Sunday, February 14, 2010

Paris and Love

Sing, goddess, the poor judgment of this blogger, but I enjoy Troy, the 2004 mashup of (mostly) Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Peter O'Toole, Brian Cox, and Diane Kruger as Helen, the world's most beautiful and ship-launchingest woman. Yes, it is no showcase of excellent acting; yes, many scenes come across as little more than calculated eye-candy; and yes, it distorts its classical sources, but this last part is actually what I like about it. One can conceive of acceptable and unacceptable ways to distort these most foundational of epics, and I think Troy makes some defensible choices.

Consider the scene in which Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), the cuckold Greek husband of Helen, enters into one-on-one combat with Paris (Orlando Bloom), her smitten Trojan beau:

Here is part of the corresponding passage from book III of the Iliad (tr. Butler):

He poised his spear as he spoke, and hurled it at the shield of Alexandrus [Paris]. Through shield and cuirass it went, and tore the shirt by his flank, but [Paris] swerved aside, and thus saved his life. Then the son of Atreus drew his sword, and drove at the projecting part of his helmet, but the sword fell shivered in three or four pieces from his hand, and he cried, looking towards Heaven, "Father Jove, of all gods thou art the most despiteful; I made sure of my revenge, but the sword has broken in my hand, my spear has been hurled in vain, and I have not killed him."

With this he flew at [Paris], caught him by the horsehair plume of his helmet, and began dragging him towards the Achaeans. The strap of the helmet that went under his chin was choking him, and Menelaus would have dragged him off to his own great glory had not Jove's daughter Venus been quick to mark and to break the strap of oxhide, so that the empty helmet came away in his hand. This he flung to his comrades among the Achaeans, and was again springing upon [Paris] to run him through with a spear, but Venus snatched him up in a moment (as a god can do), hid him under a cloud of darkness, and conveyed him to his own bedchamber.
Homer rescued Paris by having Aphrodite/Venus swoop down and remove him from the danger, but would a contemporary movie audience accept that? It seems unlikely.

Instead, the film casts the moment as the culmination Paris's characterization in this telling, as a rather sweet romantic thrown into the role of a warrior -- the "lover, not fighter" of Priam's sons. In the scene, he literally ducks under the fight and seeks cover at the feet of his older, more soldierly brother, Hector, and it's clear from the wider context of the scene and his character that he won't discard love if the price is mere dishonor.

This is not a bad way to bring "the goddess of love saved a man from battle" to the screen, and the film performs similar feats of figurative-literal translation -- the death of Achilles being another good one. Is this the only way to adapt the Iliad for contemporary movie-goers? No. Is it flawlessly acted? No. I enjoy it anyway, and I think it stands a good chance of spawning interest in the original among people who would never think to read Homer, and films can do far worse.

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