Monday, May 31, 2004


My most favourite Troy related moment is contained in Alki Zei's fantastic book about children's lives during the Metaxas' era dictatorship, "To Kaplani tis Vitrinas." The children are called upon to choose who they side with during the Trojan War. “The Greeks were in the wrong because they went out to conquer another country,” says one and the other responds: “But we’re Greeks! How can we be on the enemy’s side?”

Ultimately, the Trojan Epic, attributed but not at all certainly composed by Homer is certainly, in skill, the equivalent of the genius of Shakespeare. "Tell me oh muse," he begins... and unfolds a tale of complexity, beautifully expressed, replete with double entendres, drama and word play - all those things that make a work of art last down the ages. Apart from being a masterpiece of the Greek language, so much so that later scholars modelled their own writing on it and German classics students can still be
seen muttering the Iliad, which they know by heart on summer's days while visiting the Acropolis, the Trojan Epic is also the closest to contemporary literary account of a time far gone by - the Mycenaean Age.

The society described in the Iliad and the Odyssey, is that of a youthful and martial nation, bent on action, killing and upholding codes of honour. In this, it closely resembles the later Germanic epics and Viking Sagas. These are not the elevated and cultured Athenians who discuss philosophic concepts in the Agora, nor the wily and ingenuous Ionians busy discovering inventions and building temples. If anything, these Greeks, still organized in tribal fashion are refreshing in their primitiveness, a primitiveness that could still be found aeons later in the martial tribes of the Epirots and Macedonians. This is a time where Lemnos was uninhabited and the Thracians still spoke a strange, unintelligible language.

This was also a time before a 'Greek' nationality emerged. While most scholars agree that both Trojans and their adversaries were 'Greek', it is interesting that the invaders had to form a coalition of forces, described by Homer as the 'Danaans' in order to fight and did not do so on ethnic lines. Therefore the tendency to create a comfort zone, excluding all others and only banding together in times of danger which so characterizes or organized community here has its roots in hallowed antiquity. Nevertheless, the Trojan epic proved instrumental in forging that Greek identity as we know it today, providing a point of reference for participants and explaining the derivation of certain tribes. The Molossians of Epirus for example, gained great prestige out of the fact that their first king, Neoptolemus, was the son of Achilles.

Other concepts of interest, such as the abuse of filoxenia, an already defined concept in those most obscure times (800-1000BC), which after all provided the root cause for the declaration of war, are both poetic and indicative of the continuity in concept and attitude that exists between our ancestors and Greek society today.

Unfortunately, the latest Hollywood attempt to bring this epic to life have been clumsy and crude. Casting aside this writer's belief that any Hollywood epic not filmed in Technicolor is inherently valueless, the current interpretation illustrates the popular proverb "If it ain't broke don't fix it," to a great degree.
The scenery is an abomination. While deviations in costume may be partially acceptable considering the dearth of material from the period to suggest the attire of Mycenaeans, what of King Priam's hippy tie-dyed robes? Indeed, was it coincidence or a decided lack of imagination that caused the director to attire Trojan priests of three thousand years ago in garments closely resembling those of Greek Orthodox Bishops, complete with hats?

If the directors wished to emphasise the Greek connection, they could have perhaps provided us with Mycenaean palaces that looked like Mycenaean palaces and not like scenes from ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ or ‘The adventures of Hercules.’ Similarly, the Trojan palace was also an unacceptable mishmash of anachronisms and styles. I was able to identify ancient Egyptian statuary, classical statuary that would not exist for another 400 years, Assyrian winged god motifs and awkward palace architecture that seemed as if it had been pillaged from the set of "The Mummy Returns," as well as a particularly Stonehenge-resembling ‘temple’ in Thessaly.

What is the justification, therefore of taking a perfectly perfect epic and changing the storyline so that it appears as bland and inane as the sagas of Conan the Barbarian? While some artistic license may be acceptable in order to render a literary work more suitable to the big screen, (after all Nikos Kazantzakis' re-working of the Odyssey counts as one of the greatest poems of Greek literature) in the instance of Troy, we have directors actually "dumbing down" the intricate plot to the point where, if one has read the epic, the viewing is tortuous, and if one hasn't, downright boring.

Quite aside from the extraordinary wooden acting by the likes of Brad Pitt, all characters are as flat and one-dimensional as a comic script. The action is unadorned with the sense of suspense, storytelling and anticipation that Homer provokes in the reader and it is perhaps to his eternal credit that a poet who lived three thousand years ago, can continue to inspire where moderns cannot.

The movie also fails to explain the context of the epic, which after all provided the Greek people with a genealogy and a sense of common identity. Imbued with western, 21st century values, it assumes the form of an egocentric tale of a movie star who is so full of himself, that we cannot look past him, to see the character he is playing.

Ultimately, the gods use us and the directors as their sport. The directors of the movie do not absolve themselves of their incapacities by claiming their movie to be "inspired by Troy." For if it truly were, the end result would not be the banal drivel presented to us on screen, though the sole good this movie may do is to inspire the reader to investigate pre-classical Greece. Do yourselves a favour. Procure an English copy of the Iliad and Odyssey, which retains the original poetic form, (ideally the Richmond Lattimore translation) and prepare to be enthralled. Then go to the cinema and prepare to be revolted. Oh those Gods must be crazy.

First published in NKEE on 31 May 2004