Thursday, June 03, 2004

Defending Troy

Andrew Stuttaford, at National Review Online, has a highly critical review of Troy. While my intention here is to defend the movie, I must confess that I agree with much of his criticism. In two sentences he manages to capture much of the problem with the film:

Homer's Troy took ten years to fall, Petersen's collapses in about three weeks, taking most of the ancient epic with it. There's no Cassandra, for example, and there are no gods.

To put the Trojan War in a single movie was without doubt an error of artistic judgment. There is a reason why all the great playwrights wrote, not about the War, but about little episodes in it, e.g., Iphigenia at Aulis, or the Madness of Ajax, or the Trojan Women. This was for the very good reason that they are the stories; the War is just the frame. Cassandra is my favorite character, and I missed her dreadfully. Stuttaford is exactly right that the elimination of the gods from the story was a terrible mistake. When I was walking home from the theater, I thought of how I would have done the movie, and in the version in my head the gods played a massive role. (Indeed, if I had made the movie, I would probably have gone the opposite direction, and given the gods a greater role than in Homer, since I've always felt that the Trojan War should be seen as almost a sort of incidental devastation caused by the divine curse on the House of Atreus.) Much more could have been forgiven if Wolfgang Petersen hadn't been so silly on this point.

I can even add two criticisms Stuttaford doesn't make, which I think are very serious. Aristotle criticized Euripides' Menelaus for being needlessly evil, and I would make the same criticism, more forcefully, against Petersen's Agamemnon. Agamemnon was as much a brute as anyone in the Argive army, but he was not a power-mad empire-builder. The Greeks were bound together by a pact to protect Helen, not by Agamemnon's welding them into a nation. Even keeping the same storyline, Agamemnon could have been portrayed far more benevolently without any damage to the movie. My second criticism is, I think, more serious. The Trojan War was a man's war; the women play a significant role in it, but they are caught up in it against their will. No willing suspension of disbelief can bring me to accept that the women of Troy would be so calm about Helen. Why should their husbands and sons die so Helen can have an adulterous affair? This is why in Greek tragedies, whenever the women talk about Helen, they do not shirk from calling her the worst names they can find. One finds none of this in Troy, and this is a serious flaw.

Nonetheless, as I said starting out, I aim to defend the movie. All these criticisms can be true and yet the movie still be a good movie. Good movies are generally bad literature. There is no doubt that Petersen's film would make a horrible replacement for the Iliad. That it suffers from literary faults, however, if often rather irrelevant. A novel that followed the script of Breakfast at Tiffany's would be somewhere beneath the quality of the sort of romance novels you see being sold in grocery stores. This is because, contrary to what seems to be a common belief, a movie cannot have a strong plot. It can barely have a plot at all. When we think of movies that have good 'plots' what we are really thinking of is what we can call the Serial Spectacle of the movie. A motion picture is more like a parade than literary work, in part because it is so much more visual. The 'plot' is really a string of representative scenes held together by associations (linking them together directly or by way of auxiliary scenes) and a general idea of how they should be ordered. When the representative scenes are good; when the associations are complex and rich enough to give us the feel of there being more to the story; and when the order is not disruptive to viewing--then the movie is good. It is this that makes Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments good movies. Ben-Hur, the movie, cuts out an immense amount of what makes Ben-Hur a good novel, but it has right feel for Spectacle, and for putting Spectacles together in the right way. Now, Troy is not on the level of Ben-Hur; but it is not so very bad as far as it goes. Aspects of it could have been done better; Troy was not as impressive a city as it could have been. But many of the representative scenes were well chosen: Paris with Helen, Hector with Andromache, the sailing of the Greek fleet, the fight between Hector and Achilles, Priam's plea for Hector's body, and so forth. Naturally, most of these were obvious choices; but the ambition of the movie led it to have at hand a good selection of obvious choices, and there's nothing wrong with that. The cast, as Stuttaford himself allows, did a reasonably good job; Sean Bean isn't quite what I'd imagine Odysseus to be, but then I am far more of the Trojan Party than most, and see Odysseus as a sneak who deserves respect only because Athena likes him. Some of the scenes between Hector and Andromache were excellent, and we would be lucky (given Hollywood, I'm sure it would be a matter of pure luck) if this were more common.

I am as distressed as Stuttaford is (at least, as I imagine he is) that there will be an entire generation of people who will believe the Trojan War lasted three weeks, that Menelaus and Agamemnon were killed in battle, that Achilles was in the Trojan Horse, that Paris and Hector were the only two sons of Priam, and that 'Hecuba' is just a funny name they hadn't heard before. But criticism of the rewriting of the plot is redundant; the bulk of it is due simply to the decision to portray the Trojan War in less than three hours. How does one go about giving at least a vague idea of the War in such a short time? There isn't anything to do but rewrite a great deal. Characters have to be cut out, timelines have to be distorted in every direction, and you have to decide seriously whether you want to show Andromache watching the Greeks throw her baby from the walls. And, while the rewriting was very Hollywood, it wasn't so bad as Stuttaford suggests. It's possible that it still attempted to do too much: at times Paris, Hector, and Achilles struggle a bit for center stage. But I think there is no doubt that this is a movie that gives many people the right basic impression, namely, that the Trojan War is worth their interest and time. My defense is a limited defense, but it is adequate for its work: Troy may not be a great movie, but it isn't a bad one either; it is a good movie.

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