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Monday, May 17, 2004

Comments on Gabriel's watching of Troy below.

First, a disclaimer - I enjoyed Troy mainly because I enjoyed the very physical aesthetic of the combat moves Brad Pitt makes; and I thought Eric Bana portrayed a very good Hector. I will not go into a long rant on the various blasphemies against the purity of the Iliad (Samuel Butler translation, for me), because I feel, like the Lord of the Rings movies, a book and what comes out on screen *must* differ in many substantial ways in order to tell a more effective tale within their respective mediums.

That said, I have to agree that the characters in Troy can get pretty angsty and introspective - and thus thoroughly modern - compared to the tale. In some crucial respects, the spirit of the Iliad was:

a) warlusting ravagers,

b) the VERY active intervention of petty deities; virtually all the major heroes had SOME kind of divine support in all their one on one battles whether through "clouds of shadow" or "merest breath deflected his thrown spear" - with the notable exception of Ajax (the Greater) who by the way is described as fighting with a SPEAR not a warhammer. Even the Pantheon themselves were regularly laying the smack-down with one another throughout the whole conflict.

c) an admirable attitude towards women as chattel and spoils of war (sigh. those were the days:)

d) bad-ass Achaean heroes who "believe their own PR" - even relatively nerdy Odysseus has the soubriquet "sacker of cities" .

All of these anachronisms are thoroughly given a makeover in the movie version.

Thus, I enjoyed Troy as a tale in its own right, not as a retelling of the Iliad. I enjoyed Hector - a character forced to fight a war he doesn't want to, and ultimately battle a warrior to whom he knows he will lose, all for duty and honour. Achilles; a man torn between his sheer hubris and a deeper need for something than mere martial glory (utterly unlike the Iliad version). The fact that the movie has thoroughly raped the original Homeric essence for a summer blockbuster is something I can live with purely on the strength of Achilles, Hector, and Peter O' Toole's moving Priam scenes (I'm thinking of the one with Achilles, and the one with just before Hector gets nailed).

I also enjoyed watching Achilles' physical moves; the style of combat involved in a one on one spear-n-shield fight is unlike any I've ever seen before (even the Wong Fei-Hoong staff fights were two-handed and used more for bludgeoning which leads to a different kind of dynamic). Also enjoyed Brad Pitt's javelin-tossing form and the way he constantly moves the shield around his body, slinging it on his back and his arm to block arrows in a 360 degree arc.

However, I am cheesed off by the pretty boy sniper fuck proto-Legolas played by Orlando Bloom. Here we have a snivelling coward who's cheehongness results in the destruction of his civilization, the death of his far worthier brother and father, who runs from a duel against the man whose wife he stole (and he doesn't even have the excuse of Aphrodite/Eros supporting him this time) AND his fucking camper tactics of using archery against Achilles at the last. To top it off, he gets away with the girl amidst the defeat of a war HE caused - all to please the legions of Legolas-mad fangirls packing the summer metroplexes.

I think Hector's words in the original Iliad are best:

"evil-hearted Paris, fair to see, but woman-mad, and false of tongue, would that you had never been born, or that you had died unwed. Better so, than live to be disgraced and looked askance at. Will not the Achaeans mock at us and say that we have sent one to champion us who is fair to see but who has neither wit nor courage? Did you not, such as you are, get your following together and sail beyond the seas? Did you not from your a far country carry off a lovely woman wedded among a people of warriors- to bring sorrow upon your father, your city, and your whole country, but joy to your enemies, and hang-dog shamefacedness to yourself? And now can you not dare face Menelaus and learn what manner of man he is whose wife you have stolen? Where indeed would be your lyre and your love-tricks, your comely locks and your fair favour, when you were lying in the dust before him? The Trojans are a weak-kneed people, or ere this you would have had a shirt of stones for the wrongs you have done them."

Also am a bit disgusted by the one-sided portrayal of Agamemnon - it seems like he was added as a bloody handed powermad warlord just for the sake of giving audiences a "villain" to identify in this summer blockbuster. And of course, with his just desserts rendered at the end. Admittedly, Brian Cox hams it up well, like he did in X-Men 2, but I dislike adding such one-dimensional characters just for the sake of providing an artificial Hollywood "bad guy gets his comeuppance" kind of symmetry.

However, to show that I can be as historically nitpicky as Gabriel; on to commentary about his commentary.

i) Though gods were conspicuously absent, Thetis the sea nymph put in an appearance, wading by the shore no less. She looked considerably aged, so I find it hard to believe how she could have been a sea nymph. This leaves the unpalatable conclusion - they made Thetis a human!!!

Thetis was the daughter of Nereus; but her various description as "silver footed goddess", "daughter of the sea's ancient", "immortal wife" - I don't find it hard to imagine her as being middle aged. (Juno has been described as having a matronly appearance despite being immortal too).

Besides, I think taking out the Gods made the movie more interesting in two ways:

a) It becomes a battle of men rather than a battle of gods - if you want the latter, go watch Clash of the Titans. A movie of human struggle is, for me, more epic than one in which the Gods toy with their every action.

Although for some reason, maybe emotional sentiment, the Iliad as a written piece of work wouldn't quite be the same without the perpetually quarrelling, lovingly dysfunctional pantheon pulling the strings. But I wouldn't want to see that in a movie.

b) Achilles with his utter invulnerability and Hephaestus-forged armour would turn the movie into Diablo with god mode on. And as most game affocionados know, god mode both makes the game pass faster and less satisfyingly.

(incidentally if he was invulnerable, why the heck did they bother giving him armour in the first place? They should have just given him iron-shod Caterpillar boots)

ii) The most beautiful woman in the world wasn't very beautiful. Paris obviously got shortchanged by Aphrodite. Unless he hallucinated the whole Apple contest.

Totally agree. I would have liked to see Keira Knightley in the role, personally:)

iii) Achilles himself insinuated that he was not invulnerable, but somehow he has a flawless face, with no scars or marks of battle

Maybe he's just that good? In a way, his flawless features and unscarred form is more heroic knowing that he earned it instead of getting a Stygian forcefield dip.

iv) The Myrmidons had a tortoise formation. That was only invented later by the Romans

[Ed: nw.t points out that, "i might add that the tortoise formation predates the hard-core Roman legion conception. Pliny mentions that the Scythians in Cappadocia and Amernia used the tortoise formation too. using relatively smaller tower shields instead of the humongous oblong types. albeit around 100-200BC:)"]

As above. Polybius mentions that the phalanx was in use by the Macedonians, which means about 200-300BC, and some digging around on Google (the true descendant of the Library of Alexandria) indicates that stelae have been found depicting the Sumerians using phalanx formations circa 2000 BC. However, these primitive phalanx formations often involved somewhat smaller shields (no fancy overlapping) than the Roman legions did, and didn't have the flexibility of the maniple.

v) The "Sword of Troy", which goes to Aeneas

I thought having Aeneas being the bearer of Trojan civilization into the future was a nice homage to Virgil's Aeneid:) Although Aeneas' role as a warrior in the Iliad is reduced to that of a cameo; too bad about Diomedes, Sarpedon, the other Ajax, Idomenus, Alastor, Pandorus, amidst a gazillion other extras:)

vi) The screwed chronology - both in terms of the length of the war (the great 10-year long war is over in less than 3 weeks, and that's including 12 days of funeral games) and events

Do you really want to watch a movie about 10 years of dying, sieging, more dying, more sieging, ad nauseam?

Gabriel: "have you heard of, '9 years later...'"

Presumably as a cheapshot subtitle followed by a camera angle of the scene shifting to massive armies deployed around troy having settled in for the long haul?

I suppose it could be done, but why interrupt the action?

vii) Menelaus and Agamemnon dying at the hands of Hector and Briseis respectively, in and around Troy

Well Agamemnon got killed by a woman's (Clytemnestra) treachery eventually, so it's not too far off here:)

viii) I don't think the Trojans used Phalanxes

If the Akkadians used phalanxes about 1000 years before, I don't see any reason why the Trojans didn't. Besides, historically, given that no one's 100% sure which bloody civilization Troy belongs to, there's no way to tell.

And anyway, most of the combat wasn't really phalanx-in-lockstep-with-mile-long-sarissae type fighting; it was your classic lightly armoured hoplites crashing into each other's lines and wreaking havoc, despite the rather impressive attempt by the Trojans the walls to set up spear formations behind shields for all of 30 seconds before the Achaeans charged their lines.

ix) Briseis is Trojan royalty

I actually think that pretty sniper elfboy reacted in a very weird way after sniping Achilles; his cousin is there hugging the enemy and slayer of Hector and instead of "Treacherous bitch! Join your Achaean lover in Hades!" and firing off a salvo into her, he just pleads with her solicitously to come - after sniping a guy whom she was in a warm embrace with.

x) They cut the poignant scene where Hector's son doesn't recognise him till he removes his helmet

They also cut the unncessary scene where Achilles spends a few days dragging Hector's body around the tent but is unable to desecrate it because of Phoebus Apollo's aegis, AND Hector running around Troy three times to dodge Achilles before his fight.

Some things they need to edit lah.

xi) Paris becomes Cassandra

What? Other than his girly looks.... although Laocoon being throttled by the serpents would have been cool:)

xii) The god-figure seated on a throne behind Priam reminded me of Zeus at Olympia

It actually looks vaguely Phoenician to me - especially the beard.

Additional point - i'm surprised that siege weapons didn't make some perfunctory appearance:) Although to the best of my knowledge, the earliest ballistae were around 500-600 years later, and tension-torsion type catapults were even later.

However, I didn't see wheeled siege ladders or battering rams being prepared - although Gabriel points out rightly that the soldiers did use small battering rams while sacking Troy, and that ultimately the wood from recycled proto-triremes (not a lot of tinder to use in that barren wasteland around Troy) was better spent building the horse rather on frontal assault - you would think that Agamemnon or Ulysses would have prepared some beforehand in anticipation of a siege.

(Wheeled siege ladders have been depicted in 5th Dynasty hieroglyphics - 2200+ BC so it's perfectly plausible to have been used circa 1200 BC)

Another nitpick: Where are the farms? What does Troy eat in that barren wasteland - sand? When Gabriel suggested that food was shipped in from the rest of the empire, I didn't see any wagons, or roads leading anywhere from the Trojan gates. Sure as hell there weren't any ports, although there was that nice beach side temple.

Also the archers seemed (didn't see that clearly though) to be using straight long bows instead of Asiatic composite bows which were definitely extant at that time (the Akkadians had them circa 2400BC).

Although Hector has the eponymous Apollion(sic) (Apollyon? heh) Guard, which appear to be some kind of light irregular cavalry, I don't see him using them to any military effect at all - whether flanking strikes, skirmishers, or horse archers, all of which could have been used to good effect during the first Achaean rout or for flanking during the initial charge into the Trojan spear lines. So much for the "Tamer of Horses".

And where the hell are the chariots? Again, Gabriel points out (rightly) that in Greece, chariots were mostly the province of aristocrats like the ones Agamemnon used to ferry himself about. However, the Egyptians (and later the Persians) used war chariots qutie extensively at one point (think Moses and Exodus) - until cavalry really came onto its own, but 1200BC or so I would think they should still be in use, particularly in the flat terrain of Asia Minor and south/east wards which was ideal for chariot use.

Chariots would be kind of useless in temperate, geographically uneven regions like Greece or Italy so I can see why they never took off there, but look at that utterly flat, sandy terrain around Troy. You would think it's perfect for chariot warfare - and i'm sure a city that can build walls that huge an afford some for war.

Finally, how come the defenders didn't appear to have basic defensive techniques like naphtha, boiling pitch, to lob from the walls, BUT were able to come up with rolling giant inflammable balls? (Tactical tip - don't set up your base camp at the foot of an elevated position)
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