A Hollywood blockbuster starring Brad Pitt and a book by award-winning novelist Lindsay Clarke both attempt to bring Homer’s Trojan War to new popular audiences. How successful are they?
The movie is visually spectacular. The computer-generated images – of the Greek fleet’s amphibious assault, of armies battling on the plain of Troy, of fires raging across the stricken city – are up to standard. Some of the cameo roles (Julie Christie as Thetis, divine mother of Achilles) and small parts (Peter O’Toole as Priam, king of Troy) are excellent. And, with fast-paced action and sharply drawn characters, even at 2 hours 40 minutes, the film is gripping throughout. But the Trojan War is such a cracking good story – of love and war, of betrayal, vengeance and remorse, and of the terrible tragedy of human history – that it would be hard to make it dull. But, however momentarily engaging, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is not Homer’s.
It is not that the material culture depicted is not Mycenaean. Were Troy an historical epic, that might have jarred. Like background music, which should fit so well as to be barely noticed, costumes, props and sets should look right to avoid being a distraction. But with Homer there is no right, for his Trojan War is a myth, an oral epic poem centuries-old but constantly remodelled, in which gods and heroes are decked out in the garb of different ages. Achilles is a 12th century hero who fights with 10th century weapons in pursuit of 8th century goals. It is good and fitting, therefore, that the material culture in the film is a mish-mash: the Greeks look a bit like archaic hoplites, while the Trojans wear eastern-looking armour. In representing a mythic confrontation between East and West, that is fine.
The problem is with the false value system and the recasting of the story it necessitates. One can almost imagine the shaking of heads in a Warner Brothers executive suite when early versions were discarded. So instead of a ruthless killing-machine pursuing personal glory, we have an Achilles who is reflective, sensitive, and the caring lover of a slave-girl. Without that burning homosexual passion for Patroclus, we are left perplexed by the murderous fury that overcomes the hero at the loss of a mere ‘cousin’. Brad Pitts’ insipid performance is hardly surprising: his character has been gutted in the screenplay.
Some of the women are also weak. Helen (Diane Kruger), one of the most fascinating and richly debated characters in western literature, is a cardboard cut-out in soft-focus. Given the complexity of (male) portrayals of women in Greek myth, this is surely a dramatic opportunity lost. And whatever happened to the splendid Cassandra, a beautiful young woman possessed by the god of prophecy but fated to be disbelieved by those whose doom she foresaw? Without this character, representing the chilling relentlessness of fate, debates – like that on whether to drag the wooden horse inside Troy – become lacklustre affairs, drained of dramatic tension.
Troy looks good, but it is sword-and-sandals without a soul, probably because it tries to retell Homer’s story through characters purged of Homeric values. Perhaps the thing cannot be done. The Greeks were not like us. So alien is their culture – from the sickening brutality and selfishness of their heroes, to the psychotic hatred of women that permeates their myth, to the cowering fear of divine retribution that hovered menacingly over all their endeavours – that Homer in any form may be unpalatable to modern audiences.
Lindsay Clarke’s The War at Troy (Harper Collins, £17.99) suggests otherwise. The novel is a brilliantly intricate weaving together of mythological stories from the Judgement of Paris to the Sack of Troy. Whereas Homer’s Iliad describes the events of just ten days and is dominated by scenes of savage fighting, Clarke’s Troy is the complete myth-history of a doomed generation. With Homer, we are so waist-deep in blood that we are numbed – even bored – by it; and there is little else, for the warlords of 8th century Greece, for whom Homer sang, had tastes that were simple and crude. Clarke, writing for a modern audience, has created something special: an authentic version of the myths, but one peopled not by superhuman ‘heroes’ so much as human beings whose motives, fears and interpersonal clashes make them all too real. There is the obsessive desire of a youth (Paris) for a beautiful woman; the yearning of a young woman (Helen), honourable but bored, for excitement and passion; the embittered anger of a decent and simple man (Menelaus) at betrayal by his wife and his friend; the scheming of a cynical politician (Agamemnon); the arrogance of a boorish young thug (Achilles); and the pathos of a frail old man (Priam) whose sons are slaughtered before him. As the scene changes, the mood shifts, from the eroticism of Helen’s bed to the killing-fields in front of Troy. Yet everything intermeshes, forming a web of traps and tragedies, one that is true to Homer, to the Greek myths, and, in a sense, to history itself.
Clarke has been criticised for not knowing Greek and for relying heavily on Robert Graves’ famous compendium The Greek Myths. This from an academic reviewer, who is concerned that ‘Graves, not Homer, is Clarke’s main ‘ancient’ source’. I despair! Lindsay Clarke, whose award-winning The Chymical Wedding delved deeply into medieval alchemy, has had a lifelong interest in myth and the arcane arts; and he is an outstandingly good novelist. Who better, then, to translate the mindset of the ancient Greeks into a modern novel? Surely not the average Oxbridge classicist!
I am often asked to suggest a good introduction to Greek myth. Homer is hard work. Collections of stories lack coherence. Academic studies are turgid. Now, finally, I know what to suggest. Lindsay Clarke’s The War at Troy is the finest modern telling of the Greek myths I have ever read. It is also, from the sources, a veritable archaeology of the ancient Greek thought-world.
Here is a taster. At the end of it all – after ten exhausting years of war – Menelaus confronts Helen in the chaos of Troy’s destruction, and raises his sword to exact long-postponed vengeance.
Spattered with the blood of the corpse lying next to her, Helen was whimpering into her hands like a child. As Menelaus looked across at her, she clutched the sheet up to her mouth. … As though at last consenting to the sacrifice, Helen draws down the sheet … so that first her neck and throat, and then her shoulders and the soft hollows of her collarbones, and finally her breasts, are bared. Menelaus stands over her. Time passes. Outside, in the lower city, fire has begun to spread from house to house, adding to the terror and confusion of the night; and closer, among the stately squares and gardens of the citadel, the streets are loud with screams.
This is Greek tragedy in the classic style: it rarely comes better.
– Neil Faulkner
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 6. Click here to subscribe