Troy, Now and Then

“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad, is force. Force as man’s instrument, force as man’s master, force before which human flesh shrinks back. The human soul, in this poem, is shown always in its relation to force; swept away, blinded by the force it thinks it can direct, bent under the pressure of the force to which it is subjected. Those who had dreamed that force, thanks to progress, now belonged to the past, have seen the poem as a historic document; those who can see that force, today as in the past, is at the center of all human history, find in the Iliad its most beautiful, its purest mirror … force is what makes the person subjected to it into a thing.”

Simone Weill, L’Iliad ou le Poème de la Force, 1939

Like Briseis dragged off to Agamemnon’s tent, I was hauled down the road and forced to watch Troy…the movie.

Even before the opening credits had finished their scroll, it dawned on me (with not-quite-rosy-fingers) that the director, Wolfgang Peterson, was not working from the Richmond Lattimore translation of blind Homer’s epic recounting the rage of Achilles and the collateral damage left in his wake. But that’s fine by me. Lattimore’s interpretation of Homer may be the liveliest rendition in the English language, but I’d read it so many times there was nothing new to be gleaned from the story. And besides I prefer Alexander Pope’s version, executed in the merciless march of heroic couplets. Alas, no couplets here, either– heroic or otherwise.

I fully expected to be able to watch this film unfold in my sleep. But imagine my surprise when Menelaus (who started the whole mess after he refused to take the herbal concoction that passed for Viagra in the Hellenistic period in order to keep his young and randy bride happy) and mighty Ajax got whacked in the first major fracas between the forces of the Peloponnese and Ilium. Major characters getting axed in the first reel. Was this the Iliad or The Sopranos?

By the way, in Homer’s account red-bearded Menelaus (perhaps the Wandering Celt, who had found his way down to sunny Lacedaemon), is the only fair-skinned person in the whole sweeping drama, aside from “white-armed ” Hera. In Peterson’s version, all the players look like they stepped out of an audition for a remake of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and, for some reason, utter their lines in mock-Elizabethan accents, like players in a production of Titus Andronicus as staged in Pocatello, Idaho.

My spirits lifted immediately. With Ajax and Menelaus dead, perhaps now the Trojans had a fighting chance! Think how history could have changed. The enchanting Trojan women would be saved from their cruel fate. Aeneas, burdened by the weight of Anchises, wouldn’t have to flee the burning citadel. The Roman Empire would never rise, decline and fall. The Etruscans would still control Tuscany…instead of the British ruling class.

After all, it was Ajax (Big Ajax…not Lil’ Ajax, the Mini-Me of the Iliad) who kept the Achaeans in the game, slicing and dicing through the vaulting lines of Trojans, nearly extinguishing Hektor himself, while sulky Achilles pouted in his tent. Perhaps they had to knock off Ajax, because he made Brad Pitt’s Achilles look puny, a kind of Goldilocks among the warriors, not at all the killing machine tutored in the arts of torture and terror by Chiron the Centaur. (If you’re interested in these archaic matters, check out Pasolini’s Medea, my favorite film of the Greek myths, where Pier Paulo himself appears as the pedagogical man-horse, who runs the equivalent of a School of the Americas for Greek superheroes on Mt. Pelion, here training Jason in the finer points of imperial conquest, pacification and betrayal.)

And with impotent old Menelaus dead, couldn’t the long-haired Argives wearing the shiny greaves decamp from the malarial banks of the Scamander, climb aboard their black ships and sail home across the merlot-darkened seas anyway? Given the navigational skills demonstrated by Odysseus, they could use the head start. What was the point in staying now that Helen’s cuckolded husband had been eviscerated? Even Peterson nods.

But what about this scrimpy Helen? She looks like a run-of-the-mill, cheerleader from North Dakota sporting a sour smile. Monica Vitti displayed more zest in L’Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Odyssey of Ennui. Are we really meant to believe that this girl is the issue of that momentous encounter between Leda and the Swan? That this 30 SPF waif had trysted with Theseus and descended into the Underworld and back? That her anorexic features had already borne two children, then launched a thousand ships and the first clash of civilizations?

So on it went, laying siege to narrative expectations at every turn.

Fine with me. I came to see Aphrodite, anyway. I’d always envisioned Claudia Cardinal in the role. But where was the Goddess of Love, who famously shielded silly Paris from lethal arrows? Do the gods flit around in subliminal cuts, secretly manipulating the action? Do I have to buy the DVD for the Olympian extras? Apparently, the real Weapons of Mass Destruction (dirty bombs have nothing on Hera with her hackles raised) have gone missing on the plains of Ilium.

The absence of the meddling divinities from the film makes Ajax’s early death all the more puzzling. After all he is the fiercest fighter in the Iliad and the only major character who performs his deeds of grim glory without divine assistance. Imagine Bush and his coop of neocon chickenhawks waging their wars without invoking their technological deities: cruise missiles (Apollo, “who strikes from afar”), SDI and Patriot missile batteries (Athene’s cloak of invincibility) and MOAB bombs (Poseidon, “the Earth-shaker.”)

Then I started scratching my head about Patroclus. In Achilles and Patroclus, Homer had presented us with the first openly gay-and-proud-of-it couple in western literature. But what’s this? He and Achilles are suddenly revealed to becousins? Kissing cousins? Is that legal in San Francisco now?

Well, I’d set these and other nagging issues aside and began to properly mourn the death of my boyhood hero Hektor, breaker of horses, whose body had been put through the ringer by Achilles, thus providing a model for the corpse abuse at Abu Ghraib–some things never change. I was lamenting the looting of Troy, thinking that the Greeks would get theirs with the theft of the Elgin Marbles, when, surprise, grumpy Agamemnon, the Rumsfeld of the invasion of Ilium, gets offed.

This was a twist worthy of Hitchcock, himself. Wasn’t the King supposed to claim that howling naysayer Cassandra as his concubine and zigzag his way back to Sparta? Speaking of Sparta, when did it become a “port”? Is this the post-global warming version? (Cockburn, I thought, will never swallow that emendation.) Adieu Agamemnon, murderous son of Atreus, who killed his own daughter, roasted her on a tripod and gorged on her flesh as a sacrifice to abet his war prospects. Three millennia later, a faceless war lord in the Bush administration would similarly sacrifice the CIA agent Valerie Plame, though Agamemnon at least took credit for his foul deed. The code of the conqueror has changed.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking about poor Clytemnestra, waiting back in Mycenae, sharpening those knives, forever denied her moment of fame and terrible justice. Oh, well, I guess W. Peterson doesn’t have any intention of filming a sequel based on the works of Aeschylus or Euripedes. Perhaps, he couldn’t negotiate the rights.

I left the theater strangely satisfied that Homer’s heroes, however reshaped by the Gods of Hollywood, had made such an unexpected return at a time when the rebels against the Empire, under the forceful grip of its own Lil’ Ajax, need them most.

I’m looking forward to Oliver Stone’s forthcoming Alexander the Great, where the conspiracy behind the death of the charismatic conqueror, who slept with a copy of the Iliad beneath his pillow and was named after the instigator of the Trojan war, will finally be revealed.

Did someone say, Aristotle did it? Well done.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Alexander Cockburn’s new book Imperial Crusades is about the selling of the wars on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and it’s hot off the presses, an amazing journal of imperial propaganda, accurately dissected by CounterPunch on a week by week basis. Don’t wait, order one up from this site now, or call 1-800-840-3683. Our business staff is standing by.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3