So who’s right about Troy (the movie, not the upstate New York town)–me or The Other Charlotte? (Read me here and TOC here and here.) TOC liked the movie more than I did (although I made an exception for the brilliantly choreographed battle scenes), but we both agree on one thing: Director Wolfgang Peterson’s recasting of Homer’s Iliad (plus a little Odyssey and Aeneid) has a distinct anti-Iraq War subtext, in which the Greeks are imperialist baddies and the Trojans peace-loving Mideasterners.
TOC thinks the subtext is embodied in Achilles’ mother, Thetis (Julie Christie), whom director Wolfgang Peterson changed from the water-goddess who dipped her son in the river Styx to make him invincible in battle into a gray-haired Million Mom who wishes Achilles wouldn’t get into fights because war doesn’t solve anything.. I think the subtext is embodied in Briseis, whom Peterson changed from a sexy captive widow into a yacky proto-feminist who also wishes Achilles wouldn’t get into fights because war doesn’t solve anything.
There’s one other thing TOC and I agree on: our enthusiastic recommendation of Andrew Stuttaford’s review of “Troy” for National Review Online. Stuttaford also spots the anti-Iraq War message. We were there first (don’t you forget!)–but Stuttaford did his homework, unearthing this statement to the press by director Peterson:
“Nothing has changed in 3,000 years. People are still using deceit to engage in wars of vengeance. Just as King Agamemnon waged what was essentially a war of conquest on the ruse of trying to rescue the beautiful Helen from the hands of the Trojans, President George W. Bush concealed his true motives for the invasion of Iraq.”
Yes, and that’s why your movie went awry, Wolfgang. As Stuttaford points out, Wolfgang’s problem was that he didn’t have confidence in his story, so he felt a need to dress it up with supposed contemporary relevance. Peterson decided to leave out the gods, who are principal actors in Homer’s and Virgil’s retellings of the Trojan War. Like many moderns, Peterson deems gods and religion to be “silly,” so they couldn’t have been important to the plot of, say, the Iliad or the Aeneid. Stuttaford writes:
“The gods were central not only to the arc of Homer’s glorious enchantment, but to its meaning. To the Greeks fate was capricious, often unfair and frequently unkind. The good could perish miserably, and the bad could prevail. All that man could do was his best. His best hope was to be remembered well. And it is there we find the tragedy of Hector (a good man despite the rather problematic treatment of the dead Patroclus) as he does battle with Achilles, son of the sea nymph Thetis, a battle he could not win (go for the heel!), a battle against a man who was all but invulnerable (go for the heel! Go for the heel!), a man who was being helped by a goddess. And this tragedy is an echo of the tragedy that lies at the heart of the Iliad, the tragedy of the individual helpless before fate. To be sure, that’s not dissimilar to the belief of modern, secular man, recognizing, at last, that we are adrift in an indifferent universe, but even that bleak view has its own bleak comforts. Our universe at least isn’t out to get us. The Greeks, believing in fickle gods who turned hostile on a whim, could never be so sure.”
Before he embarked on “Troy,” Peterson should have dipped into Bryn Mawr classicist (and Black Athena debunker) Mary Lefkowitz’s fine new book, Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn From Myths, which makes many of Stuttaford’s points. Too bad he didn’t, and that he didn’t trust his Homeric material, because instead of wasting his considerable cinematographic talents on a sentimental anti-Bush screed that will be forgotten next year, Wolfgang Peterson could have crafted a powerful filmic retelling of a story of the fall of the mighty that no will ever forget.