Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Whatever Happened to the Heroes? A Classical perspective on Troy by Sheila Seacroft

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Whatever Happened to the Heroes?

a classical perspective on Troy by Sheila Seacroft

There is no really definitive story of Troy. Homer was only the first to put a literary shape to the legends woven around the theme by storytellers throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Greek tragedians 700 years after him, Latin poets, playwrights like Shakespeare and Racine, down to modern poets with their versions rather than translations, have continually reworked the material to reflect contemporary concerns.

Yet there is something universal there, a core of truth about human deeds and emotions alongside a great tale of action, which belongs to everybody, and film, the great popular entertainment of our age, seems the ideal medium to retell such a story. Can screenwriter David Benioff use this priceless raw material to both entertain us and give us food for thought? What better time to look at the brutalising business of a war fought for dubious motives, with its heroes, its shifting loyalties and dishonour?

But whereas Euripides and Shakespeare produced crowd pleasers which still had something to say, it looks like Hollywood has thrust its great sticky infantile hand into the grab-bag of our culture and brought out just what it thinks we want to see, the same old tired formulas. You don’t make a story universal just by banging on about how your name is going to live forever.

Unlike many critics, though, I don’t have a problem with the omission of the gods from the story. Shakespeare left them out of Troilus and Cressida, concentrating instead on the moral disintegration of men tired out by a pointless war. In classical literature, gods provide parallel drama, sometimes comic relief, for they are almost invariably lesser beings, in terms of love, suffering and complexity, than mortals. But their audience, on some level, believed in their existence. While it is perfectly possible for us to read them as archetypes or metaphors, I can’t help feeling they would have been a distraction, bringing a note of fantasy that only a Peter Jackson, maybe, could have handled.

So do the human heroes deliver the goods? On the plus side, Sean Bean is promising as a laid back and cynical Odysseus (do I see a sequel coming up?). Paris (Orlando Bloom) was always a wuss, and he’s a wuss here. Brian Coxs power-fuelled, treacherous Agamemnon is a pleasure to watch, making the most of a rather threadbare script.

Eric Bana as Hector, meanwhile, does get near to the fully rounded character of the Iliad, but there’s a surprising omission here of a very memorable scene. Homer describes how he goes to say goodbye to his wife Andromache (Saffron Burrows in Troy) and baby son Astyanax wearing his plumed helmet, ready for battle with Achilles, and the baby is frightened by it and does not recognise him. So Hector, the great warrior, takes it off and to kiss his son for the last time. It may be the first scene of real domestic intimacy in western literature, and it could have been pure Hollywood as well as pure Homer. A chance inexplicably missed.

But to come to Achilles, the central figure. Benioffs golden boy may scowl a bit and be ruthless in battle, but inside beats an achey, breaky heart which sees the sadness of things. Its hard to recognise the hero of legend here: instead, Homers Achilles sulks in his tent and refuses to fight because Agamemnon has taken his slave girl Briseis (Rose Byrne) away. It isn’t a case of romantic love or chivalry – Briseis (never a Trojan princess, by the way) is just a possession he’s had taken off him, by someone whose authority he resents, and his honour and status are at stake. This is not a nice man. Heroes often arent.

His real love is reserved for Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund), in that spiritual, almost certainly physical, relationship between men that coexisted with heterosexual love, which to the Greeks seemed normal, and which we find so difficult to understand. Hence (in Homer) Patroclus death brings about devastating wrath, the declared subject of the Iliad, leading to the act of barbarism against Hectors body (surprisingly bland here, in fact: three times round the walls he should have dragged him, though there shouldn’t be much of a body left after that). According to Homer his angry guilt is very much compounded by the fact that he actually lends Patroclus his armour, knowing his intentions, something the film chooses to rewrite.

After this, and the redemptive act of returning Hectors body to Troy for burial, Homer’s Achilles is a spent force, and in the legends is killed long before the wooden trundles into Troy. In any case, it is unthinkable that Homer’s Achilles would have skulked into a city in such covert fashion: that is closer to antihero Odysseus’s style, and by now the war has passed from its heroic stage to its dirty endgame of stealth and deception.

But to feed us a non-troubling ending, Benioff has Pitt/Achilles hunting the burning streets to save Briseis, his true love. And if we haven’t been surprised enough by the earlier killing of Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), who in the legends lives to take Helen (Diane Kruger) back home, its a real shock to see Agamemnon getting bumped off too. It certainly will save the House of Atreus a deal of grief, not to mention cancelling out one of Freuds favourite inventions, the Electra Complex, if no Agamemnon goes back to Mycenae to get his bloody comeuppance from his adulterous wife Clytemnestra, then be painfully avenged by his crazy mixed-up children.

But look around during the climax of Troy, and its all going peculiar. Andromache, actually destined for slavery with the Greek conquerors, is escaping down a tunnel with little Astyanax, who should have been hurled from the battlements. Theres no Hecuba, no Cassandra (wailing ‘I told you so!’), and Helen is still drooling over Paris, whereas Homer has her bored and out of love. Theres nothing wrong with changing details, of course, but why does Hollywood have to protect us from these hard-to-stomach, grown-up ideas?

Achilles is made to mouth vague platitudes about war being a bitch and how the suffering never ends, but its not shown that way: all is wrapped up in sentiment and conformity to a (kind-of) happy ending, where dying for heterosexual love is idealised, women escape what always happens to women in warfare, and the nasty guys get their justdesserts. Is this the only version our no-strings, entertainment-demanding civilisation can take? In the end its bland fare, a Big Mac of a story instead of a steak, where all the flavour comes from artificial flavouring and garnish – so that we forget what real, bloody meat should taste of.

21st May, 2004

by Sheila Seacroft