What the Greek warriors strived for was kleos, or ‘glory through poetry’. The world the Greeks lived in was markedly different from ours, not just in terms of goods and technology. The world of the Greeks was different in terms of ethics and values as well, in part due to their mythology and religion. Hindu mythology, for one, has evolved to have ideas of heaven, hell, and reincarnation, and several flavours thereof, but Greek mythology in the time of Homer had no easy way out for the ordinary person. Most people ended up in Hades, a nightmarish vision of Hell with howling dogs and screaming monsters. Those who got into the happier environs of the Elysian Fields were kings, heroes, artists and poets. A happy life after death coincided with fame here on earth. The Greeks felt that their only hope was to be remembered by their successors in poetry and song. So they aimed for kleos. Troy captures this best in the scene where Achilles (Brad Pitt) lands on the beaches of Troy. Achilles yells to his men: "Immortality! Take it! It is yours!" Ambition, immortality, kleos.
A Thousand Ships
Wolfgang Petersen, the director of "Troy", wants to shine off the reflected glory of the Iliad, of which it is an adaptation. Troy, which sunk in somewhere between 175 and 250 million dollars, tries to create a bright, glowing, but not altogether truthful, vision of the world that the Greeks and the Trojans lived in. It opens with the campaign of Agamemnon (Brian Cox) against Thessaly in his attempt to unify Greece. Agamemnon succeeds in this campaign with the help of Achilles (Brad Pitt), the mightiest of the Greek warriors. The movie then cuts to Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Hector (Eric Bana), and Paris’ seduction and abduction of Helen (Diane Kruger). Helen is already married to Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), and an outraged Menelaus discovers the lovers’ flight too late. He convinces his brother Agamemnon to march against Troy. Agamemnon uses the opportunity to unify the Greeks in a common cause and to destroy Troy, a potential political threat. And so, are launched a thousand ships to take the topless towers of Troy.
The Trojan war is, of course, Achilles' star turn, and Brad Pitt's impeccable pecs are on full display. The movie covers most of the ground of the Iliad. Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a slave girl - Pitt in a sleek leather tank-top; Achilles withdraws from the Greek army - Pitt without a shirt on; Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) impersonates Achilles but meets his death; Achilles returns to the Greek army, and duels with Hector - Pitt the all-American Achilles. Pitt’s attitude and body language, though, are all wrong. His over-choreographed battles seem inspired less by Achilles than by Akshay.
The war draws to its inevitable close. Wolfgang Petersen has taken liberties with tradition in the adaptation of the story of the Trojan war. Troy has, for instance, completely done away with the gods in the plot, perhaps for reasons of greater realism. The images of the gods and goddesses in the Iliad are ones of timeless beauty ("Think of lightning : Hera's rich hair streams in the sky when her husband builds storms"). Although many of these are missing from the movie, Troy compensates with other images of beauty. The scenes from Greece and Troy are beautifully recreated - the ships, the swords, the shields. The streets and the scenes of Troy are well-imagined (only problem : they are, well, imagined - the excavations in Turkey reveal Troy to be a city of stone houses and pathways - more Montezuma's Tenochtitlan than Haroun Al Rashid's Baghdad).
The Morality of War
Besides aesthetics, the Greek gods play a major role in the narrative of the Iliad. They were the very cause of the war, and variously take the Greek (Athena, Hera, Poseidon) and the Trojan (Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Ares) sides. The Greek gods take sides out of jealousy and filial obligation, to be sure ("Poseidon was pulsing with anger. His son's son had fallen… He went through the ships and huts to rally the Greeks…."). However, the gods are, at some level, the personification of values, such as righteousness and justice. The divided allegiance of the gods recalls to a certain extent the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata, Balarama and Krishna - two avatars of Vishnu himself - take different sides (although Balarama later gave way to Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, as Hinduism tried to expand to include Buddhism). This divided allegiance is symptomatic of the lack of moral clarity in war, where both sides must take lives, and of the nuanced nature of good and evil. The Bhagavadgita examines the moral issues of going to war, and gives the Mahabharata philosophical profundity, but with a two-and-a-half-hour format, Troy may perhaps be excused from such exploration.
Where Troy fails is in its depiction of the war. The audience walks away with an impression of a quick, short war, but the Trojan War was a draining, dirty, blood-soaked affair fought over ten years. While the Iliad tried to glorify its heroes, we also see in it scenes of utter despair ("My friend is dead, Patroclus, my dearest friend of all. I loved him, and I killed him."), of disease ("So [Apollo] struck the Greek camp with plague, And the soldiers were dying"), of mass death on the front-lines ("You could hear their screams as they floundered And were whirled around in the eddies.") and of sadistic, blatant and wanton abuse ("[Achilles] pierced the tendons above the heels and cinched them with leather thongs to his chariot"). The Trojan War ultimately became - one hates to use the Q word - a quagmire.
Quagmire. Fallujah. Wanton abuse. Abu Ghraib. Mass death. Najaf. We know the flashing images of war as they appear to us daily. Troy glosses over the pain and brutality of war. Troy is not honest to the story it is trying to tell. We know that the pictures of abuses and torture from Abu Ghraib, those of the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers and the video of the beheading of Nick Berg by Al Qaeda terrorists are only prologues to stories of great individual tragedies. Troy correctly points out that the talk of honour and country (think "USA Patriot"ism) masks something else - a quest for glory and power (think of Wolfowitz-Libby’s project for a New American Century, a plan to project American dominance over the entire 21st century). Troy chooses to ignore the horror and focus on the glory - of "Missions Accomplished". Troy chooses not to trouble itself with issues about the morality of warfare, but if you are interested in some uncomplicated stuff, it will do the trick. Something tells me President Bush is going to love this one.
Anand Manikutty is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and is a database software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the author of the upcoming book "Nothing in Excess".
Quotations from The Iliad by Homer translated by Stanley Lombardo.