Briseis is revealed as Achilles’ heel in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, a postmillennial retelling of the plot of Homer’s Iliad. This new revelation ought to be enough to delight both those familiar with classical mythology and those unfamiliar with it. Most reviewers of the film, however, have simply assumed that the filmmakers deserve castigation for any deviation from Homer’s canonical literary text. Yet this hasty assumption is an unfair and impossible standard. Hollywood rightly rejects it whenever it sets out to adapt any story ripe for cinematic retelling.
After all, Homer enclosed the Calydonian boar hunt in his Iliad, a myth within the myth, both as a nod to what was previously big box office for bards and as a guide to old hat newly worn. The Calydonian boar hunt is an old story about anger retold within Homer’s new story about anger (Il. 9.646-737). Achilles’ “anger” (menis) is Homer’s theme, announced in the first word of the first line of his poem. Wise old Phoenix’s account in book nine of the Iliad of the mythical boar-hunter Meleagar’s anger, therefore, mirrors Homer’s own innovative portrayal of the insufficient merit, in the archaic age, of a warrior’s mere rage. Phoenix tells his cautionary tale about Meleagar in order to dissuade Achilles from his feud with Agamemnon. In Homer’s hands, this also becomes a self-conscious reflection on the audience reception of a poet. The critics may hate the story; but, then again, they may have failed (like Achilles) to see the point of its telling. They may even claim, moreover, that it supports their contrary point of view. To paraphrase Achilles: “Meleagar? Yeah, I have to be just like him!” Or to paraphrase Troy’s critics: “Homer’s Iliad? Yeah, it has to be just like it!”
But the Iliad itself was an unexpected remake of the standard Trojan War legend. Similarly, Petersen’s Troy, thanks to the efforts of scenarist David Benioff, constructs a new story around the re-interpreted core events of an old myth. It shares the same noble goal of Homer’s own remake: to appropriate and humanize the old characters for a new age. The question for criticism of the movie, then, becomes not, “How badly does the film butcher the classical esthetic?” but rather, “In what manner does the film take up the postmodern esthetic?”
In Homer, slave-girl Briseis is a bit part. She is mere booty, a prize occasioning Achilles and Agamemnon’s quarrel as they compete for wartime power and recognition (1.138-221, 334-55). Homer uses this quarrel to explore the common humanity of both Achilles and Agamemnon. Eventually they abandon the mad fantasies that have shattered their lives. Each has indulged in a “utopia of desire” (Eric Gans’ apposite phrase) in which they imagine their rivals vanquished at no cost to themselves (9.19-32, 137-9; 16.115-9). Homer’s genius is displayed in the humanizing journey on which he takes these two rivals. For he ends his story both with their reconciliation to each other (19.51-179, 333; 23.979-92) and with Achilles’ reconciliation to his mortality (24.591-646).
The theme of the narrative is Achilles’ resentment (a better translation for menis), a resentment first directed at Agamemnon over the Briseis maneuver. As Gans has argued, the poem exhibits high culture’s expulsion of this ethically destructive and morally potent phenomenon. Resentment calls into question the ethical structure of society, just as Achilles rails against the social hierarchy that places him under Agamemnon’s command. But the moral insight that such resentment brings is a potent cultural force, channeled either into renewal or destruction. For Achilles and Agamemnon, their resentment-fueled feud is healed with a new Achaean round of cooperation, leading to the world-historical demise of the Trojan city. But more to the point, for Homer, the use of resentment as the lodestar for his literary universe marks the world-historical Greek transition, in the eighth century BCE, from the dark to the archaic age. With Homer, resentment has become culturally productive, inasmuch as, with the Iliad, the early Greeks at last have a moral achievement in oral poetry worth writing down. It matters not which chicken or egg came first, for both literacy and Homer need one another to initiate the high-cultural productivity that culminates in the golden age of Greece.
In the Troy movie, Briseis reprises her role as the narrative’s plot device for retelling legend. But she assumes a new centrality with her postmodern victim status. Disappointingly, Agamemnon is a stock Hollywood villain with no redeeming qualities. He gets his postmodern comeuppance when the empowered female victim, Briseis, kills him with her knife. This spares Clytaemestra her famous murder (Od. 11.439-529, 24.219-25), and in our age of war amidst wild accusations of empire, demographically satisfies the resentment of the masses on the periphery–but with the cheapest of pop culture tricks. It is unfortunate that postmodernism, in its pop version, finds an oppressor to match every victim; if the movie stumbles anywhere, it is certainly here, with a lost opportunity to show some high-cultural sympathy for the Agamemnon of myth. The stories vary, but they are subject to a similar necessity: Agamemnon had to turn his own daughter Iphigenia into the war’s first victim, being under a cruel compulsion (forced either by the gods or by the position of responsibility he held). Yet Agamemnon is not the movie’s thematic focus, so perhaps it is unfair to judge it too harshly for its one-dimensional portrayal of him as a leader. Even the high cultural achievement of Sophocles in his Ajax is accomplished with a portrayal of Agamemnon and Menelaus as stiff-necked villains opposed to Ajax. Benioff is no Sophocles, but perhaps we should at least credit him for tying up the loose ends in his own mythological universe: in killing off Agamemnon and Menelaus early, he also kills off Ajax early. Sophocles would surely not hold that against him, as if it were somehow to invalidate his own esthetic achievement in the Ajax.
More interesting than the cavalier way Agamemnon is handled in his character arc, however, is the substantively innovative way in which Achilles meets his end. If the movie stands or falls, it must do so first and foremost on the basis of its treatment of Achilles. For, as in Homer, Achilles is the departure point for the story. The movie begins with Achilles acting like the counter-cultural rock star that he is in the imaginary universe of literary desire. Sleeping in with his groupies, he is late for his gig. Significantly, just as Achilles begins the movie with his rock-star delay, so too does he meet his end. Achilles arrives too late to rescue Briseis, the feminist damsel in distress during Agamemnon’s sack of Troy. But Achilles is not too late to be shot down by Paris’ arrows, the first into his notable heel. By this fascinating move, in which the filmmakers reinterpret the human desires driving the Trojan War, Briseis becomes Achilles’ fatal weakness (whereas in Homer it is his outsized rage and resentment).
The formally clichéd tragic Hollywood ending is deployed with self-conscious formal innovations involving the new femme fatale, Briseis. Achilles’ character arc (played out in an MTV time span of days, not as the culmination of a ten-year war) is reconfigured to pivot on new heroic content: namely, his erotic surrender under Briseis’ knife. Most people who deride the film’s ending have admitted (at least to me) that this central encounter between Achilles and Briseis nevertheless comes off well. Achilles teaches Briseis what she never learned in Sunday school at Apollo’s temple. In addition to its strong dramatic content, Achilles’ surrender to Briseis’ knife in this scene is a nice formal parallel with her empowered use of that knife to make short work of Agamemnon at the movie’s end.
Achilles’ heroism is thus rehabilitated (according to postmodern necessity) by Briseis. She allows him to get in touch with his sensitive side, to make the fatal decision to resolve to abandon the Trojan War and to sail for Greece with her. Patroclus’ death then functions (as an updated version of Homer’s own Patroclus plot-device) to dispel the fantasy of Achilles, a “utopia of desire” which here (unlike in Homer) romantically doubles that of Helen’s “utopia of desire.” Helen and Paris, having longed for escape from life on the romantics’ impossible sail wind, cause Troy to reap death’s whirlwind. Desire is fatal: Paris and Helen (in the over-the-top mythical version) bring on the Trojan War, and Achilles and Briseis (in the highly distilled potency of a cinematic romantic tragedy version) bring on the personal consummation of death that such impossibly true love necessitates. Achilles’ reconceived character thus marks the movie as a postmillennial reflection on the clichéd sacrificial requirements of the postmodern esthetic for all “love stories.” Although belatedly (i.e., anachronistically) heroic for the empowered Briseis, Achilles must still die in a Hollywood catharsis anyway. Yet Paris’ arrows bring redemption for the classical hero, in a redemption palatable to the romantics of the new millennium.
In the postmodern retelling of the legend, it is Achilles’ desire to rescue Briseis from the sack of Troy and play the apparently obsolete male hero that constitutes his fatal mythical flaw, rendering him vulnerable. But his willing sacrifice of himself to these postmodern narrative exigencies tragically highlights the problem that Briseis’ newfound victimary centrality poses for classical male heroism. The problematic centrality of the victim in the postmodern esthetic is visible in the formal innovations of Troy with regard to Paris and Patroclus and their protectors. Patroclus in the movie is an “unknown soldier,” innocent victim of war; Achilles, instead of being a willing accomplice in Patroclus’ tragic foray into battle (Il. 16.1-302), has been trying to protect the eager young boy from the full horrors of a warrior’s life. Similarly, Paris is a hapless innocent victim of erotic desire, which places him under the care of his wiser older brother Hector. The movie ingeniously plays the romantic victim card to win our hearts for Paris. To do this, Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, who has trapped Helen in a loveless marriage, is dispatched in a crowd-pleasing way well before his mythological time. Here, Menelaus is a bully who stands in the way of Paris’ underdog romantic fantasy; thus, he is killed off by Hector so that Paris can get back to bedding his true love. With this bold rewriting of Menelaus’ destiny, the movie neatly reinterprets Aphrodite’s rescue of Paris from Menelaus (3.407-441): the movie version of this duel between Paris and Menelaus simultaneously rehabilitates Paris as a sympathetic character and yet remains true to his status as Aphrodite’s protégé. Indeed, Homer’s depiction of Helen and Menelaus living happily ever after (Od. 4.134-296) will simply not do in an age where Helen must be transfigured into the archetypal “date rape” victim.
As in Homer, Hector and Achilles are doubles, but here they are doubled in their solicitous care for their younger counterparts in desire, Paris and Patroclus. Paris desires the erotic marital bliss Hector already possesses, and Patroclus mimetically desires the martial military bliss Achilles already possesses. Both erotic and martial desire (Paris and Patroclus) thus claim victim status in the movie version, putting the affirmative action by Hector and Achilles on the victims’ behalf into plot-driving conflict. The sacrificial solution to this conflict involving Achilles, which the film serves up for our esthetic catharsis, reveals a doubling of the romantic tragedy which supplements Homer’s own innovative doubling of Hector and Achilles. That is, if Paris and Helen are victims (as the film portrays their love story), then so too are Achilles and Briseis. Paris and Helen make their getaway at film’s end in a romantic comedy version of the Trojan War (which had started due to their mythical desire that set armies into motion), but their counterparts Achilles and Briseis fail to make their getaway (and so the Trojan War ends as a romantic tragedy).
Arguably, this “something-for-everyone” Hollywood ending is redeemed by the conscious formal parallels drawn by the scenarist (albeit subtly) between Paris and Helen’s comic destiny and Achilles and Briseis’ tragic one. But this movie’s Hollywood ending is (much more obviously) not just Achilles’ but also postmodernism’s Achilles heel. For despite the reviews that proclaim the gods’ absence in this film, Apollo still executes salutary action in the fictional universe over which he rules. Apollo’s delayed sacrifice of the impious Achilles to his priestess Briseis reconstitutes Achilles’ real (and heretofore undisclosed) glory as nothing less than immortal chivalry. Achilles may have been going on throughout the film about the epic hero’s need to achieve fame, but despite the politically correct upgrade for Briseis’ destiny, the ultimate fame for a male hero is still achieved by a noble deed that crosses all esthetic epochs. As Odysseus did for Penelope (Od. 23.342-87), so too does Hollywood do for us today: it tells us the story of a man who, en route to becoming an immortal hero, discovers what that really means: running back to get the girl; and if necessary, dying for her.
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Classical Mythology at Simon Fraser University.
Gans, Eric. “The Culture of Resentment,” Philosophy and Literature 8.1 (1984): 55-66.
———-. The End of Culture. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1985.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin, 1990.
———-. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin, 1996.