Using Film: Redeeming Wolfgang Petersen's Troy

Art L. Spisak

Southwest Missouri State University

            Films depicting historical periods must be taken as reformulations of the past in the light of the present rather than strictly as representations of that past (see, e.g., P. Sorlin, The Film in History: Restaging the Past [1980], and the several works of M. Wyke on ancient Rome in cinema). Director Wolfgang Petersen's Troy (May 2004) is an excellent example of an historically based film that is best understood as a reformulation of the past, for, in spite of its strong efforts, it largely fails to get the feel of Homeric culture (see, notably, D. Mendelsohn's classics-oriented review of it: "A Little Iliad" in The New York Review of Books, 51.11, 6/24/04). Yet, in spite of its failure to replicate Homeric culture, the film is able in its twenty-first century reconfiguration to capture well the central Homeric theme of Achilles' anger and alienation, as well as his reconciliation with self and society. Thus can it redeem itself for classicists.

            Like the Iliad, Petersen's Troy centers and builds about Achilles. His estrangement from the self-aggrandizing and generally ignoble social system represented by Agamemnon is established in the first scene of the movie, plays throughout it in both the main and subplots, and then concludes the movie. In contrast to the Iliad, in Petersen's retelling of the myth Achilles can only find the meaning and purpose he seeks through the Trojans, who in the film embody humaneness and nobility much more so than the Greeks. Achilles makes this connection both through the noble king Priam in a powerful reprise of the Iliad's scene between the two, but even more so through his Trojan war-prize, Briseis, with whom he falls in love (as suggested in the Iliad). The tragic culmination of Achilles' newly found sense of self and purpose is his giving his life at the end of the movie to save Briseis from the Greeks when Troy is taken.

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