Crouching Trojan and Hidden Greek
How much did I enjoy Troy? This much: In the big-screen theater where I watched it, the film caught fire, literally, during the final sequence depicting the burning of Troy. (How's that for versimilitude?) The manager handed out free re-admits, and I walked into the adjoining theater and watched it all over again, without being in the least bored.
It helped a lot that I had recently spent a month teaching The Iliad. When your head is clanging with Homer's poetry (or at least with a decent translation, my favorite being Robert Fitzgerald's), and your imagination has been straining to grasp the utter strangeness of Homer's universe, the movie is a treat.
Frank Virga, one of my students, put it this way: "Even though I felt the movie failed at times to present the true story of the Iliad, the set did an excellent job of portraying the look of the battles, the atmospheres of the cities, and the look of the warriors." I agree. For all its defects, this film contains moments of breathtaking beauty -- for example, the night scenes when battle is suspended and "they piled dead bodies on their pyre, sick at heart, and burned it down." [Iliad VII 514-16]
Troy does something else right -- and here the comparison is not with Homer but with other screen epics like The Fellowship of the Ring. One of the hardest things for students to grasp about Homer's war is that, unlike most of the blockbuster wars they've seen, it does not pit the Bright Side (sweetness, bravery, loyalty, clean hair) against the Dark (bile, cowardice, treachery, bad teeth). There are heroes on both sides, human frailties on both sides. And when a hero has a glorious day, the enemies he kills are not mouth-breathing subhumans (as in The Two Towers) but real men (and occasional women) with real names, tribes, and life stories.
Whether the medium is great poetry or state-of-the-art digital animation, this is a lesson worth teaching.
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