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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 16, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Troy, JAG, and Death in War

May I invite you to see a a great work of literature transformed into a great work of film?

I speak of Troy, which my wife and I saw in the first showing on Friday.

It left us gasping, weeping. It was tragic in the classic sense of the word. Everything Aristotle called for -- and gripping entertainment in the bargain.

In an earlier centuries, every educated person knew the story of the Iliad -- and in detail, not just some vague Classics Illustrated idea about the Trojan horse, or of Helen as the face that launched a thousand ships.

Schoolboys in those days were taught Greek, and the reward for learning their alpha, beta, eta and upsilon was that they could read Homer's tale of Achilles feuding with Agamemnon over the disposition of the captured girl Briseis; of Hector bringing down mighty battleaxe-wielding Ajax, and then falling himself under the onslaught of Achilles, who then dragged his dead body around the walls of Troy.

Those readers might have been outraged by how much of that ancient story was left out of David Benioff's screenplay of Troy.

Benioff, when he first pitched the idea (because this movie, like most great movies, originated with a writer), admitted he was offering a "ruthlessly stripped-down version."

No Cassandra, for instance -- her dire but ignored prophecies were given to other characters. And many other characters were given short shrift.

Especially the gods. We never see them. We don't notice them hovering over the battlefield, making events turn this way or that.

And the time was compressed. The battles took place right on each other's heels. Sort of the Iraq War version of the Iliad, as opposed to the Thirty Years' War; the only reason this version of the Trojan war took longer than five days was the 12-day hiatus in the middle to show respect for one dead hero.

And it isn't just cut down. It's changed. Some people end up dead who, in the Iliad and other Greek legends, lived to come home. In one case they follow the Aeneid of Vergil rather than Homer's version of events.

But you know what? I think every single decision was right. Every cut. Every transformation.

Because this movie doesn't erase Homer's epic poem. If anything, it will draw many readers back to it (though I suggest that you read a prose version if what you care about is merely finding out what happened). So you can always find out the true details of a story that may, in fact, be pretty accurate.

There are anachronisms, especially in the characters' attitudes. In the Iliad nobody wonders whether the gods really affect events because there they are -- the readers see the gods taking umbrage at the disrespect of mortals and actively joining in the warfare.

But in Benioff's version, the characters certainly believe in the gods, but live and fight as if everything depended on their own choices. This gives them rather a modern sensibility -- but not offensively so.

Indeed, the triumph of the writing of Troy was that Benioff bridged the gap between the issues that mattered to the people of Homer's time and the issues that matter to us today.

While admitting -- no, fully exposing -- the folly of war, the sometimes ridiculous motives that lead to it, and then showing how much cruelty, rage, vanity, and sheer stupidity go into the conduct of it, Troy also shows the honor, the personal devotion, the respect for courage that can also be present.

War shows many at their worst, but some at their best; and Troy is about the tragic fact that often the worst and best are in the same person.

These were men who knew they were heroes -- who accepted it as a responsibility. In a powerful scene, Julie Christie, as Achilles' mother, tells her son that he can choose between a long, quiet, happy, and soon-forgotten life, or a short life leading to endless fame. He knows what he's choosing when he goes to war.

Brad Pitt gives his finest performance in his career as the leaping, frantically brilliant warrior Achilles. Eric Bana, as Hector, the nobler but doomed prince of Troy, matches him in dignity but not in passion. He is a man who would have made the other choice, had war not been thrust upon him.

Orlando Bloom plays Paris as a boy who finds manhood too late to save his own nation from his folly. Brian Cox's Agamemnon is a magnificently ambitious king who won't stop until he rules the world. And Sean Bean, most recently seen as Boromir in Fellowship of the Ring, is glorious as the clever Odysseus.

But it's almost unfair to single out these actors for their great performances -- because it's clear there was a thirst for serious tragedy and the entire cast measured up to the task of making these people real without ever seeming to strike a pose.

The women -- relatively minor in the Iliad, but important in this movie -- are fine indeed. Diane Kruger makes Helen far more than a pretty face; Saffron Burrows as Andromache, Hector's wife, breaks your heart with her strength; and Rose Byrne as the helpless pawn Briseis makes her transformations believable and heart-wrenching.

And looming over all is Peter O'Toole as King Priam of Troy, in a performance for which the word dignity might have been invented.

Don't think of this as an adaptation of The Iliad, because then you might be bothered by the alterations. Think of it instead as a new epic written about the same series of events, but through more modern eyes that make the events the result of human choices rather than the whims of gods. After all, behind the epic poem there was a real war, and may not a modern writer make as fair a guess at the motives and reactions of the participants as Homer?

The script was by Benioff; the direction was by Wolfgang Petersen, whose finest work this is.

Between this film and the magnificent Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's fair to say that great epics, so long neglected, have been restored to its proper place in the cinema.

It's a shame that some critics are so jaded by their long exposure to dark little arty films that they are completely incapable of recognizing genuine epic when they see it. But the audience should not be confused. Remember that the same people who raved about the loathsome American Beauty are the ones who are sneering now at Troy. Their reviews tell you more about their own worldview than about the movies themselves.

There is nudity in this film, but no more extreme than you'd find in some episodes of NYPD Blue. None is there for prurient interest; it serves more to show the boyish perfection of Paris and the animal litheness of Achilles.

Nor does the film revel in the violence, though some of it can feel quite extreme to modern eyes. Petersen did not want us to view any of this as pornography or even shock; during the sack of Troy, for instance, he subdues the sounds of suffering and covers it with a mournful musical lament that makes it at once more bearable and more heartbreaking.

But I will warn those men who might be thinking of this as a date movie: It takes a very secure man to let his woman ogle Pitt and Bloom in this film.

Such issues as the well-earned R-rating feel almost trivial, though. For once, it isn't a mere excuse to say that this film is art -- it's a fact. This film is practically a textbook in epic. (At one point, my wife and I agreed: "If Kevin Costner had known how to handle heroism like this, his Robin Hood might have been watchable.") But ... be careful about bringing impressionable youngsters. There are nightmares to be had, as well as glory, in watching this film.

For mature viewers, however, there is no reason not to see this film. In fact, it should be as surely a part of the shared cultural experience of adults in our time as The Iliad was of educated men two centuries ago.

I will be back to see it again. It is a great film, one that haunts me still, hours after watching it the first time; few indeed are the years in which it would not have deserved to be named the best picture.

I'll also be rereading one translation or another of The Iliad. It has been too long since I immersed myself in Homer's world.


A recent episode of JAG, entitled "Coming Home" and written by Stephen Zito, was the most honest treatment I've seen of the way America is handling the deaths of our soldiers in Iraq.

Which is to be expected of JAG. This series has done for our military what Law and Order has done for civilian law enforcement -- shown us the black, white, and grey of the moral, legal, and ethical dilemmas that matter most.

JAG is not "soft" on the military or on war. When the military functions badly, JAG shows the flaws and problems.

But the "Coming Home" episode was painful because of another kind of honesty. Instead of the standard press meaning of "honest" reporting -- i.e., looking for the darkest, most negative aspect of a story and exaggerating it out of all proportion -- this episode was also willing to look at the nobility of sacrifice.

While we're being set up for a later episode about defective bullet-proof vests issued to our soldiers, the main thrust of this story is the response of a military family to the death of their son and brother. The mother, steeped in a longtime military tradition, is prepared to bear the enormous grief of losing her son, sustained by the dignity of sacrifice for a higher goal. But the boy's sister is not prepared for it, and struggles to find a way to bear it.

Meanwhile, the media is only interested in getting anti-war quotes; as soon as it's clear that the family is not going to give them anti-Bush election-year quotes, they lose interest. The mother is frustrated -- she believes her family's story deserves to be told, too, if only because she doesn't believe her son's sacrifice was in vain.

We also see the solidarity of the Marines surrounding this young man. There is a kind of holiness to their feelings for each other, and this, too, is part of the story.

Contrasting these people with "war heroes" who demand a purple heart for a band-aid-level scratch so they can go home early and throw their ribbons away for the cameras might reflect badly on certain political candidates -- but this episode makes no such comparison. It is not about the election, it's about the soldiers.

Contrast that with a recent episode of Touching Evil, where for the second time in the past few weeks, the writers have inserted a completely irrelevant vicious insult against America and its foreign policy. In both cases, the comment had nothing to do with the story; it was there so the writers or producers could assure their liberal Hollywood friends that even though they're writing a show about law enforcement, they're still politically correct.

The trouble is that, just like JAG, the writers of Touching Evil are creating a series about people who lay their lives on the line to defend the public against evil-doers. And just like America's doctrine of preemptive attack to forestall imminent threats, episodes of Touching Evil have shown these characters' unable to bear restrictions that keep them from saving lives by stopping murderers in their tracks.

And yet in all this cast of characters devoted to law enforcement, there is not one who speaks up in defense of American foreign policy when it is egregiously and contemptuously insulted.

This is simply false. I cannot conceive of a single group of law enforcement professionals in America today in which not one member of a team would answer such an attack. And yet on this series, the characters all remain eerily quiet, letting the political slur stand unanswered.

JAG shows far more honesty -- all viewpoints get a fair hearing.

But the writers of Touching Evil have no integrity as storytellers -- they will throw away their characters for the sake of a trivial, temporary, and, let us admit, deeply ignorant political opinion.

It won't stop me from watching Touching Evil because it is a powerful, well-written series.

But, as I teach my writing students, honest writers let their characters be themselves and behave as they would behave, even when they would do things that the writer does not approve of. To do anything else is to turn fiction into mere lies.

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