June 04, 2004

Mendelsohn on Troy

Last month, when Wolfgang Petersen's disappointingly mediocre film epic Troy appeared in theaters, we were treated to a delightful spectacle: movie critics across the country did their best to pretend that they were experts in The Iliad, Homeric epic, and the mythology of the Trojan War. Call me cynical, but I expect that if you'd asked Roger Ebert about Ajax the Greater back in April, he'd have told you that it was a really good toilet-bowl cleaner; nonetheless, that didn't stop him from thundering that "Homer's estate should sue" the makers of the film for their desecration of a classic when he reviewed the movie in May.

It can be nice, then, to read a review of the movie by a critic who actually knows something about the ancient world. The current issue of The New York Review of Books features a late but entertaining review of Troy by Daniel Mendelsohn, a former lecturer in classics at Princeton; in his article, Mendelsohn does a nice job of mocking the movie's inanities without pedantically bashing anyone who'd dare depart from the classics in a movie about the Trojan War. Over the course of his review, Mendelsohn criticizes the mischaracterization of Homer by critics who liked the movie, provides a compelling argument about how the updating of the story destroyed the sense behind the action, and injects a tone of humor into the debate on the movie.

Consider this excerpt, in which Mendelsohn discusses Petersen's bizarre decision to transform Patroclus from Achilles's lover into his "cousin":

Watching Troy, you'd think that there was no higher value for the Bronze Age Greeks than cousinage. "He killed my cousin!" Achilles shrieks at Priam when the latter comes begging for his son's body at the end of the story. "You've lost your cousin, now you've taken mine," a mournful Briseis (in this version, Hector's cousin) tells Achilles. "When does it end?" This film's notion that entire civilizations were destroyed because of excessive attachment to one's collateral relations is, surely, a first in world myth-making.

Moreover, Mendelsohn uses this problem as evidence for a compelling critique of the movie. "The real problem with Petersen and Benioff's reductive ideological updating of the epic story they tell is organic, not pedantic," he writes: "the 'realism' they've opted for goes against the grain of the genre they're working in." In his view, the movie "blindly follows much of the epic cycle's plot while providing none of the epic motivations" and transforms its characters into psychologically hollow and ahistorical figures:

Similarly flimsy as motivations for the characters' actions are the incessant references to a bona fide Homeric value: the glory heroes derive from being celebrated in song through the ages. And yet here again, the gritty twenty-first-century realism favored by Troy's makers makes nonsense of a genuinely Bronze Age element they have nonetheless retained. For the endless references to immortality through future fame ("men will write stories about you for thousands of years to come," one character says, blissfully innocent of the fact that there is no writing yet) are undercut both by the pervasive cynicism and by the grim modern character of the milieu Benioff works so hard to establish. There's no reason to believe that men as disillusioned and irreligious as those we keep seeing here would ever believe in anything so fuzzy as "immortality" in the first place. Anyway, if the Trojan War was really no more than a territorial affair —"about power, not about love"—what about it, precisely, is worth celebrating at such great length in all those epics—epics which clearly include this movie itself?

I don't know that I agreed with all of Mendelsohn's conclusions about the movie, but it was refreshing to read a review by someone who knew what he was talking about. Those of us who know little about The Iliad may still have some intelligent things to say, I hope, but there's no substitute for the real thing.

Update: Edward Rothstein of The New York Times has published a short piece on whether Troy is the first movie of the second Iraq war. The piece isn't great, but it has some okay moments.

Posted by Ed at June 4, 2004 12:44 PM
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