Homeric war on film

Cinema has provided many opportunities for the ancient world to be presented in challenging ways. The Homeric epics being one of the main mythological sources of antiquity and having influenced the education and entertainment of many generations have played an essential role in the representation of antiquity in films.

In this article I will examine Homeric war and its representation in the cinema by focusing on issues such as the importance of war in the Homeric world and the similarities and the differences in the representation of war scenes through the years of cinematographic production. I will explore these issues by examining war scenes in R. Wise’s Helen of Troy (1955) and W. Petersen’s Troy (2004).

When producing a film concerning the Iliadic War the filmmaker must consider the balance between historical authenticity and dramatic effectiveness. Difficulties increase since there is little sense of historicity, the archaeological support has little to offer and each filmmaker is obliged to use his own creativity in order to reconstruct battles and duels. One should also consider the role that war is meant to play in the film in connection to the historical conditions of the era in which the film is produced. Additionally, the great degree of imagination involved for the representation of war scenes requires an exceptional cinematographic treatment, a highly trained cast and visual effects which in most cases increase the cost of the film.

Helen of Troy (1955) was a Warner Brothers production retelling the story of the Trojan War. Wise’s film overemphasizes the amorous qualities of Paris and Helen without examining the military qualities of heroes like Achilles, Agamemnon or Hector. The romantic focus overshadows Homer’s martial and heroic themes. Although the film has been blamed to ignore the quintessential strength of the Iliad –the wrath of Achilles, it is useful to examine the different ways in which features of war are introduced.

A discussion between a Trojan prophet and Paris reveals the way the film presents the divinity of War:

Priest: It was not the goddess of beauty who taught us to arm against our enemies… but Athena the goddess of wisdom and the patroness of the horses of war. Athena does not rejoice in this.

Paris: And I suppose that evil horse of hers will spring out and trample me. Very well, let it come my lord… if that’s the price of living in a world of fables.

Athena is represented as the goddess of war and Paris’ words of arrogance remind the viewer that hubris invites divine punishment. However, the film does not emphasize the relationship between human and divine; it rather focuses on the antithesis between the love for the human representation of Aphrodite found in the face of Helen and the fear for the punishment of a warlike Athena.

The presentation of the Trojan army for war by Hector to king Priam reminds of the imperial power of Rome. Priam delivers a typical Roman salute to Hector. The director uses an allusive technique in order to associate the Trojan army with features from a Roman army with which the audience would be more familiar.

The Greek fleet is accurately counted to 1,000 ships and there is a deliberate choice for the arrival of the Greeks to be at night so that there is an easier visual representation with the ships as distant lights (although the Warner Brothers team did actually create 1,000 ship models for the film). The majority of the warriors are armed with a shield and a long spear. The Trojan army is presented without uniforms in a disordered way whilst the Greeks march on line, highly disciplined at the beginning of the fight and scattered at the end of it. The astonishing variety of designs decorating the Greek shields gives an individualized tone in an army where each unit counts.

Another significant element in terms of cinematographic representation is the variety of military besieging machines that the Greek army uses in order to attack Troy. The Greeks build huge war machines equal to the scale of the impregnable Trojan walls. The image of 10,000 Greek soldiers marching in lines against Troy together with these war machines is impressive (and it reminds the audience of the parade of a Nazi army): high mobile military wheeled towers driven by men and oxen, protective ramps to defend against the arrows of the enemy, chariots, a besieging machine to break the gates, high wooden ladders, even catapults throwing stones are some of the military machinery used by the Greeks in order to conquer the Trojan walls. The Trojan war techniques include shooting of fire arrows in combination to hit and hide night raids on the Greek camps. However, since the romantic idyll of Helen and Paris dominates the movie, there is not enough space for any kind of heroic fights apart from the duel between Hector and Achilles, which was too important to be omitted.

In the background of the duel the heroes are watched by both armies. Hector rides white horses (indicating his just, pure, patriotic cause) and Achilles rides dark horses (a denotation of his dark, arrogant character). The place of the duel is the plain under the walls of Troy and divine intervention is removed. The duel begins without any dialogue between Hector and Achilles but with a clash of spears and shields as the two heroes fight from their chariots. Simultaneously, the director gives the reactions of Paris, Helen and the rest of the Trojans with close-ups in order to increase the dramatic suspense. The audience is temporarily deceived when Achilles falls from his chariot but in the end he will be the winner. Hector abandons his chariot and starts a spear battle which is typical of sword and sandal films. The slow, theatrical moves and the unconvincing way in which Hector loses his spear lifting his arms to accept Achilles strikes do not maintain any of the heroic aroma of the Homeric text.

Troy (2004) narrates a double love story (between Achilles and Briseis and between Paris and Helen) but above all it presents war. The battles are numerous and elaborate. Petersen has made it all clear to his colleagues: the more blood and violence the better. As Simon Atherton (weapons designer) adds: The amount of gore, blood and decapitation sticking of swords in people was quite extreme. The violence in this story is necessary because it is a reflection of their world. We were not trying to glorify it. We were trying to show a realistic action.

Another feature of the movie is the total physical absence of the gods (and consequently of any god of war). Ares is only mentioned when Achilles asks Briseis -who for the whole of the movie is against any violent action- whether she respects the god of War equally to the other gods; she answers that all gods have to be equally respected. Monotheism merged all gods of Olympus into God, and it depersonalized War. The absence of gods in Troy is a result of such depersonalization together with Petersen’s refusal to propel the film into the world of fantasy and science fiction.

The first duel scenes between Achilles and Boagrius in Thessaly and Achilles and Patroclus in Phthia are short, introductory scenes both to familiarize the audience with Achilles’ fighting style and to explain relationships between the leading characters.

Spear throwing is one of the positive points of the film in war making. As Atherton explains: “Actors and stuntmen want to work just with swords. The stunt arrangers had a kind of challenge trying to get the stuntmen and actors to work more with spears”. The Iliad describes Ajax’s lance as being 5.5m long. Petersen’s team have made one to prove the point that a warrior could not fight with it. Then they bring it down till they got a length that functions. In contrast to Helen of Troy, in Troy Petersen chooses to show the Greek fleet in daylight: he had in his disposition a well trained special effects team which managed with the help of technology to fit 400 ships in a shot and create an imposing impression for the viewer.

The warriors are armed with shields, spears and swords although it is apparent that the movie emphasizes spear fight. In Petersen’s movie there is a tension to combine realism with a Homeric heroic fight; for example, the body-to-body battle i.e. the shooting of a great number of fighting bodies clashing on each other (which is a modern way to represent war, see Braveheart, The Lord of the Rings, 300, Alexander etc.) is combined with a close up of the leaders of the Greeks and the Trojans and their reactions.

On the other hand, the common soldier finds no voice; lesser warriors in Troy have no individualized armour or weapons which identify their origin and claims of distinctions. With few exceptions, Petersen helmeted masked troopers remind the viewer of Star Wars or Startrek. They have no individualized devices on their shields and no plumes on their helmets, they have no elaborate armour and they are destroyed like virtual beings in a video game. This is the main reason why Troy fails to transmit a genuine “feel” of ancient epic battle scenes. As we watch Troy, we know that beneath most of the masks of his armies there are not real people. While Homer names and provides short biographies and genealogies of lesser warriors who fall in battle, Petersen’s computerized armies shift the director’s focus on the elite. No special attention is given to any of the warriors who fell in the first battle on the Trojan shore but when it comes to the duel of the aristocratic elite, ten minutes are spent to watch in parallel a Rambo like martial preparation which promises war, blood, revenge, violence. An isolation of the warrior princes and a sanitized view of war are the main characteristics of military combats in Troy.

Concerning the military machines, Petersen surrounds the movie with realism. The only war machines are huge fireballs used by the Trojans when they attack the Greek camp triggered by the flying fire arrows that are shot. An impressive Wooden Horse constructed of a burning Greek ship, with curved lines reminds the viewer of a modern piece of art. The Sword of Troy which is convincingly treated as another Excallibur by Peter O’Toole’s Priam is unconvincingly used, lost, regained and donated to Aineias by Paris.

The film reaches its climax with the duel between Achilles and Hector. In the preparation of both heroes for blood, the winner is proclaimed: Achilles moves swiftly while Hector is slow. Hector leaves Andromache, Achilles leaves Briseis. Both women beg the heroes not to fight. An important detail for the plot is that in this version of the story in contrast to Helen of Troy, Achilles comes to the wall of Troy alone. Petersen’s Achilles is a fearless hero, a killing machine who needs no company; he is all alone from the beginning to the end, “a lonely American individualist with his own ethical code, continuously shouting the name of Hector, a kind of ancient Westerner” as Winkler suggests. As in Helen of Troy the place of the duel is the plain under the walls of Troy. Every kind of divine intervention is removed and the viewers are only Trojans. The heroes fight a pedestrian battle, man to man, a battle of eyes, words and physical strength. The script copies the Homeric text reads:

H. I’ve seen this moment in my dreams. I’ll make a pact with you. With the gods as our witnesses let us pledge that the winner will allow the loser all the proper funeral rituals.

A. There are no pacts between lions and men…

The fight scenes are highly choreographed and Achilles has a totally new style of fighting. He moves quickly and with great economy of action. Petersen’s team has used Carl Lewis, the sprinter and long jumper as an image for Achilles’ moves. There is a bit of martial arts and a bit of Matrix in his body reactions. He is always trying to lunge with the sword but he uses it like a boxer in that he feints with one hand while he brings in like an uppercut with the sword. He would always get in over the top of the other person’s shield to bring the sword through the back of the neck. It is a real Achilles showcase to show off his style of fighting. Hector shows that he is skilful as well; rather than having something like Achilles which is stylistic, his skills have been learnt through fighting. The sword fight is equally good and the close ups revelatory of the heroes’ feelings. Achilles finally kills Hector with both a spear and a sword strike. The end of the film wants Achilles to be one of the leaders who were in the Wooden Horse and to be killed in the burning city of Troy.

The myth of the Trojan War has been retold through all kinds of cinematographic techniques. The meaning of this War changed constantly adapting to time and place. The 20th and 21st c. have been innovative for introducing war making to the cinema with the main purpose of presenting Homer to a new audience and establishing the power of the epics as a global classical influence in this new medium. The differentiation of the needs of this audience which no longer faces the Iliad as strictly educational text but as an opportunity for entertainment has presented the filmmakers with the issue of the presentation of the Homeric war. These difficulties are linked with problems of historicity and dramatic effect, complexity in the reconstruction of the battle scenes in combination to the ideas and philosophy of each era.

As expected, different directors and producers dealt with the anxiety of visualizing battle scenes in different ways: The visual reconstruction of whole fleets or armies and techniques such as the body-to-body battles increase the cinematographic effect of the movie. The allusive strategy according to which the film associates either the Greek or the Trojan armies to an ancient or modern army model (such as the Roman or the Nazi army) familiarizes the viewer with the realities of war. The complex war machines create a strong feeling of a besieged city and add a form of realism. Simplifications of war between “the good guys” and “the bad guys” satisfy to some degree the purpose of a commercial Hollywood movie to entertain. It has also been evident that the more technology advances the more directors use special visual effects in order both to make the movie more believable or impressive and to cut its cost in human actors.

The 21st century has started in a dynamic way in terms of Homeric movies: in 2003 there has been a new TV series called Helen of Troy and in 2004 Troy was meant to introduce a new debate on the depiction of the classical world by Hollywood movies. Twentieth century has seen a lot of creative ways in which Homeric War is visualized. It is left to the creativity and the imagination of the film makers to see whether the twenty-first century will suggest a new modernized model for the visualization of the battle scenes in the Iliadic War.