Revisiting Troy (2004): An Anti-War Epic?

(Image and Video Credit: Warner Bros.)

Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy, a  (very) loose adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, hit theaters in 2004, part of a wave of sword-and-sandal epics throughout the early 2000s that looked to achieve the same critical and commercial success first enjoyed by Gladiator (2000). The film stars Brad Pitt as Achilles, Eric Bana as Hector (the role in between the abomination that was Ang Lee’s Hulk and Stephen Spielberg’s critically acclaimed Munich), Orlando Bloom as Paris, Brad Pitt’s abs, Brad Pitt’s terrible accent, Sean Bean as Odysseus, Brian Cox as Agamemnon, Diane Kruger as Helen, Brad Pitt’s terrible accent again, Peter O’Toole as Priam, and Brad Pitt’s terrible accent a third time. Rather than a direct translation of the Greek epic poem, Peterson’s film ignores the mythological aspects of the conflict and condenses the war from 10 years to a few days of fighting. Instead of a retelling of an ancient story, the film alters the narrative of the Trojan War in an attempt to make history modern.

In this vein, one particular scene stands out as a reflection of contemporary events rather than sole focus on a conflict of myth and legend. After Achilles and his Myrmidons establish a foothold on the beach of Troy, leading Agamemnon and the Greek kings to believe the war will be brief and a swift victory, the combined Greek army fails to breach the city walls and suffers heavy casualties. That night, Agamemnon laments to Odysseus and his adviser Nestor, “They’re laughing at me in Troy, drunk with victory! They think I’ll sail home at first light.” Nestor replies, “If we leave now, we lose all credibility. If the Trojans can beat us so easily, how long before the Hittites invade?” Odysseus follows, ” If we stay, we stay here for the right reasons: to protect Greece, not your pride” before urging Agamemnon to make peace with Achilles to defeat the Trojans.

It is at this point, factoring the contemporary context for a film released in 2004, that one cannot help but think about the state of the War in Iraq at the time. The invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003, with coalition forces sweeping through the country and ousting Saddam Hussein in seemingly decisive fashion, leading President George W. Bush to declare an end to major combat operations on May 1, 2003, the now infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.

Of course, the War in Iraq did not end after the initial invasion, as continued violence and atrocities mired the region and bogged down military forces. This along with the revelation that the United States entered the war under false pretenses, with the Bush administration allegedly making 935 false statements as part of an orchestrated campaign to effectively galvanize public opinion and misrepresent the security threat posed by Iraq under Hussein, led domestic and international public opinion to turn against American military involvement. Likewise, the initial success and hubris of the besieging Greek army was met with a protracted conflict that did not go according to plan. Agamemon’s offensive against Troy, with the stated casus belli to rescue Helen, differed from his true motives, extending Mycenaean power and influence across the Aegean. For both Agamemnon and President Bush, desert based offensive military action devolved into a war they dare not lose rather than one that could be won.

For those that would argue that drawing parallels between the plot of Troy and the events of the War in Iraq is reading into the text after the fact, Wolfgang Petersen, the director of the film, would like a word with you. Petersen himself equated President Bush’s actions to those of Agamemnon in his film, explaining,

“Just as King Agamemnon waged what was essentially a war of conquest on the ruse of trying to rescue the beautiful Helen from the hands of the Trojans, President George W. Bush concealed his true motives for the invasion of Iraq.”

In press notes for the film, Petersen contended, “I don’t think that any writer in the last 3,000 years has more graphically and accurately described the horrors of war than Homer,” believing that the poem itself revealed that the Trojan war was a disaster for everyone. In a German interview before the film’s release, Petersen lamented, ”People are still using deceit to engage in wars of vengeance. […] It’s as if nothing has changed in 3,000 years.” Rather than parallels emerging out of coincidence, Petersen’s understandings of geopolitics and conflict in 2004 fundamentally influenced his adaptation of Homer’s Iliad. Rather than a direct adaptation leaping directly from the source material onto the screen, for better or worse, Petersen’s understanding of the present shaped his narrative of the past.

So, with the director’s work undoubtedly informed by the unfolding of the War in Iraq, looking to condemn those in power using deceit for their own aims as well as the violence and bloodshed caused by war, why are the most memorable moments from this movie the scenes of violence and bloodshed? Though the film depicts Achilles as nothing short of a jackass until he finally fights for more than himself by rescuing Briseis, his most famous on-screen moments are battle scenes portrayed as “cool” rather than brutal or sickening. In an effort to replicate the success of sword-and-sandal epics of the past, Troy is built around its battle scenes and grandiose set pieces, muddling the director’s anti-war sentiment and the intended message of the film. Instead of a clear repudiation of warfare, something that would truly separate Troy from other films like it, what results is the South Park method of “having your cake and eating it too” at best or a movie that chickened out on its premise at worse.

In her analysis of feminist theory in the Transformers franchise (really), Lindsay Ellis explains that though it is Megan Fox’s character of Mikaela Banes that truly has a character arc in the first two films in the franchise, overcoming her past positively adapting to the new world of machines, the framing and aesthetics on how Fox is shot on film casts her as eye candy rather than a character in her own right. “Framing and aesthetics supersede the rest of the text, always, always, always,” an axiom that rings particularly true for Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. Rather than an epic truly devoted to a protest of war, Troy limits its effectiveness as an anti-war film through cinematography and production design overtaking the text.

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