I’m just going to come out and say it: I love the movie Troy. I know, I know…as an archaeologist, this is embarrassing; as a Greek Bronze Age archaeologist it’s shameful… I know I should hate this film. I should hate the (many) glaring historical inaccuracies; hate the fact that Hollywood felt it could tamper with Homer’s story; hate that while the Olympian gods were written out completely, new characters were formed from the remnants of others; hate Brad Pitt’s half-British, half-American accent… Yet I don’t. In fact, I will defend this movie, faults and all, for not only introducing Homer’s Iliad to a mainstream audience, but for, in so doing, managing to preserve the essential themes of the story, as relevant today as they were almost 3000 years ago.
I remember the first time I saw Troy. I knew the general story…of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, and the Trojan Horse, that simple trick which led to the total destruction of one of the ancient world’s greatest cities… But the film touched me in a way these passing references never had. Because somewhere behind the epicness (so epic that it requires a made-up word) of the story, the spectacle of the battle scenes, and the parade of Hollywood’s most beautiful people, the humanity of it all shone through. I’m not sure if it was the achingly heart-wrenching final goodbye between Hektor and Andromache, or King Priam’s mournful plea for the return of his son’s body, but somewhere in the midst of that first three-hour viewing of Troy, I came to see that the human experience transcends time and space. That though all that remains of the real people behind Troy’s story are crumbling stones and fragments of pottery, their lives were just as vibrant, tumultuous, joyful, and troubled as any in the modern world. And they deserve to be understood. To study the past is not a futile search for days gone by, but a way to better understand what it means to be a human being.
I would argue that Hollywood all too often gets a bad rap for its portrayals of the ancient world. Ok ok, so I have yet to watch the remake of Wrath of the Titans…I just haven’t been able to put myself through that one yet… But overall, I am willing to look past a lot of historical inaccuracies for the many positives which come from Hollywood’s successful ‘sword-and-sandals’ epics. Recently, I was thrilled to read that another Classicist, the awesome Bettany Hughes, feels much the same way. In her discussion of the latest of Hollywood’s blockbusters, the sequel to the successful 300 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/10672838/Swords-and-sandals-epics-This-classics-lover-is-all-for-them.html), Hughes explores the potential of these films to enthrall modern audiences and present, in an engaging way, ancient worlds surprisingly similar to our own:
“We remember not so we can live in the past, but so we can confidently shape our own futures. At its best the strange marriage of Hollywood and history encourages us to do precisely what Herodotus wanted us to; to take notes of the works of mankind, across time and space, to interrogate both the past and its retelling: to recognise that we are creatures of memory and to share those memories in a collective experience; to become the best humans we can possibly be.”
And so, though I hardly attribute my entire course of study to Wolfgang Peterson’s abridged Iliad, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that that trip to the movie theatre ten years ago didn’t somehow, perhaps subconsciously at the time, influence my future interests. Without a doubt, it captured my imagination and made the world of 3000 year old Greece come to life. And though I have since come to recognize the many historical and archaeological flaws of Troy, I still don’t think I will ever cease to get goosebumps when Achilles whispers to Briseis:
“I’ll tell you a secret. Something they don’t teach you in your temple. The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”