Troy (2004) – A Movie Review

As a former student of classical languages and literature I suppose I should be categorically opposed to this movie.  But to be honest I probably enjoyed around three quarters of it.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Now full disclosure, the movie Troy resembles Homer’s Iliad about as closely as my grandson’s middle school band’s rendition of the Blue Danube Waltz resembles that performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.  In other words, not a lot.

But that really isn’t important.  The question is whether it succeeds on its own terms.  What we’re presented with is an adventure film masquerading as a literary epic.  We have the story of Orlando Bloom as Paris absconding with Menelaus’ wife Helen from Sparta and taking her to Troy where her new father-in-law Peter O’Toole as Priam decides that they’ll defy Agamemnon and try to keep Helen even if Brad Pitt as Achilles is preparing to run amok on the windy plains of Troy.

In order to turn an epic poem into a two-hour movie some compromise had to be taken with the plot.  Instead of a ten-year war we have a ten-day war.  And some folks had to be sacrificed.  For instance, both Menelaus and Ajax are axed in the second day of battle.  Now that is surprising since in the Hellenic version Menelaus is one of the few heroes to reach a ripe old age after the war.  And equally surprising, not only does Paris survive but he ends up keeping Helen.  Shocker!

So, you might ask what does survive the translation from page to screen?  Well, I’d say Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Priam and Hector are recognizably themselves.  Agamemnon is an arrogant fool.  Odysseus is the wily survivor and Achilles is the aristocratic demi-god following his doom.  Priam is the honorable king who must see his country and family laid waste.  But the most sympathetic character is of course Hector.  Here is the good man, prince, husband, son, brother and father trying to save his country from a creature that no man can defeat.  It is his fate to kill the cousin of the monster and now have to face him in single combat.  And he will die and his body will be lashed to the back of Achilles chariot and dragged around the plains of Troy in ignominy.  And this gives his father the chance to beg Achilles mercy to allow for decent burial.

So quite a bit of the story survives.  We even get the Trojan horse scene, which truth be told isn’t part of the Iliad.  It’s more of an aside in a story in the Odyssey.

As you can imagine, the whole thing is sort of a hot mess.  To his credit I think Brad Pitt acquits himself quite skillfully in his characterization of Achilles.  His relation to the primary and secondary characters is consistent and generally very entertaining.  Unfortunately, all of this relatively positive film making falls apart in the last scene.  The sack of Troy is highly unsatisfactory.  The death of Achilles seems to fall flat and lacks emotional interest.

So, who, if anyone, can I recommend this movie to?  Well, to start with Brad Pitt fans might want to give it a watch.  I’d say fans of sword and sandals epics might like it.  Strict devotees of Homer will be affronted and may throw things at the screen.  My opinion is that it is relatively entertaining with some weak scenes and an unsatisfying ending.  Of course, your milage may vary.

I’ll Wait for the Movie Version

“Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the war of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians as they warred against each other, beginning to write as soon as the war was on foot, with expectation it should prove a great one and most worthy the relation of all that had been before it; conjecturing so much both from this, that they flourished on both sides in all manner of provision, and also because he saw the rest of Greece siding with the one or the other faction, some then presently and some intending so to do. For this was certainly the greatest commotion that ever happened among the Grecians, reaching also to part of the barbarians and, as a man may say, to most nations. For the actions that preceded this and those again that are yet more ancient, though the truth of them through length of time cannot by any means clearly be discovered, yet for any argument that, looking into times far past, I have yet light on to persuade me, I do not think they have been very great, either for matter of war or otherwise.”

In 1629 Thomas Hobbes the philosopher (or we should say the social scientist) translated into English, Thucydides “Peloponnesian War.”  Above is Thucydides’ introduction.  He believed that this was the greatest war that had ever been fought among the Greeks.  And in this belief, he was probably right.  And in a sense every major war that was fought afterward in which European peoples fought amongst themselves became the greatest war.  After the Peloponnesian war, Sparta fought with the other Hellenic city states such as Thebes until they wore each other down.  That allowed the related Macedonian nation to conquer the Greeks and that led to Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire.  And the squabbling of the successor kingdoms of Alexander’s generals was the incubator for the Roman empire.

But when the rotted corpse of the Caesars’ world disintegrated sometime during the 5th century A.D. it formed the fertile soil that nurtured our Western civilization.  And now the United States of America is approaching the point where it will need a new name.  Calling it a democratic republic is sort of a bad joke.  The form of the government is some kind of self-perpetuating bureaucracy.  And its extent is no longer defined by the outline of the fifty states.  Much like Rome it has many vassal states that while technically not American territory nevertheless are almost completely controlled by America.

And like Rome the American Empire has an enormous amount of momentum.  Even in the midst of precipitous decline in many aspects of its existence the shear mass of this human organization is staggering to behold.  And because of this scope it will take a long time for the creature to die.  Unfortunately, we will be the witnesses to the early stages of this downfall.  And it is already on display.  Just as the Roman republic died with the destruction of the small Roman farmers so our society will degenerate into a feudal existence with the dominance of the corporate oligarchs over small independent businesses.  And in fact, the last few years has greatly accelerated this process.

And our age’s equivalent to the Roman “bread and circuses” is the vision of welfare and the metaverse where everyone commits slow suicide to make room for the depopulated Gaia model.  It almost makes 5th century Rome sound humanistic.

I was recently skimming through Macchiavelli’s “History of Florence.”  It begins with the Fall of Rome and after the Carolingian period quickly devolves into endless petty wars between a long series of German Holy Roman Emperors named Frederic, French Kings named Louis and Neapolitan Dukes named Rodrigo battling the Popes for control of Tuscany and Lombardy.  And it occurred to me that someday that will be North America.  Idiotic descendants of the Pilgrims will be warring endlessly with some Asiatic warlords and Neo-Aztecs for possession of Lake Winnipesaukee.  And if that’s the case then my ancestors might as well have remained in Southern Italy and at least have had the comfort of snow free March weather.

If I were a Stoic, I’d look at the whole thing as the way of the world and just make the best of it without whining about it.  But my ancestors made a tradition of bitterly complaining about just about everything that was outside of their control and just about everything was outside of their control.  At the same time, it meant trying to make the most of the things we could control; family, food and friends.

But just as Thucydides did with Athens and Tacitus did with Republican Rome, we will get a chance to see up close and personal how a once free people get turned into serfs.  It won’t be pretty but it will be momentous.  I hope the movie version has good CGI effects.

Recommended Article: Victor Davis Hanson’s “Why is Everyone Suddenly Quoting Thucydides?” in American Greatness

https://amgreatness.com/2017/07/26/everyone-suddenly-quoting-thucydides/

Thucydides is one of the most difficult Greek authors. As I’ve noted elsewhere The Histories of Herodotus are much more fun (both in Greek and English translation).  Reading Thucydides is like reading a textbook written by a very  pedantic professor.  I found it very slow going when I only had to translate a few pages back 40 years ago as a student.  The Peloponnesian War is recounted battle by battle, march by march and season by season.  Only intermittently is there some nugget of historical interest.  But the ones you find are sometimes priceless.  Hanson is a Classics Professor and actually can read Thucydides in the original Greek so at least he knows what the text is trying to say.  Back in high school (or I guess college nowadays) you were given passages from Thucydides such as the Funeral Oration of Pericles or the Melian Dialog.  Well the reason we still read Thucydides is because people keep doing the same stupid things war after war.  Whether the US and China are fated to battle for supremacy like Sparta and Athens or Rome and Carthage is an important question.  If studying the Peloponnesian War teaches us what has failed in the past maybe we can spare the world another bloody catastrophe.  That some of the Trump White House is reading it isn’t bad news.  Anyway, an interesting read.

The Father of History / The Father of Lies / Summer Reading Fun!

My Professor of Ionic Greek was a very funny guy.  He said that the charm of reading Herodotus is that his prose reminds you of your Great Aunt telling family history.  The whole story is one big run-on sentence meandering back and forth and including everything from news of the great war to gossip about somebody’s wife cheating with the milkman.  And sometimes it’s difficult to tell which part she feels is more important.

In the same way, Herodotus starts off the history of the Persian War by claiming its origin was the kidnapping of Helen by the Trojans!  From there we get a family history of the first Asian ruler to conquer the Greeks living in Asia Minor.  Apparently, the origin of this dynasty involves a King allowing his wife to be seen naked by a commoner.  This triggers his wife’s anger so severely that she conspires with the commoner to kill her husband and usurp the throne.  All of these stories are given with either a tongue in cheek or a storyteller’s desire to be complete.

But in between all this chatter you get some stories that are told nowhere else and that record the (mostly) accurate exploits of the ancient world’s greatest generation.  You’ll hear about Marathon and Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea.  You’ll meet Leonidas and the Spartans, Themistocles and the Athenians and Xerxes and the Persians.  And mixed in with that you’ll hear unlikely stories of the origins of historical nations based on the amorous adventures of Heracles and other demigods.  And you’ll feel that you’re in the midst of a tumultuous time full of heroes and villains.  And you’ll discover the ancient dichotomy of the East vs. the West.  It’s freedom versus slavery.  It’s nation versus empire.  It’s intelligence versus brute force.

There are places where the story bogs down.  You see Herodotus was a world traveler and he relates all the tales he was told in his various travels.  During his time in Egypt he collected much material on the rulers and doings in Egypt.  Sometimes it gets to be a little much.  But mixed in with this minutia will be stories that sound like they came out of the Tales of the Arabian Nights.

In terms of historical accuracy Herodotus was far inferior to his successor at Athens, Thucydides.  His history chronicles the aftermath of the Persian War.  This was a sort of Cold War between Athens and Sparta that eventually went hot.  Thucydides provides precise details of the military and political actions and forgoes all mythical and religious causes.  But the content is basically the story of Athens committing suicide.  I much prefer reading the story of its finest hour.

Every summer I read from two greek classics.  I read the Odyssey and I browse Herodotus.  Those two books give me hope that the legacy of the West isn’t a myth.  Odysseus tells me that the value of the brave man and the faithful wife can overcome the chaos and nihilism of the world.  And Herodotus tells me that freedom reappears in this world from time to time and that it is the most valuable substance in the universe.

In future installments, I’ll select some of the stories that I think make the case that the gossip Herodotus is still relevant and interesting 2,400 years later.