Next up in our Heroic Age cycle is Troy, an interpretation of Homer’s classic epic poem “The Iliad”. We’re watching these as a bit of background leading up to the Roman invasion of Britain.
During a diplomatic trip to Sparta, while his brother Hector (Eric Bana) is busy with negotiations, Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) falls in love with Spartan queen Helen (Diane Kruger), and they decide to run away together.
Her husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), king of Sparta, is understandably pissed off, so he recruits his scheming and powerful brother, King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) of Thessaly. Agamemnon’s had his eye on Troy for a long time, so he brings along his army and his best warriors, including Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Odysseus (Sean Bean).
There’s the usual buff manly men…
The dialogue is so-so, and there’s some improbable stuff like everyone stopping in the middle of a battle to watch a significant personal duel. But the one-on-one fighting is actually really exciting. Achilles’ fighting style and spear-throwing is especially cool.
A lot of reviewers got down on this film because it completely removes the Greek deities from the story, except for a brief appearance from Achilles’ mother Thetis.
But it’s fine by me. Epic stories like The Iliad tend to be a bit inscrutable for modern audiences, because we can’t really grasp what motivates the characters, nor are we meant to.
When someone announces that they’ve received a message from the gods and everyone has to get in a boat and sail around the world, never seeing their families again, people just do it, instead of firing him, or inching away from him as quickly as possible.
Or, when someone’s brother leaves his partner, kidnaps a rival’s wife and sneaks her into the country, they don’t punch him in the face and turn the boat around, because they don’t want to spurn a gift of the gods, and it’s all been prophesied anyway.
So, by removing the immortal elements, divine intervention and prophecies, the film is able to show much more reasonably why such an event might have occurred — in this case it’s the usual suspects: greed, jealousy, pride.
Despite this excoriation, when the film isn’t showing battle scenes, it’s subtly about the struggle of belief; characters are astonished when Achilles removes the head of a statue of Apollo and isn’t immediately struck dead, and the Trojan council members who rely on interpretation of symbols instead of military strategy only hurry along the city’s doom.
Yet in the end, Paris takes up a bow and strikes Achilles in the heel with an arrow, preventing his escape and ultimately killing him. Was it random luck that Paris, admittedly skilled, was able to strike the impervious-by-legend warrior? Or was it the will of Apollo, the god of archery, having his revenge in the end?
As far as epic war movies go, I thought this film was satisfactory, mostly because it shows people involved who were not kick-ass warriors (Paris), or who were insubordinate and in it for personal glory (Achilles), or who willingly followed what they knew to be flawed orders out of a sense of duty, knowing it would result in their death (Hector).
“‘Are you too cowardly to stand up to the brave man whom you wronged? You would soon find out the kind of fighter he is whose lovely wife you stole. Your lyre would not help you at all, nor Aphrodite’s gifts … But the Trojans are too soft. Otherwise you would have been stoned to death long ago for the evil you have done.” (Hector 1 to Paris. Homer, Iliad 3.45).” (via)
In the film, without the divine pot-stirrers, he’s merely short-sighted, selfishly stupid, and a total wimp.
“You left me for THIS?” Menaleus bellows, as Paris scrambles away and literally hides behind his older brother’s legs during a duel. Menaleus has a valid point.
(For some reason, the film chose to ignore the story of Paris’ birth. He was prophesied to be the downfall of Troy, and so was “exposed” — left out in the wilderness to die. He survived by suckling on a she-bear for nine days before being rescued.)
Troy also shows how the war affects the women of the city, though in this case they’re all wives or partners of fighters who end up dying, and all the ladies do is take turns having sex, getting kidnapped, nobly mourning, and fleeing the city.
And speak of Trojan women, this film also leaves out the character Cassandra, a sister to Hector and Paris. In her original story, she’s blessed by Apollo with the gift of foresight, but when she spurns his advances, he curses her so no one will believe her prophecies.
In this immortal-free version of the story, this is perhaps a good thing. She’d either be River Tam or Bertha Mason Rochester, and either one would have meant a very different film.
Finally, Sean Bean plays Odysseus, so when he comes up with the idea for the Trojan Horse, I couldn’t help but picture him in his Lord of the Rings role.
In the classic tradition of Greek epics, the story starts when a king (Pelias) tries to prevent his eventual overthrow by killing off potential prophesied usurpers before they can come of age — but in doing so, he only succeeds in laying the path for the thing he feared the most.
Twenty years later, a grown-up Jason fishes Pelias out of a river, and the king decides to encourage him to take on a dangerous quest, hoping he’ll die without Pelias having to do it himself.
After some posturing and discus throwing, Jason recruits a bunch of his buddies and they sail off in a specially-designed ship, the Argo.
Then they do some hero stuff, but the rest of the movie is basically an excuse to show off the incredibly awesome stop-motion work of genre master Ray Harryhausen, who considered this his best film. And I agree.
Skeleton children of the hydra:
The awakening of Talos:
The skeleton clip lasts four minutes, but it took more than four months to create. Every tiny movement is the result of the touch of a human hand. Incredible.
A giant merman
Harpies that torture a blind man
I’m resisting posting videos of the other cool stuff, so that I don’t overwhelm this post with clips. But seeing these makes me feel like the Cat from Red Dwarf. YOW!
Anyway, back to the story — most of the heroes die in the battle, but Jason escapes the spookies, gets the girl and returns home, where he gets to rule two kingdoms and have a lifetime of adventures.
But what does all that matter, when you remember that we’re all (literal!) pawns of the immortals, eh?
The Heroic Age, as it is known, indicates a generation of men created by Zeus that overlaps the Bronze (2700 – 700 BC) and Iron (700 BC – 43 AD) Ages. It deals mostly with heroes/demigods, children of one immortal parent and one human parent.
A bit of background: the Golden Age was the first race of mortals, who lived under the titan Cronos, never aging or suffering. Then Zeus and the Olympians overthrew the Titans, creating a new, less noble generation: the Silver Age.
The Bronze Age followed, with the war-like Brazen people created from ash trees. Then, finally, the Heroic Age.
(After the Heroic Age follow the Iron and Gold Ages — like at the end of Lord of the Rings, the elves sailed into the Gray Havens and ushered in the age of Man, who is, in short, violent and stupid. It may not surprise you to learn that this is meant to be our generation.
Via this supplemental source: “The gods will forsake mortal men, letting bitter sorrows fall upon them; and being defenceless like children in the wilderness, they will not find any help against all evil they themselves created.”)
For the next phase of our project, we’ve chosen three films set in the Heroic Age: Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, and Troy.
Each of the films represents a different aspect of the age – Clash of the Titans is about the dealings of the immortals on Olympus, Jason and the Argonauts is about a quest undertaken by demigods in the regular world, and Troy is about a wholly human war (though it does include the barest hint of immortal influence).
So why is Clash of the Titans crossed out on our list?
Well, reader — we’re both currently in the middle of the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, a contemporary re-telling of the myth of Perseus. As you can probably tell by now, I’m a big fan of stories that let me put a face to the name, so to speak, and Percy Jackson does this exceptionally well.
The books are full of action, but they’re also quite funny. They bring the demigods and immortals effortlessly into the modern sphere, and I love how they’re shown to fit into the world today:
“Come now, Percy. What you call ‘Western civilization.’ Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years. The gods are part of it. You might even say they are the source of it, or at least, they are tied so tightly to it that they couldn’t possibly fade, not unless all of Western civilization were obliterated. The fire started in Greece. Then, as you well know—or as I hope you know, since you passed my course—the heart of the fire moved to Rome, and so did the gods. Oh, different names, perhaps—Jupiter for Zeus, Venus for Aphrodite, and so on—but the same forces, the same gods.”
“And then they died.”
“Died? No. Did the West die? The gods simply moved, to Germany, to France, to Spain, for a while. Wherever the flame was brightest, the gods were there. They spent several centuries inEngland. All you need to do is look at the archi tecture. People do not forget the gods. Every place they’ve ruled, for the last three thousand years, you can see them in paintings, in statues, on the most important buildings. And yes, Percy, of course they are now in your United States. Look at your symbol, the eagle of Zeus. Look at the statue of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center, the Greek facades of your government buildings in Washington. I defy you to find any American city where the Olympians are not promi nently displayed in multiple places. Like it or not—and believe me, plenty of people weren’t very fond of Rome, either—America is now the heart of the flame. It is the great power of the West. And so Olympus is here. And we are here.”
However, the books also preserve the spirit of the mythic tradition — the immortals are cold and powerful and impenetrable. They have their spats, and humans are unwittingly dragged into them, whether they like it or not. (This is something which the movie version of the first book completely and totally ignores. Avoid the movie version at all costs.)
Ever since reading the books, I keep spotting Greek symbols everywhere. It’s like that scene in Alan Moore’s From Hell where a character points out Masonic symbols all over London, which drives the coach driver insane.
You know, in addition to all of our politics, language, mathematics, philosophies and government, these peeps are all over the place!
Looks oddly familiar, eh?
I did jury duty recently, and the judge described the scales of Justice (– okay, she’s Roman. But based on the Greek goddess Dike!) The American Medical Association still uses the (highly stylized) Rod of Asclepius as their symbol.
It’s actually pretty cute.
The Olympics. Marathons. Nike.
I did a 5k pretty recently. I couldn’t walk straight for three days after.
We even use descriptive terms based on Greek locales: Brazen, Spartan, Thespian, Lesbian.
But perhaps the most definitive example is that even now, thousands of years later, we’re still telling their stories — and embracing them as our own.
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Picking up where the schools left off - by watching movies!
We are learning about the whole of British history by watching films sorted into chronological order. In this way, we hope to place history's figures and events into a visual context, for easier understanding and retention. Our comprehension is supplemented by research and reading.
We started with Carl Sagan's Cosmos and films about cavemen, and we'll end with movies set in the future (Brazil, if..., A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men).
We will also be doing a branch of American history films when we reach that point in the timeline.
View our film list and offer us suggestions by commenting or emailing us at lehall-at-gmail-dot-com.