as well (although they are referred to lots by the humans). A different film could have put them in (especially now that we have the CGI capacity to make both them and Mt. Olympus look convincingly other-worldly), and made them work well to show the essential helplessness of the human condition in the hands of fate: indeed, this is part of the message of 1956's Helen of Troy But in this film, the decision was made to leave them out and concentrate on the human side of the story instead: something which is fairly obviously more palatable to a sceptical, empiricist and often atheistic modern audience. I can understand that decision, and think it works perfectly well.

Mis-allocated screen time. OK, as previously, the film couldn't cover everything. But there were two scenes I felt were criminally under-played, and one which went on far too long: the tedious death of Achilles and long, tragic parting between him and Briseis. Get on and die, already, bench-press boy! Then the screen-time saved could have been allocated instead to a) Achilles dragging Hector's corpse along the ground and b) the taking in of the horse. A) is supposed to have been the most horrific thing the Trojans could possibly have seen, and a serious act of contempt and arrogance by Achilles, and a lot more horror / pathos could have been got out of it. And b) is the turning point of the whole story, and should involve long scenes with people tying ropes to the horse and even (à la Virgil) knocking down part of the city wall to get it in. Spending more time on this would have heightened the audience's sense of fear at what was going to come of the tragically misguided decision to bring the horse into the city (and perhaps have allowed the terroism theme I mentioned above to be brought in). Instead, it felt more like 'Oh, a horse'. 'Oh, now it's in our city'. This certainly seems perverse, given that the horse is being given great prominence in poster advertisements for the film (apparently, it was identified as one of the few elements in the story that American teenagers could be expected to have heard of...).

I'm hoping some of what I felt was missing from the Hector's body and Trojan horse scenes might surface in an extended-version DVD some time... Although I'm less optimistic about Hector's body than I am about the horse, because I suspect that the former was deliberately minimised to help keep our sympathies with Achilles, rather than just trimmed for time reasons.

Still, on the other hand, film can convey things quickly and efficiently which get boring in a text. In particular, a screen full of ships all with different insignia on their sails is a lot more palatable than the magnificently dull Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad (scroll down to lines 494 ff. in that link if you really must read it).

Mind you, there was one thing Homer makes into a big literary set-piece that could so easily have been conveyed effectively with a good piece of prop design and a few close-up shots, and yet was not: and that is the shield of Achilles. You can find the description here (again, scroll down to lines 478 ff. to find it), but in essence, Achilles' shield in Homer is made for him by none other than Hephaestus, the incredibly skilled smith of the gods. It features shining metal trim (silver, gold and tin are all mentioned), and is covered in intricate designs showing a range of divine and heavenly figures, two cities with detailed stories going on in and around them, fields being ploughed, corn being reaped, vineyards, cattle, sheep and dancing ladies, all surrounded by the Ocean running around the rim of the shield. In brief, Hephaestus manages to represent the entire world in miniature on this amazing shield. Yet the shield in the film, although perhaps a bit different from some of the others, is still a fairly basic affair, with nothing more than a few simple geometric patterns and quite a chunky, industrial look overall (this page features a picture of Achilles with the shield in the film: it's in the top left-hand corner of the group shown). Maybe they figured that a) they couldn't live up to Homer's description, and anyway b) Achilles would look too effeminate with an intricately-decorated shield? But it is just such a big deal in Homer (and the object of some squabbling between the remaining Greeks after his death), that I'd have liked them to try a bit harder.

Finally, the actual acting and direction. Nobody I was with was terribly impressed with Helen, but her aside, there were some good portrayals in the film. Odysseus was suitably wily and cynical. Achilles suitably aggressive, sulky and heroic (and for any Oxgoths reading, whoever suggested him as the first ever proto-goth was supported by this film, which had him wearing black throughout). But top marks in my book go to Peter O'Toole for his tender, dignified yet tragic portrayal of the aging king Priam.

Meanwhile the direction was effective yet un-ostentatious for most of the film. But two little details caught my eye and deserve noting down. Firstly, early on in the film when Achilles is talking to his mother, Thetis. The film shows her as very much in tune with the sea, as we meet her standing up to her ankles in it, picking up shiny shells to make a necklace, and wearing a lot of blue. What it doesn't make explicitly clear (in keeping with its 'leave-the-gods-out' policy) is that she's a sea-nymph, and hence has divine powers. However, we do see her accurately predicting Achilles' future to him, and as she does so, a pool of reflected light from the sea-water falls on the rocks between her and him - recalling her relationship with the sea, and perhaps also representing her divine ability to 'see' into a vision of the future (a bit like a medium looking into a crystal ball... or even Galadriel and her magical pool of water in LOTR).

Secondly, the simple device of making a horse the symbol of Troy, emblazoned on all their shields, also made for some nice moments when horse-marked shields floated behind the heads of major Trojan characters at key points, visually reminding us of their eventual fate. Here, for instance, or indeed in the picture of Paris and Helen entering Troy which I also referenced above. This is a good example of why I like to know the basic plot of a story (including its ending) before I start watching the film / reading the book, because then you can pick up on symbolism like this from the start, without having to watch / read the thing twice.

OK, I think that is all for now... The above is probably full of hideous typos and spelling errors, as I've been doing this for about 2 hours now, and I'm very tired. Please let me know if you spot any, and I'll put them right.

Thank-you for listening.


Aug. 9th, 2004 01:07 am (UTC)
Very interesting. Lots to think about.

Lord of the Rings: I think similarities here are largely coincidental (unlike, say, in King Arthur). The production designers can't have seen Return of the King, and probably hadn't seen Two Towers before starting work.

Homoeroticism: I have come to the conclusion that Petersen and Benioff are very clever, and have produced a movie with a homoerotic subtext, but about which they can easily say "it's not a gay movie!" This is a film clearly in love with the male body (more so than any Hollywood blockbuster I've seen since Batman Returns) - but notice how all the male nudity happens when there's a female present, and is therefore in a heterosexual context.

Menelaus: Menelaus dies because there's nothing for him to do once the script decision gets taken that Helen won't return to Sparta. This is a consequence of having a basically-nice Helen and a boorish Menelaus, so if she goes back to him, then the film is sending a message out that "battered wives should go back to their husbands". Clearly this isn't acceptable. Menelaus only fulfills a role at the beginning and end of the Trojan story - in the middle he just says "yes, Agammemnon," a lot. Take away his role at the end, and you might as well get rid of him halfway through. Agamemnon gets off because a modern audience will not necessarily known that he gets his comeuppance as soon as he returns home.

Odysseus: Though I liked Sean Bean, I didn't think he was the perfect Odysseus. He has that down-to-earth quality that the Ithacan possesses, but lacks the mercurial element. The first thing Odysseus says to anyone is usually a lie, even to his closest family, and I didn't quite get that with Bean.

Paris: Paris' survival annoyed me not because it breaks with canonical tradition, but because it breaks with the film's own structure. He's given a scene with Helen where he's plainly never going to see her again, and they both know he's going off to die. And then he doesn't.

Priam's Treasure: This didn't disappear after discovery. It was sneaked out of Turkey to Athens (in contravention of Schliemann's excavation permit), and from there to Berlin, where it remained until the Second World War. It then disappeared in the confusion of the capture of Berlin by Russian forces, but in the early 1990s re-appeared in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, where it remains.

Further thoughts on Troy are here, though they've been subsequently revised for other fora.
Aug. 9th, 2004 01:42 pm (UTC)
Right, I've got some time to read your comments here properly now...

On Lord of the Rings, of course you're totally right that the timing would mean the Troy team couldn't actually have seen much (if any) of the last two films. It's easy to forget how long these things take to make as a member of the audience.

Excellent point about the presence of women when there is male nudity going on. There are whole reams of scholarship in the field of film and gender studies about the significance of the male and female 'gazes' in the cinema: I'm not fully familiar with them all, but I think the main theory boils down to female characters generally being portrayed as objects of the male gaze (represented both within the film and in the audience), whereas this rarely happens with male characters (the treatment of Spartacus in the film of the same name while he's in the gladiatorial school is an unusual example of male characters being subjects of both the male and the female gaze). I'd need to see Troy again to be sure, but I'm thinking now that if women are present during most of the scenes of male nudity, then this may be helping to contribute to these scenes as explicit displays of male flesh, and of men as sexual objects, by also making the men subject to the gaze of the women. If that's what's going on, credit is deserved for inverting the normal Hollywood practice of concentrating on subjecting women to the male gaze.

Menelaus, Agamemnon and Paris: nice takes on the survival or not of all three. Definitely food for thought there.

Odysseus: yes, he could have been more mendacious, but then again he, like Achilles, seems to have been singled out by the production team as one of the few Greeks to whom the audience's sympathies are directed. I suspect that they toned down his propensity to lie for this reason. I presume the reason they wanted to make him a sympathetic character is that most people have heard of the Odyssey, and / or seen film and TV adaptations of it, so he is another good way of drawing people into the film.

Priam's Treasure: sorry, sloppy expression there (and probably half-baked thinking too). I should have said that they mysteriously disappeared from Turkey soon after their initial display, without, I believe, any permission being sought from or money being handed over to the Turkish authorities for the privilege.
Aug. 10th, 2004 07:22 am (UTC)
Of course, there might have been influence if the two films shared production designers (the Saving Private Ryan homage when Achilles lands at Troy is apparently because the same second unit director shot both beach landing scenes), but there isn't.

It's not most of the nudity, I am quite convinced (though I didn't immediately see the significance) that it's all. IIRC, three of the scenes of male nudity (two with Pitt, and one with Bloom) are coital or post-coital, so obviously require female presence, and also feature female nudity, though shot in such a way as to highlight the naked male and conceal the naked female (or in one case females). The other occasion is when Achilles has rescued Briseis, and changes from his armour into a shift. Wholly non-sexual, but again, a female is present.

Latest Month

February 2019


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by chasethestars