Yesterday Heather and I went to see Troy, the new movie “based on Homer’s Iliad,” as the closing credits put it. “Based on” is a good term: it starts long before the Iliad, a minor female character is elevated to a major love interest (and I don’t mean Helen), and the seige of Troy lasts about as long as March Madness. Still, I found it a strangely compelling film. Basically, Wolfgang Petersen has directed Das Boot with wooden ships, and created a movie that complicates the relationship between honor and war in some compelling ways.
One of the standard tropes of the modern, “serious” war movie is that while war is Hell (to overquote General William T. Sherman). Modern war is a particularly mechanized, impersonal form of Hell, whose only meaning comes from the loyalty of soldiers (or civilians) to each other. Saving Private Ryan opens with a landing on Normandy that’s a virtual abottoir, and the search for Private Ryan becomes a quest to create some meaning and decency in what otherwise is a soul-destroying experience. (Not that larger geostrategic goal of defeating the Third Reich wasn’t eminently worthwhile.) Indeed, it’s hard to make a serious war movie that sees war in anything other than these existentialist terms (though Master and Commander is a notable exception; it’s as close to a pro-war movie as you can get, what with its plucky 12 year-old midshipman who cheerily loses an arm).
The interesting thing about Troy is that it reverses the contrast between Dehumanizing Mechanized War on one hand, and Meaningful Honor Among Buddies at the other. The Trojan War began over an insult to Menelaus’ honor (his wife Helen is abducted by– or in the movie runs off with– the Trojan prince Paris), and was a massive, bloody thing precisely because its leaders refused to budge from their codes. Honor does not lead to honorable conduct, but to horrible conduct; it doesn’t moderate the war, but instead exacerbates it. Instead of honor serving to create some meaning in an otherwise meaningless set of events, it creates meaninglessness.
This, to me, is a really challenging interpretation of ancient warfare. I’ve long admired The Iliad, though almost entirely for historical and anthropological reasons: its importance in the history of writing and literate thought, and the debate surrounding its production, have made it a lot more compelling to me than, say, Virgil’s Aeneid. And I’d always taken the logic of the Trojan War for granted, and assumed that the kind of highly personal, often one-on-one combat that’s in The Iliad is somehow superior to modern killing at a distance. Now, I have to rethink.
So is Petersen arguing that honor is bad, or just that stubbornness is bad? Or is it just that the ancient Greek warrior code, which if followed today would in ten minutes would generate enough Geneva Convention violations (killing civilians, slave-trading, plunder) to land you in prison for life, is bad?…
I have to admit I’m a bit sheepish about the fact that a movie with Brad Pitt in it has made me think. Pitt, incidentally, is a very smart choice as Achilles: he’s a stupid killing machine, and is a lot more believeable than, say, Keanu Reeves would have been in the role. Shudder. (Still, my favorite retelling of The Iliad remains Dan Simmons’ Ilium, which moves the whole thing to Mars, puts the gods on Mount Olympus, and has Homeric scholars watching the Trojan War to make sure they do it right. It’s just SO imaginative, it’s incredible.)