“The truest tale in the world is the Iliad or Siege of Troy. Wars never begin in hatred; they either arise out of the honourable affection a man has for his own possessions; or else out of the black and furtive affection he has for someone else’s possessions … The Greeks and the Trojans did not hate each other in the least; there is scarcely one spark of hatred in the whole of the Iliad, save that great flare that comes out of the hero’s love for Patroclus. The two armies are strewing the plain with corpses and dyeing the very sea with blood from love and not from detestation … A real soldier does not fight because he has something that he hates in front of him. He fights because he has something that he loves behind his back.”
Think for a moment. How interesting is it that the Iliad is one of the most famous and inspiring stories in the history of the world? (As legend has it, Alexander the Great always kept copy of the Iliad under his pillow.) I bet this seems strange to many of us now, living with our modern ideas of morality, with our culture’s sensitivity to individual “natural rights,” with our entertainment’s cardboard cutout characters who are designed to be identified with, sympathized with, copied, emulated, worshipped, cheered for, etc. It is quite true that the Iliad does not possess our modern sensibilities, whether in politics or in entertainment. Instead, I would suggest that it possesses a number of classical themes that our modern views of the world could profit by. In their masterful book, Who Killed Homer:? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath defend the value of classical literature and discuss the main classical themes of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In chapter four, they go to the trouble to list and explain these themes. Let’s consider how the film Troy invokes a few of these themes.
A Classical View of Materialism and the Martial Code:
Hanson and Heath write, often focusing on the character arc that the Iliad gives to Achilles:
“Homer depicts a culture where possession of distributed war booty is tangible and is the sole evidence of honor, and where honor is what men are to live and die for … Yet Achilles in the Iliad undergoes a gradual but startling transformation in his view of such rewards and of the society itself, which uses them alone to define and calibrate honor. He understandably grows incensed (his fellow Greeks agree that he has been wronged) and withdraws from battle when his prize, a captured girl, is taken from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks. The consequences of this anger (the first word of the epic) – all of the subsequent events occur because of his withdrawal from battle – lead Achilles alone to the realization that the entire martial system of honor is bankrupt and based on a lie. Homer has first presented us with the heroic code and now at once has undermined it. Even at its simplest level of interpretation – our value is not determined by the size of our house, the speed of our car, the age of our spouse, or the price of our tennis shoes – Achilles’ new awareness runs counter to the materialism of many of [us today] … No one at the beginning of the Iliad wants material things more than Achilles; at the close, no one wanted them less.” (Hanson & Heath, pgs. 194-195.)
One of the many reasons that I appreciate Troy as a film is that I believe it captures this theme of Homer’s. Towards the beginning of the film, Brad Pitt’s Achilles is arrogantly confident in his own abilities. He has swallowed all the claptrap about fame and having his name remembered across the ages. When Hector hears his grand talk about the world remembering the war for a thousand years, he rebukes the idea with a clear sense of moral realism, “In a thousand years the dust from our bones will be gone.” But the film’s early Achilles cannot even comprehend this point of view. “Yes, Prince, but our names will remain,” he replies, as if that were a counter-argument. When Achilles’s mother tells him that he can either choose a wife and a family and live long and happily as a human being or he can choose to join the Trojan War, make a name for himself that will last through history, and die young, you can already tell what his choice will be. His contempt for Agamemnon’s greed seems just, but his own greed is only of a different variety. “I want what all men want,” he declares, “I just want it more.”
While the film shows this, it also shows how Achilles is not just talk. If there is one vice that he lacks, it is hypocrisy. In fact, the very essence of his character is against it. “I hate that man like the very Gates of Death / who says one thing but hides another in his heart.” (Fagles, Book IX, 378-379.) Thus, Achilles has personified the perfect warrior. Pitt has to be given credit here because he worked hard to successfully portray a man who has spent his entire life doing nothing but focusing, like the ideal single-minded athlete, on perfecting his physique, his strength and his fighting skill all to the point to where he can win any fight with any other man in the world. “Epic” battle scenes in movies are a dime a dozen now. CGI has allowed every director who desires to show grand, sweeping battles with thousands of men fighting thousands of men (or monsters). But unlike every other hero in a war film, even unlike Wallace in Braveheart or Maximus in Gladiator, Pitt’s Achilles does something different. In every battle scene that he appears in, Achilles’s fighting practically looks like dancing. Somehow Pitt has managed to make fighting look, not just badass or intimidating or powerful, but graceful. Achilles literally dances through the enemy, tearing through every enemy soldier who stands in his path, with grace.
(Fun fact: In what is perhaps one of the greatest ironies in the history of cinema, Brad Pitt literally tore his achilles tendon while making this film. Production of his scenes had to be halted for him to recover.)
Peterson sets this up well, with the beach landing scene towards the beginning of the film. James Horner’s score works well here, soaring and rhythmic to go along with the pulling oars on the Greeks’ triremes. The tension of the scene builds slowly, but keeps increasing. At one end, the sheer number of ships looming on the horizon is probably the worst sight that the men and women of Troy have ever seen. At the other end, by leading the landing without Agamemnon’s permission, Achilles appears to have recklessly maneuvered himself against impossible numbers on the beach – a suicidal maneuver that then actually succeeds. It’s not until the end of the battle that you realize how carefully orchestrated the whole thing was. Achilles, in conformity with his ego and desire for fame, has maneuvered himself so that his ship is clearly leading all the rest of Agamemnon’s ships. He is first and in front of everyone else. He has aimed his landing straight at the temple of Apollo, the highest and most visible point of the entire beach. All the other men in all the other Greek ships can’t help but watch in awe as Achilles and his men fight at a disadvantage, running uphill in the sand and fighting their way against a larger force. Achilles here outruns the rest of his own men and alone fights his way up the steps of the temple of Apollo, mowing down every single opponent with an ease that seems theoretically impossible. (This scene also shows visually how quickly the Trojan War could end if Achilles is fighting.)
Here, Achilles has mastered the martial code. He can kill anyone and he can take anything he wants. He has dared to do the sorts of stunts that almost any other soldier dies doing. If you have any military training at all, you can’t help but admire the idea of a man doing this because you know how hard it would be. Every member of a trained military force has had to practice some form of hand-to-hand single combat. When you do that, you can’t help trying to be the one who can beat anyone else. Mathematically, every single soldier who tries this will fail – except one. Pitt’s Achilles has become that one. And Petersen’s Troy shows all this only as the introduction to his character.
As the film progresses, all Achilles’ grand talk about his name being remembered fades. There is a point in the film where Achilles, influenced by Briseis and her questioning of his “martial code” decides that he would like to marry, settle down and have a family. He even asks Briseis if she would be willing to leave the Trojan War with him. Homer’s Achilles eventually reaches this point at the end, partly because of Priam and partly because of the explicit influence of the gods. Pitt’s Achilles reaches it mostly because he learns to start loving a woman. Given that the film’s Briseis is developed enough to have this influence, it is not unbelievable that she could influence Achilles. One of the questions that the viewer is presented with is whether her influence will be enough at the end.
A Classical View of “Happy Endings”:
Hanson and Heath wrote:
“More poignantly, [Achilles] must live with the knowledge that his own anger, his own stubborn and selfish refusal to rejoin the fighting, led directly to Patroclus’ death. Patroclus, the more sensitive soul, took pity on the wounded and dying Greeks in desperate need of Achilles’ assistance, and so put on Achilles’ armor to fight in the place of the better man. When Patroclus is slain by Hector, Achilles loses all contact with humanity and begins a killing rampage that ends only with the vengeful slaughter of his great enemy. The cost of that revenge, Achilles long ago learned from his mother will be his own death soon to follow. Now, at the end of the epic, Achilles must learn and accept the consequences of his actions: ‘and Achilleus wept now for his own father now again / for Patroklos.’ (Il. 24.511-12).” (pg. 196)
Looking over both positive and negative reviews of Troy, almost every single one of them agree that the film’s best scene is where Peter O’Toole’s Priam visits the tent of Achilles. That this scene is such a high point in the movie coincides with the fact it is also probably the most powerful scene in the Iliad. O’Toole is masterful here, and his acting almost shines to Pitt’s disadvantage. But where Priam is noble, courageous and eloquent, Homer’s Achilles really does seem an emotional cripple beside him. During the scene Pitt does look at times as if he doesn’t know how to react. And yet it is difficult to imagine that that is not exactly how he would feel in real life. He is eventually overwhelmed. In the film there is an inner core to his character that only Priam can creach. Priam has an integrity and humanity that shows Achilles what a true king could be. Rick Kisonak (Film Threat) writes that in this single scene, “O’Toole does more to bring the production to life using only his ragged voice, lined face and innate style than Petersen’s FX crew can manage with all the software money can buy.” Only O’Toole’s Priam confirms every suspicion that Achilles has acted rashly, arrogantly and selfishly. There is no doubt that Achilles himself sees this by the end of the scene.
A Classical View of Vengeance:
“Hector fights not merely for honor but to protect a loving wife, infant son, and cherished parents and homeland, to defend a cause that is indefensible. He is the last and only man between the murderous, revenging Greeks and the innocent women and children inside the walls of Troy. In fact, Agamemnon and Achilles himself – the leaders of Homer’s Greeks – are more morally ambiguous than any of the Trojans save Paris. And so Achilles’ killing of Hector – combined with his subsequent abuse of the corpse – raises questions about the nature of vengeance; instead of satisfying our blood lust for justifiable payback, we recoil that Achilles has gone too far … It is no wonder that this act of revenge brings Achilles – and the reader – little solace. We would all prefer to pay back our enemies in the glorious manner of Odysseus; in reality, we are more likely to feel a little empty, like Achilles, were we to do so.” (Hanson & Heath, pgs. 197-198)
Nothing rings more hollow that Achilles’ pursuit of vengeance against Hector. Arguably, more than half of modern action movies today glorify revenge in some form. Yet Troy is an anti-revenge film. When Achilles storms out to the gates of Troy, blind and deaf to the pleading of Briseis, too angry to even think about the goodness of Hector, his resolve is both intimidating and horrifying. There is no moral justification for what he decides to do, and Petersen never leads the audience to think that there might be.
If there is another single scene that is wonderfully handled by the filmmakers of Troyis the climatic single combat scene between Hector and Achilles. There have been many duels between warriors portrayed throughout the history of film. There are still even more of them to be found in history and literature. But before there was Darth Vader vs. Luke, before Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali, before Baron Richthofen vs. Captain Brown, before Wyatt Earp vs. the Clantons & McLaurys, before d’Artagnan vs. Rochefort, before Miyamoto Musashi vs. Sasaki Kojiro, before Mstislav the Brave vs. Prince Rededia, before Charlemagne vs. Baligant, before Roland vs. the Saracen, before Arthur vs. Mordred, before Beowulf vs. Grendel, before the Horatii vs. the Curiatii, before David vs. Goliath, there was Hector against Achilles.
Given the way that the film handles this one scene, I’m not sure that there is a single better one that exists on the movie screen. Nothing but timpani plays as these two fight. Part of this may be my own combat training, but if you have ever been trained in physical combat then you cannot help being in awe of the men in the past who used nothing but armor, spears, swords and shields to fight each other. It would have taken great mental and physical courage ever to do that. The odds of getting killed eventually seem so high, that it is almost unimaginable being given a sword and shield and then being expected to survive through mass hand-to-hand battles, let alone being matched up all alone against a champion. Pitt’s Achilles is perfect. During the fight scene with Hector, he doesn’t ever even need to catch his breath. He has made himself into the one warrior who can beat anyone.
But Eric Bana throws everything he’s got into playing this scene so enthusiastically that you can’t help feeling what Hector is feeling just a little. As the fight begins and then continues, he knows Achilles is better than he is, but he still tries because he believes what he is fighting for is right. Achilles is fighting for revenge. Hector is fighting for his country and family. He loses his breath but he keeps on the offensive. He starts to tire and charges Achilles again. He loses his footing and then gets back up to try again … and then try again … and then try again. With Bana’s enormous energy in the scene (in contrast to Pitt, who seems as if he might barely be expending a tenth of his energy) you start to believe that he might be able to do it. He keeps coming so close. Achilles’ leaps and lunges, that earlier you watched kill other men repeatedly, don’t work against Hector. Achilles jumps and Hector blocks him. Hector presses forward and Achilles meets him. Achilles stabs with lightning quickness and Hector knocks him aside. Bana somehow plays the scene where you think simultaneously that he is losing physical energy and summoning it back by sheer force of will, because he and he alone is the only one who can stop Achilles. If there was ever a fight scene of right against might, this is it – and after you see it, the scene sticks with you for a long time. I’m still awed by it ten years later. And one of the reasons the scene is awe-inspiring is because of its tragedy. It is a scene that never should have happened. These are two human beings who should never have been trying to kill each other. Find another single war movie where the fight at the climax between protagonist and antagonist has this sense to it. They are few and far between.
A Classical View of Divine Justice:
“But Achilles’ deepening awareness of the nature of the world reveals that the gods are fickle in their concern for human justice. The good suffer in the Iliad as well as the bad; the brave die just as quickly as the cowardly; prizes in this world go to those who do not earn them. It is precisely this context that Achilles reveals to Priam his new perspective …” (Hanson & Heath, pg. 200)
Say whatever you want about the gods and goddesses in the Iliad, but Homer does not make the reader appreciate or value their interference into human affairs. Anyone who loves the Iliad has to love it partly because of how it implies a higher moral law that is even higher than “the gods.” There is a point where this view of the immorality of the gods is even expressed by Achilles:
“‘The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow; on the floor of Jove’s palace there stand two urns, the one filled with evil gifts, and the other with good ones. He for whom Jove the lord of thunder mixes the gifts he sends, will meet now with good and now with evil fortune; but he to whom Jove sends none but evil gifts will be pointed at by the finger of scorn, the hand of famine will pursue him to the ends of the world, and he will go up and down the face of the earth, respected neither by gods nor men.” (Butler, Book XXIV, pgs. 321-322.)
Some 2004 film reviewers criticized the film for being agnostic or even of taking a dim view of “the gods.” But if they would read the Iliad, they would know that this dim view could be taken from Homer himself. When Pitt’s Achilles asks, “Why did you choose to love a god? I think you’ll find the romance one-sided,” he is referring to this dim view of the amorality of the capricious gods. Ares, the “god of war,” he reminds Briseis, “blankets his bed with the skin of men he’s killed.” How could such divine beings merit respect or obedience by any person with a sense of right and wrong? Such a moral sense would transcend even such “gods.”
A Classical View of Human Tragedy:
“Death and regeneration, anger and compassion, burial and feast, suffering and affirmation, ar the final images of the Iliad. Achilles suddenly sees before him, more clearly than any other, a great abyss, the limits imposed by the human condition itself. His heroic effort is to accept this rather bleak world with its death and sorrow, and to step ahead. This faith in the courage and dignity of the human spirit is reflected more universally in the glow the funeral pyre and feast in Troy … Perhaps only with the final book – after some fifteen thousand verses – can the first-time reader begin to make sense of Achilles’ ‘journey,’ to share his sudden awareness of the tragedy of human existence as the bond that unites us all.” (Hanson & Heath, pgs. 205-206)
In Troy, it is indeed tragedy that unites the Greek and Trojan. It is Priam’s sorrow over his son Hector that finally moves Achilles. In light of this, his past rage and vengeance seem silly and wasteful. They are fighting a war and now the best and most moral man in the war is dead. Achilles may have been the greatest warrior, but Hector was good in many ways where Achilles has not even come close. I cannot imagine what anyone who does not see this in that scene could possibly be thinking.
I mentioned earlier that the film’s single combat scenes were consistent with ancient military and epic traditions, however quaint they appear to us today. But the way that the film focuses in on single combats does more than follow Homeric tradition. It makes the war more personal. All the CGI’d soldiers clashing with thousands of other CGI’d soldiers in the world will never portray the real tragedy of war. There is a point where eagle eye views of thousands fighting thousands becomes entirely abstract. Instead, Troy makes you watch human personalities in single combat – yes, even in the midst of a battle of thousands. Neither does the camera move from single combat to single combat only to luridly dwell upon the bloody killing blow like it does in many battle scenes in other films. Instead, you feel every blow all the more because you are focusing on two human personalities. In Troy, when one character dies, it matters.
I’m asking the viewer to pause here and consider what it means to mock or reject a story that has things like single combat contrary to modern sensibilities. “Why don’t the archers on the walls just shoot Achilles?” one of my friends asked when were were watching the film. To scoff at Homer’s Iliad is, more often than not, to consider oneself morally superior to anyone who could have lived or appreciated that ancient world. Alberto Manguel, in his Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey: A Biography, pleads with us to stop judging the stories of Homer by modern standards:
“The chronology we have invented for ourselves prompts us to imagine that our sense of the world and of ourselves evolves, and that there is progress of feeling and imagination as there is development of technology and invention. We see ourselves as better than our ancestors, those savages of the Bronze Age who, though they wrought fine cups and bangles and sang beautiful songs, massacred each other in horrible wars, possessed slaves and raped women, ate without forks and conceived gods who threw thunderbolts. It is difficult for us to imagine that, such a long time ago, we already had words to name our most bewildering experiences and our deepest and most obscure emotions. The phantom figure we call Homer exists somewhere in the dark distance, like the ruins of a building whose shape and purpose we ignore. And yet, here and there … lie perhaps the inklings of an answer.” (pgs. 234-235.)
The answer, I think, lies in the value of human tragedy. We still kill today for the sake of vengeance. Prosecutors in our own criminal courts still use “retribution” as one the justifications of punishment and sentencing. The modern day battlefield, with all its technological improvements, still has countless fatalities ultimately caused by human pride, human incompetence and often a very real human thirst for revenge. The Iliad is a story of an avenger who learns to have empathy for his enemy’s sorrow. It is a story of how good men can die for a pointless cause. It is a story of how widows and orphans are still made even today. Our morality has not changed or improved since the days of Homer.
I appreciate how the film increases the moral influence that Briseis has on Achilles. By simply voicing her point of view, she makes much of what Achilles focuses upon ring hollow. “Why did you choose this life?” she asks him. “What life?” he responds, not comprehending. “To be a great warrior?” (this may be the best delivery of a line that Rose Byrne gives during the whole film, combining sadness, curiosity and mockery all into a single tone of voice). Achilles’s answer to her question is both nonsensical and referential: “I chose nothing. I was born and this is what I am.” At first it sounds like a poor attempt by the scriptwriter to sound deep, hammering home once again the endlessly repeated themes of fate and destiny. But if you think back to the beginning of the film, Achilles answer is not entirely true. He made a choice after his mother’s prophecy. And now Briseis is about to convince him to make another choice. When he attempts to wax eloquently about how death and mortality makes everything more valuable and more beautiful, he doesn’t even phase Briseis. “I thought you were dumb brute,” she replies. “I could have forgiven a dumb brute.” No other character speaks like this to Achilles.
For all the talk about fate, destiny, fame and glory, the Trojan War was still a great waste of human life. And for all our modern day talk of human rights, weapons of mass destruction, red lines and the judgments of history, we still see great wastes of human life today. We still can cause great pain and suffering by our exercise of political power. We are not bound to do so. We are not forced to do so. And yet we do so still. In fact, compared to the Trojan war, our wars seem to be growing worse and worse with each new historical age. Simone Weil, in her wonderful essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” attempts to explain this theme:
“The relations between destiny and the human soul, the extent to which each soul creates its own destiny, the question of what elements in the soul are transformed by merciless necessity as it tailors the soul to fit the requirements of shifting fate, and of what elements can on the other hand be preserved, through the exercise of virtue and through grace – this whole question is fraught with temptations to falsehood, temptations that are positively enhanced by pride, by shame, by hatred, contempt, indifference, by the will to oblivion or to ignorance.”
These are the big ideas that both the the literary work, the Iliad, and the cinematic work, Troy, are about. Human pride and human greed are causes of unjust wars. As a result, less powerful people often seem bound to untimely and undeserved ill fates. Even the powerful, the great and the strong can find themselves up against irreversible circumstances. That Achilles the soldiers stands up to his unjust commander is heroic and inspiring. That Hector defends what he loves with all of his strength against any odds is quixotic and inspiring. That many characters, including Achilles, are blinded by their own vices and that their mistakes cause the deaths of even those they love is a problem that humanity always seems to repeat over and over again. So when you think about Troy, you don’t have to demand that it be as deep as Homer’s epic poem, but you can also appreciate how the classical themes and values imbedded in it make it different from other war films.
Remember, 2004 alone was the year that gave us a number of historically based films trying to be seen as epics, including King Arthur (a film that plays with the historical Arthur, but then kills off half the characters before the story can even begin, including battle scene after battle scene after battle scene) and Alexander (where Stone bungles the most interesting part of the story, Alexander the Great’s tactical genius, and instead spends a great deal of screentime on Alexander languorously making doe eyes at Jared Leto). Most grand-sweeping-CGI-armies-on-the-battlefield-from-helicopter-view war films do not have complex characters. They are not personal. They very often do not have fight scenes between a protagonist and antagonist who are both cared about by the audience. Even more rare is that they usually do not portray wars between characters who, on both sides, are genuinely attempting to grow in practicing the old virtues. Troy does all this and more. Weil continues:
“Moreover, nothing is so rare as to see misfortune fairly portrayed; the tendency is either to treat the unfortunate person as though catastrophe were his natural vocation, or to ignore the effects of misfortune on the soul, to assume, that is, that the soul can suffer and remain unmarked by it, can fail, in fact, to be recast in misfortune’s image. The Greeks, generally speaking, were endowed with spiritual force that allowed them to avoid self-deception. The rewards of this were great; they discovered how to achieve in all their acts the greatest lucidity, purity, and simplicity. But the spirit that was transmitted from the Iliad to the Gospels by way of the tragic poets never jumped the borders of Greek civilization; once Greece was destroyed, nothing remained of this spirit but pale reflections.”
Simplicity of character and theme are, paradoxically, also strengths of Troy. While your major human personality types are almost all represented, and while someone like Achilles has a complexity to his character that is difficult to plumb, sometimes the simple and the true can also be something to cherish. Personally, Eric Bana delivers one of my favorite performances of his in this film (the other being in Munich). He does not need great complexity of personality to be interesting. It is quite true, as Ebert hinted, that some heroes can be plain, straightforward and single-minded.
Like the Iliad, one of Troy’s greatest strengths by far is the character of Hector. Eric Bana inhabits him and delivers all the best qualities that you could ask for in a hero – strength, discernment, courtesy, gentleness, kindness, determination, courage, love for his family, love for his country, realism and, above all, a profound moral sense of what is occurring around him … and what to do about it. When his brother is unthinking, Hector already anticipates and does his best to prevent the harm that Paris can cause. When the entire court of the king agrees to act rashly, Hector is the only one willing to stand up to them and explain practical realities, however unpopular they may be. When Ajax and slaughtering every Trojan within reach, Hector goes within his reach. When no one is thinking ahead about how to save or protect family, Hector is willing to plan even for the worst for those he loves.
He is, above all, a good man. He doesn’t care about gaining more political power. He wants to spend time with his family and love his wife and son. He’s willing to continually place himself in harm’s way. And, when up against the very worst of odds, he is the only Trojan willing to meet them. In the film, Bana gets all this right and more. He indicates what he’s thinking simply by looking in the right place (where no one else is looking). He speaks softly in scenes where other actors would have raged. His resolve is unassailable, whether confronted with Paris’s naivety, Achilles’s shocking obsession with eternal fame, the folly of his father’s advisors or all the force and threats that Agamemnon can muster. There is no hint of bitterness with his relation to his brother or even with Helen. He is quick to rebuke falsehood or injustice and he is quick to forgive and show gentleness.
The film introduces his character with his rebuke to Paris’s declarations about his latest romance. It is a ringing rebuke that could be made to many a young person in today’s modern hook-up culture. When Paris declares “I love her!” all Hector can do is groan. “It’s all a game to you, isn’t it? You roam from town to town bedding merchant’s wives and temple maids and you think you know something about love. What about your father’s love? You spat on him when you brought her on this ship! What about the love for your country?” This is not hard to understand. It is quite old-fashioned and traditional. Some viewers may find a character like this boring, but I wish there were more characters like this around today. Even Hector himself admits to his own simplicity. Unlike many a before battle speech scene in a film (and even here, Brad Pitt is forced to deliver a rather unintelligible one), Hector is a man of few words. “Trojans! All my life, I’ve lived by a code and the code is simple. Honor the gods. Love your woman. And defend your country.” For him, that is enough and he expects it to be enough for his men. When exposed to Achilles’ obsession, Hector gives the basic and common sense response: “You speak of war as if it’s a game. But how many wives wait inside Troy’s gates for husbands they’ll never see again?” Achilles retorts with a joke, but Hector’s point remains.
Hector’s character is so strong (and Bana’s presence charismatically fills it), that much of the story really revolves around him. And the mere fact that he does not always persuade or succeed does not detract from his stature. Even when he fails or loses, Hector does so gracefully and does not cease to be the moral voice that profoundly affects everyone else. This is because he is in the right. He gives Priam his confidence. He gives Paris opportunities to grow into someone better than he is. He refuses to even consider Agamemnon’s offers. He is kind to Helen and explains to her that she is less a cause than an excuse. He grieves over what he does in battle. He loves his wife and child. And he is the one Trojan willing to stop even Achilles himself. Moreover, those of us who appreciate Hector are not alone. In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton wrote:
“Achilles had some status as a sort of demigod in pagan times; but he disappears altogether in later times. But Hector grows greater as the ages pass; and it is his name that is the name of a Knight of the Round Table and his sword that legend puts into the hand of Roland, laying about him with the weapon of the defeated Hector in the last ruin and splendour of his own defeat. The name anticipates all the defeats through which our race and religion were to pass; that survival of a hundred defeats that is its triumph.” (pg. 80)
Because of the universal appeal of Hector’s being in the right and because of the lasting value of the themes in this story, I expect that Troy will be valued as a film more in the future than it was when it was first released. It is not perfect. There is so much more that Petersen could have done. But then, Petersen would have had to make a twelve hour film instead of a three hour one. I still glad that he made the three hour one. Perhaps someday, a great director, with a vision for how mythology can resonant and shape the ways in which we view the world around us, will make a masterpiece of a film based upon the Iliad. Until then, at least we have one decent production that gives us an ideal warrior who does not become right by becoming mighty. At least here, we have a war film that questions the assumptions of the martial code, that does not resort to reductionist unmessy endings not to be hoped for in real life, that does not glorify vengeance, that shows revenge to be pointless, harmful and vain, that insists upon a higher standard of justice even in the face of divine or religious claims to the contrary, that can find grace in the face of human tragedy and that values the old-fashioned hero who is not right because he succeeds. Some stories may indeed echo across history, and this film may be one of those echoes, but it is not the echoing itself that is valuable. Instead, it is the moral and imaginative substance of what crosses historical ages. Petersen’s film manages to preserve at least a few of those substantive classical ideas. In most of today’s action films, as a rule, they are not easy to find.