When Wolfgang Petersen set out to create his colossal battle epic Troy in 2004, history and literature were most likely not the utmost of his concerns. Supposedly based on Homer’s The Iliad, which recounts the events of a battle that most likely did occur around 1200 BC, critics and experts agree that the film shares little else with its source material beyond that. But does that fact mean Troy has nothing to teach us? Does a movie motivated by the visual have anything to offer us intellectually?
“No,” says archaeologist C. Brian Rose. “But they weren’t intending to teach a class. They were intending to entertain people.” Dr. Rose has spent the past 20 years excavating the ruins of Troy, during which time he’s learned a great deal about what could and could not have happened there. “There is no history for a monumental Trojan horse as a siege engine in the late Bronze Age,” he says, explaining that the myth might have in fact originated from “a battering ram with the head of a horse on the end of it.” Did a coalition of Acheans travel from Greece to attack the Trojans, as depicted in both The Iliad and Troy? Possibly. Is there any proof for it? Not really. Is it possible it happened the way Homer described? Mythology aside, definitely not.
Other classicists are less perturbed. “I thought that the freedom the filmmakers felt to change the story, like killing Menelaus and Agamemnon, was fine,” says Dr. Joseph Farrell, the Classical Studies Department Chair at Penn. “Those are strong decisions on the part of the storyteller, and good storytellers always feel that freedom.”
Despite his apparent enthusiasm for Troy‘s strengths, Farrell would also be the first to admit that there are instances where the film falters. “If you read Homer, if you read mythology, one of the things that is stressed over and over again is the extreme physical beauty of the heroes,” he says. “And Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt, but otherwise all the characters are made to look incredibly scruffy. Agamemnon and Menelaus in particular look remarkably unappealing, and that’s a decision that for me is pretty hard to rationalize.”
Questionable make up aside, Professor Farrell for his part believes the film still has much to offer from an educational point of view. “Aristotle was really our first well-developed literary critic, and he holds up The Iliad as an ideal example of effective plot construction,” he says. “And Troy, especially in terms of trying to tell too much of the story, does many things that Aristotle says Homer was wise to avoid. But that doesn’t mean he’s right.”
Was Aristotle correct, or did he meet his match in Wolfgang Petersen? For a full schedule of Troy on AMC click here.
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