A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How do all the Troy productions stack up?
It's getting crowded at Troy these days. In addition to the motion picture with Brad Pitt as Achilles, there are at least four television programs out there. There's the movie, there's History Channel and National Geographic documentaries, something on A&E, and there's In Search of the Trojan War. Here's a review of some of these. (See Manfred Korfmann's article "Was there a Trojan War?" on this website for the real story.)
Troy is a violent film. Homer's great poem the Iliad is cut and hacked mercilessly in it, while the evidence of the archaeological record is helpless before its onslaught. Where to start in discussing this? Let's do this critique in just three paragraphs (it could go on for pages): the archaeology, the story, then briefly the movie as a movie.
I'll start with the archaeology because it is in a sense window dressing for the story of the Trojan War. The Iliad is the most powerful of the cycle of epic poems that together tell of the war from start to finish, and it is one of the greatest works of literature. Like any great story, you could transfer it to other settings, other times or places, and remain true to it (like Romeo and Juliet being rewritten as West Side Story). So archaeology here is providing the setting or context, and presumably the filmmakers intended something to match what Homer described. Homer, who belongs in the eighth century B.C., told of events long before, around 1200 B.C., toward the end of the Late Bronze, which is when the ancient Greeks said the Trojan War took place. So we might expect some unity in the archaeological setting, with things matching what we know about material culture in the Aegean world ca. 1200 B.C., but instead we get a chronological train wreck. I'll limit myself to a few of the most outrageous examples: the ships look to be of eighth-century design (see photos); statues that litter the Troy of this film are pretty ghastly creations that are apparently inspired by sixth- and fifth-century B.C. sculptures (see photos); Trojan princesses in one scene sport jewelry that belongs in the Early Bronze Age, a full millennium before this story takes place; and coins are dutifully placed on the eyes of all the heroes who get killed in the movie, never mind that coins won't be invented for another five or six centuries. We might also expect some correspondence between the physical setting of the movie and the places it takes us, such as Troy. The city of Troy is increasingly well known and we have a good idea of its appearance, thanks to the Troia Projekt (University of Tubingen and University of Cincinnati) excavation and the virtual reality based on it; the filmmakers, however, must have wanted something more spectacular (see photos). Troy's intimidating outer wall in the film, which I take to be 40 or 50 feet in height with higher towers, is a fiction (they didn't have siege engines for battering down walls in the Late Bronze Age, so walls on that scale would have been a colossal waste). There's evidence for a ditch enclosing the lower city at Troy, but here drama trumps reality. So the archaeology in this film is a double miss in terms of unity of time and place. Some of the inaccuracies are understandable from the point of view of the filmmakers--having Achilles standing below 50-foot-tall walls and calling out for Hektor may make for a better shot than having him stand on the far side of a ditch. But others of these errors, like the coins, are just ugly; they don't help the movie. Why not get it right? And it was a relief to see that many of the silly statues are smashed during the sack of Troy (an especially goofy Apollo statue gets it early in the film, providing a light moment).
Clearly Homer had the story of the Trojan War wrong and it had to be rewritten, to judge by changes (I can't say improvements) this movie makes. Homer says it took ten years, but here it is three weeks with the famous quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles taking place on day one. Hektor kills Menelaos and Ajax on day two of the war (Homer's having Menelaos surviving the war and returning to live happily in Sparta with Helen is awkward, and the suicide of Ajax isn't really needed for this movie). On the night of day two, the Trojans unleash their secret weapon: Great Balls of Fire! Day three, Hektor is such a good guy that after he kills Patroklos, the young protege of Achilles, he suggests everybody knock off for the rest of the day. By the end of day four, Achilles kills Hektor and Priam can come and beg for his son's body. Where Homer took more than nine years, the film gets it all done in just four days. For the grand finale, the filmmakers aren't satisfied with just the horse and the sack of Troy. In the epics, Achilles is dead and gone by the time the wooden horse is built, but here he is still alive so he can search for his love interest, Briseis. Attacked by Agamemnon, Briseis kills him (never mind the ancient tale of Agamemnon returning to Greece to be killed by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra and then be avenged by his children Orestes and Electra). Paris then shoots Achilles with arrows (five or six, I lost count) before scampering off with his love interest, Helen, to live the simple life somewhere--maybe subsisting on nuts and twigs on the slopes of Mount Ida. That's right! Helen and Paris get to run away! Homer had it wrong! Hektor's wife Andromache makes good her escape, with their son, too. Best of all, Paris gives the "sword of Troy" to Aeneas who also escapes and sets out to found Rome. 'Tis a far, far happier ending than Homer and the ancients devised (mostly enslavement, death, revenge, and the like). Those are the main points where the script is unlike any other telling of thee Trojan War, but there's lots more: Achilles doesn't come to the army as depicted, Briseis is a slave not a priestess of Apollo, etc., etc., etc. What's the impact of all this rewriting? Homer's Iliad is a profound work about what it is to be human; this is not. Homer's message is here diluted by a rather insipid rendering of boy-meets girl, and the narrative of the epics is shuffled about drastically in many places for little effect.
Looking at this simply as a movie, and this is purely personal reaction, some of the characters were well portrayed others not so well portrayed. Hektor and Andromache are okay; Helen gets better over the course of the film. Paris is acceptable. Priam (Peter O'Toole) looks a bit like a stunned mullet in some scenes. Brad Pitt seems to try very hard as Achilles. But his lines are sometimes not so good ("Let no man forget how menacing we are," he exclaims, in case the audience needs reminding) and maybe the role was beyond him, or at least the Achilles of Homer was beyond him. This movie is not great, which doesn't mean it might not make pots of money, but given $200 million to play with, the filmmaker could have come up with something better. Hopefully some people might actually be inspired to read the Iliad after seeing this. But the few that do will be far outnumbered by the millions who see this film and leave the theater thinking they have seen something that reflects the time and place and events that inspired Homer. Granted that a summer blockbuster is not the same as a documentary, this film could have been more accurate and truer to Homer without sacrificing mass appeal.
HIstory Channel's "The True Story of Troy" will be broadcast on Sunday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m. It has some very nice elements and a few misleading or otherwise not so good ones. They did talk to the right people. There are nice sections on current work at Troy featuring excavation director Manfred Korfmann and his colleagues in field at the site, and discussion about who found the site with Susan Allen, champion of its true discoverer, Frank Calvert, over Heinrich Schliemann. Others who appear include Getzel Cohen of the University of Cincinnati, who gives lots of background information, and classicist Robert Garland who is filmed by a campfire on a beach. Highlights include the work at Troy, early film of oral poets in the Balkans, discussion of human sacrifice in the Late Bronze Age, and Garland's fireside chat about the Iliad. A U.S. Army general, who specializes in the study of ancient warfare, comments on the Homeric code of honor. Less satisfactory is the hamfisted and oversimplified comparison of the Trojan War with Iraq. There's also some problems with props: the so-called mask of Agamemnon and inlaid daggers from Mycenae are centuries too early for the Trojan War, but appear over and over. There are some ancient and historical images of the war--vase paintings, mosaics, and such--but the documentary relies too much on costumed actors. Some are re-enacted scenes (the sacrifice of Iphigenia, with an inlaid dagger; Schliemann adorning his wife with the Trojan gold jewelry). Then there are mood bits (lots of red-lighted battle scenes, one overly used of some guy twirling a couple of swords as he spins around) that are over the top. The re-enactments can be annoying beyond overuse. For example, University of Cincinnati scholars Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis are shown at the Mycenaean palace site of Pylos discussing evidence for a bull sacrifice and feast. Unfortunately the scene dissolves to a re-creation that's pretty much a toga party. But there's good stuff here--listen to what the various archaeologists have to say, and listen to Garland's thoughts about the (you'll get there what you won't get from the Troy film).
National Geographic's Beyond the Movie: Troy, a DVD that came out in April, is available online through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the like ($24.98). It is a very slick production. The scholars involved include Jack Davis and C. Brian Rose of the University of Cincinnati (the latter co-directs the current excavations at Troy), and Eric Cline, a specialist in trade in the Late Bronze Age. Highlights include Rose explaining the archaeological evidence at Troy--two destruction levels in the Late Bronze Age, the second with arrowheads indicating it was caused by an attack rather than a fire or earthquake--and how that fits into what we know about the Late Bronze Age and what Homer describes. Cline makes the interesting suggestion that the Trojan Horse might have been a reference to an earthquake, since Poseidon--the sea god who is also known as "Earthshaker"--had the horse as his particular animal (like Athena and her owl). Also nice are clips from the 1930s excavation of the site. Not so nice are re-enactments, especially the duel between Achilles and Hektor wearing brightly polished armor as they hack at each other with shiny steel swords. The production ends with an unparalleled cloud of purple prose ("Everything Schliemann touched seemed to turn to gold, but everything this gold touched seemed to fall.")
If you choose to see Troy, enjoy the movie, but leave your copy of Homer and your archaeological texts at home. Either the History Channel or National Geographic production will get you closer to reality, though neither is without flaws. For more on the movie Troy look for the commentary "Assessing the Evidence for the Trojan Wars," on the Archaeological Institute of America's website by C. Brian Rose, one of the directors of the current excavations at the site and a professor at the University of Cincinnati, and see the Troia Projekt site.