The Difference Between Hollywood's Troy and Homer's

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Palaima is professor of classics in the College of Liberal Arts at University of Texas at Austin.

'Do you know what a man is? Is not / birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood, / learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality, / and such like, the spice and salt that season a man?" -- Shakespeare,"Troilus and Cressida"

"But Hippolochus / Bore me, and I am proud he is my father./ He sent me to Troy with strict instructions / To be the best ever, better than all the rest, / And not bring shame on the race of my fathers." Homer -- Iliad 6.211-215, Lombardo translation

A few years back, very wealthy donors wanted to back a project to promote Hellenic culture in the United States. I had an idea. I invited my friend Bill Broyles to lunch. Bill is an intelligent man, directly experienced in the ways of war and the ways of the world. He is plain-spoken and wise. Some of you may recently have read his splendid editorial on the virtues of mandatory national service. The former Austinite is also a good myth-maker. His Hollywood screen-writing credits include Castaway and Apollo 13.

I asked Bill,"Could Hollywood do an Iliad?" I explained that it had never been done, that two readable and moving translations of Homer's epic had just appeared, that part of one translation had been successfully staged off-Broadway. We then discussed what we both already knew.

The Iliad contains everything about war: real courage, real cowardice, real command failures, real command genius, real self-seeking, real self-sacrifice, real equipment malfunction, real logistical mistakes, real supply shortages, real bad luck, real good luck, real love of family, real love of friends, real love of brothers in arms, real love of country, real hatred, real sorrow, real pity, real wisdom, real folly, real enemies, real death, real ugliness, real beauty, real fog and real clarity, and, yes, even real gods. Let me repeat that: real gods. Just as real as the God proclaimed in Exodus (King James version):"The Lord is a man of war: The Lord is his name." Real gods who inscrutably shape and shake human lives.

The Iliad is real, and it taught Greeks, young and old, what they needed to know about war. It helped them to understand what it is like to attack in an army and to be attacked. Because they knew the Iliad, Greeks who were coming of age for obligatory military service knew what war was. War was a grim necessity. War could confer honor and glory and make a man a hero, a woman a heroine. War could break and ruin good human beings, forever, and bring death to innocents.

This is why I spend four weeks on the Iliad in my mythology classes. This semester, students who are veterans back from Iraq, or husbands or wives or friends of soldiers there, told me that the Iliad helped them understand their own experiences and feelings.

Bill thought a bit and said,"It could be done, but it would have to be done as Planet of the Apes or something like that."

What Bill meant was that a high-dollar Hollywood production would be ruinous. Economic forces would make the film a spectacle, rather than a valuable myth. But if the story were translated into a different setting and filmed at a modest budget, the core values of the Iliad might be communicated.

Alas, Bill has proved more accurate than the Greek seer Calchas. I have been involved in a Discovery Channel documentary related to the film Troy, and I saw the film last night. Economic forces turned a potentially fine documentary into a two-hour promotion for the film, with four or five good moments of edu-tainment.

As to Troy itself, my reactions have little to do with changes in the plot of the Iliad. In"Troilus and Cressida," Shakespeare plays as freely with the plot as Hollywood. The Greeks are in the seventh year of the siege. Achilles' comrade Patroclus has parodistic acting talents. Ajax is as alienated as Achilles. So a film version that makes the entire war at Troy last, by my reckoning, 15 days (instead of 10 years), that kills off Menelaus on the first day of battle (instead of having him return home with Helen), and that lets Helen and Paris and Hector's wife and child escape, would be OK -- if the changes amounted to something.

What they amount to is summed up, unfortunately, in Brad Pitt's reply -- it is certainly not Achilles' -- to the question of why he has come to Troy. Pitt says he wants what every man wants. He wants more.

If you see the film, ask yourself,"More of what?"

This article was first published in the Austin American-Statesman and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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More Comments:

Sean Barrett - 5/27/2004

After reading all the comments, I enjoyed the idea that there are at least a few individuals out there that have the ability to look at this movie in more than one light. Though I have not seen it yet, I plan to enjoy it as a movie first before renting it and disecting it.

One of my other hopes is that this movie will encourage others to go back to Homer and read the original. I agree that The Lord of the Rings is going to be the standard of classic adaptation. Technology has made it to where any work is possible, could you imagine Dante?

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/22/2004

Ben -- Thanks. That's probably the way movies are best discussed -- somewhat informal, critical but fair, hopefully some cleverness, etc.

Allison -- Yeah, I'd fork out the ten bucks for the sequal too. I'm the sort of sucker Hollywood likes to see coming, I guess. But I'll get them in the end -- I'll make snarky comments on a website!


Allison de Seve - 5/22/2004

I have to say the best part of the movie was the moment when Paris turned to a random boy with an old man hanging over his shoulder and asked his name, and, receiving the response "Aeneas," thrusts the sword of Troy at him. Sequel, anyone? Or maybe a trilogy (those are terribly popular lately), with the Odyssey?
I agree that it was entertaining, though it's too bad they couldn't have done more with one of the greatest books ever written.... Hector really was very good though, wasn't he? And they did do justice, I think, to the scene between Priam and Achilles (but then, Peter O'Toole does justice to most things).
The music was pretty dreadful, though, and some of the dialogue embarassing. But overall, if a movie with a title some variation on The Odyssey were to come out next year, I'd fork out the ten bucks to see it.

Ben H. Severance - 5/20/2004

Thanks, Derek. You response was akin to the way a friend and I conversed after seeing the film. Grab a beer and shoot the shit over what we liked and disliked.

I know there were plenty of artistic liberties and inaccuracies. One in particular irked me (and thousands of others): the number of combatants in the computer generated wide-screen battle scenes looked more like the beach assaults in the "Longest Day" than anything the Greeks could ever have mobilized. As Priam watched the armada approach I couldn't help but think of the German Commander at Omaha shouting into his bunker phone, "They're coming straight at me!"

Still, there were plenty of scenes I liked (and that's often what I end up getting from movies these days--a handful of memorable scenes as opposed to a complete movie). The Menelaus-Paris fight and the Hector-Achilles dual. Why do Americans love individual combat so much? The honor and romance of it? I also thought the film nicely assumed a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the viewer, particularly the under-stated importance of Odysseus and his horse.

But anyway, it was an entertaining film, much like the recent "Alamo." I would like to watch a genuinely challenging historical movie some time soon, though.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/19/2004

Ben --
I think we all get tripped up with the question of criticizing someone for what we wish they had written and not what they actually wrote. I guess it's a pitfall of the profession!
I tried to read a bit of late since seeing the movie. my problems with the film do not come down to questions of history or Homer's writing really -- Homer wrote approximately five centuries after a war that no one can even prove happened. The movie certainly takes liberties with Homer's work, but that work was also 16,000 lines long, and to be fair, it isn't as if all sixteen thousand of those lines flow like butter, classic status notwithstanding. Further, others are allowed to conceptualize what we hardly even know happened.
My problem, though, came down to a series of issues: 1) the dialogue is just wretched at times. We get it -- this is epic, it is about men fighting. But every single line was so purposefully hypermasculine, it was like three hours of my high school football coaches' pregame speeches. I mean, didn't these guys tell fart jokes sometimes or something? 2) James Horner's score was just too much. It seems anachronistic at times, obtrusive at others, and just damned annoying for the rest. 3) While Homer does a fantastic job of conveying ambivalence toward all of the major players, he does it with far greater and more sophisticated effect than the movie, which seems a bit hamhanded. though it also does at least try to capture this essence -- it's hard to know who to root for, which in its way is brave for a Hollywood film. 4) For better or worse, Lord of the Rings raised the bar for these sorts of films, especially when it comes to battle scenes. I am hardly squeamish, but I thought the violence in Troy was gratuitous without being at all artful. Plus, they had far too many close up shots that were intended, I am sure, to try to show us the chaos of hand to hand battle (look -- his throat was slit! His eye was gored! But whose eye was it? Which side was he on! It's all so confusing!) but that instead merely served to be vertiginous after a while.
But I also did not think it was awful. As I've been telling people, they were aiming for Braveheart, would have settled for Gladiator, may have come closer to The Patriot. Thus it was not horrible, but when you have epic designs you'd better have some followthrough. I thought the movie did a decent job with some of the politics. For all of the deviations, it also had many parts that tried to be faithful to Homer's spirit, if not his literal words. Of course, I am nowhere near a Homer, classics, or ancient history scholar, so the little deviations might bug others as it bugs me when moviemakers screw up, misinterpret, or just plain change historical things in areas I study. Unlike a lot of reviewers, especially on blogs, who have made it their duty to insult the German model who played Helen, (usually with some old-as-soon-as-it-was-said-the-first-time variation on Helen having a face that would launch (some number less than 1,000) ships, I thought she was fetching (she cannot act, but it wasn't her thespianism that launched ships)and all of the other women also were attractive enough to make up for the fact that I saw Brad Pitt's ass and came dangerously close to seeing, um, "Little Pitt" far too many times. Actually, I find some of the blog indignation humorous in its own way.

Ben H. Severance - 5/19/2004


You're right. I've inadvertently tripped myself over my own attitude toward people who criticize my work for what it didn't say.

Still, having just seen the movie "Troy," I was hoping for a dissection, rather than another comment about how Hollywood botches the great story-tellers of the world.

But in the end, I liked the movie, and without comparative context from authorities such as Palaima, I won't know exactly what I'm missing form the much richer Illiad (unless I quit whining and just read that classic myself).

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/19/2004

Ben --
Though to be fair, Professor Palaima never promised a review, and so he wrote the essay he wanted to write. It seems rather unfair for you to criticize him because he did not write what you wanted him to write when his intent was something rather different.

Ben H. Severance - 5/19/2004

This article builds up to a climax but never delivers. Two short paragraphs addressing the movie itself? That's it? A more thorough comparison between the Illiad and specific scenes from the movie was in order.

I have never read the entire Illiad and have only a general knowledge of the storyline. I found the movie entertaining and thought Brad Pitt did a fine job. But I would also find valuable a critical analysis of the movie, one presented by an "authority" on the subject, something akin to the recent, outstanding HNN review of "The Last Samuraii." So, would Thomas Palaima please post a more detailed review of "Troy"?