The Depiction of Ancient Greek Heroes in the Hollywood Movies of the 2000s

Cinema is one of the leading branches of modern culture, as it is the most accessible and most popular kind of spectacular art. Combining elements of entertainment and enlightenment, cinema has a powerful impact on culture. It shapes and interprets the past, the present, and the future. Concerning the past, a significant place in the vast film library of Hollywood belongs to the films of the historical genre. However, it is not only American history, but also the history of the world, including many pages of the history of ancient Greece, like the Trojan War, or the history of Greek Sparta. In that regard, such films as Troy directed by Wolfgang Petersen and 300 by Zack Snyder are relevant. These subjects relate to the cultural heritage of Western world culture, so their screening is of considerable interest to the viewer. Cinema brings the distant past to life, and it determines its cognitive, emotional, and cultural value. Nevertheless, it is evident that these works are primarily artistic works, as interpretations that undoubtedly introduce specific corrections both to the events that take place on the screen and to the depiction of the characters. Hence, the purpose of this study is to determine the scale and nature of this interpretation regarding the classical tradition of ancient epic heroes, as well as the adaptation in the context of modern culture and cinema discourse. Hollywood today is the world leader in the film industry, so it determines what values to show, how to popularize them, and how to interpret them through historical images. Overall, the analysis shows that Troy and 300 rethink the classical features of the epic hero in the context of modern culture, make certain adjustments to the historical representation of the characters, and also translate American values and worldview through classical stories.

Literature Review and the Purpose of Research

The image of a hero is a universal standard of contemporary cinema. Its character and traits were coined for centuries by many different cultural traditions, myths, and legends. Researcher Joseph Campbell studied myths and the psychological foundations of the heroic characters of different times and peoples and singled out several common images of the hero as well as a particular set of characteristics that remain unchanged through millennia, including such qualities as courage, fearlessness, honesty, and justice. Thus, the mythological hero is not only the embodiment of power but also an ethical role model, “eternal and universal men,” whose solemn task is to teach a lesson to the people (Campbell 18). These features made the image of the hero highly admirable for popular culture and cinema. Hence, the analysis will explore the correlation of the modern heroic interpretation to its essentials.

The primary interest is that this interpretation may transform and change. The book Classical Myth on Screen critically examines the adaptation of ancient epic images in the context of modern cinematography. The authors suggest that this transition in many respects reconsiders the original meaning and content of the myths in order to adapt it to the zeitgeist of modern culture (Safran and Cyrino 2). Hence, it implies the changing of historical realities or characters, which undoubtedly would reflect itself concerning the depiction of heroes. Finally, Kisieliute’s study, which explores intertextual relations between Homer’s Iliad and Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, also concludes the differences in interpretation caused by the need to satisfy the modern audience (39). Hence, the following research will elaborate the content analysis of the movie as well as critical examination of scholarly literature and critical publications in order to reveal how the depiction of ancient Greek heroes changed in the context of the Hollywood film industry.

Historical Inconsistencies and Transformation of the Ancient Greek Hero

At first glance, the authors of Troy tried to convey the characters of Homeric heroes and based their story on the classical Iliad. In varying degrees, heroes of Troy are people of their time, as Homer portrayed them. So there are the furious Achilles, dreaming about nothing except fame and eternal glory, the noble Hector, fighting for his people, for his wife and son, the simple-minded giant Ajax Telamonid, the power-hungry Agamemnon, frivolous Paris, and the old naive Priam, deeply in love with his children and his people. In this regard, there is a clear trace of respect for the spirit of the primary source. However, some authors, primarily Safran and Cyrino, object the necessity of historical truth in cinema. It is connected with the peculiarities of the popular culture and modern mass audiences, which is much more prone to perceive the ideas of the current times. Hence, “whether the story feels true to the viewer’s experiences or fantasies is more important than ensuring the faithful replication of source material on the screen” (Safran and Cyrino 2). Thus, it is not surprising that in many respects, Troy and 300 interpret or change historical events as well as the depiction of characters.

Henceforth, it is necessary to acknowledge a certain degree of historical inconsistency and gaps in the representation of the characters. For example, in Troy, the Achaeans pretend a withdrawal from the fight, supposedly caused by the plague as they left corpses in the camp (Petersen). Nevertheless, the Trojans would never believe that someone could leave a fallen comrade without burial. For the ancient Greeks, this meant that the souls of the deceased would not fall into Hades and would not find relief, so the absence of a proper burial ritual is “an insult to human dignity” (Department of Greek and Roman Art). These are the mistakes of interpretation that distort the spirit of the times and depiction of historical characters. To understand them broadly, one should imagine what Greece was in the era of the Trojan War and what was the classical representation of ancient heroes.

Thus, one point of divergence is the appearance of the main characters. Dr. Joseph Farrell admitted some inconsistencies in the appearance of the heroes. Both the Homerian Iliad and classical mythology emphasize the extreme physical beauty of the heroes (“Troy 101 – Academics Weigh in on Wolfgang Petersen’s Epic”). Of course, there are plenty of appealing male characters, including Achilles, performed by Brad Pitt, Hector, by Eric Bana, or Paris, by Orlando Bloom. However, Agamemnon and Menelaus, in particular, look remarkably unappealing and repulsive. This is caused by the need to foster disgust towards these characters. In this regard, Kisieliute notes that “even if Paris seduces Menelaus’s wife, which in itself is a bad deed, an insult to be avenged for, Paris’s deed is sort of justified by portraying Menelaus as a cheating, immoral, untrimmed drunk in contrast with an emphatic and handsome Paris” (15). Hence, Helena is depicted as the victim of forced relations with Menelaus, and the charming prince Paris is a hero who will save her, while Agamemnon is a power-hungry despot, who also causes little sympathy on the part of the viewer, especially considering his immoral behavior and the cowardliness with which he killed the old Trojan King Priam (Pomeroy 216). Overall, this point suggests that the classical “good vs. evil” antagonism is inapplicable to this movie (Kisieliute 16). Even though it is the Trojans who gave cause for the war, their high morals and attractive looks compensate their wrongdoing, while the imperial ambitions of the Greeks turn them into the antagonists.

Furthermore, it is also necessary to reveal the general context of the ancient heroic epics, which was totally linked with the myths of ancient Greece. Thus, according to Greek mythology, the world was inhabited by omnipotent gods of Olympus and humans strongly believed in supernatural or divine forces. It also suggests that the Greeks felt completely dependent on the will of the gods. They believed that the gods are always somewhere near and watch or even predict the lives of people. In that regard, rituals and sacrifices to gods accompanied any significant event. Hence, in Snyder’s film 300, ritual sacrifice is held in the camp of King Leonidas, which showed the fate of the heroes before the final battle. In turn, it is quite confusing that the epic movie Troy, which combines nearly all well-known ancient Greek heroes, avoids the inclusion of gods as essential figures of the plot.

Thus, this film directed by Wolfgang Petersen is much closer to the problems of mortals, and the director, as well as screenwriter David Benioff, stressed the realism as the goal of his interpretation. The film claims people are not toys of divine beings. For instance, Achilles takes down the head of the golden statue of Apollo in response to Eudorus’s remark: “Apollo sees everything! Perhaps—perhaps it is not wise to offend him.” Another example is when he explains to his captive Briseis: “The gods envy us. Our life is finite, and this makes it real” (Petersen). On the one hand, it highlights the hubris of Achilles, who dared to challenge the gods, but on the other, it shows that the war and the fate of human beings are more nuanced and independent from the will of the gods.

However, some well-known critics objected to this step taken by the film creators, Roger Ebert in particular, who claimed that “the movie sidesteps the existence of the Greek gods and turns its heroes into action movie cliches.” The critic also scrutinizes that the movie takes credit for using the Iliad as its basis, but misinterprets it and changes the convenient representation of mythical heroes, who are incapable of dramatic reflections and are introspective. Indeed, to a certain extent, even the central conflict of the Iliad is presented differently, which also alters the depiction of the characters.

In particular, Homer’s Achilles is a noble barbarian, guided by the ethical compass of unsophisticated morality. One of the first rules of this code is a fair sharing of the trophies by lot, that is, according to the will of the gods. The best share was due to the strongest warrior because he led the tribe to victory. However, the warrior knew that he would not live a long life. This is manifested in the parting words of Achilles’ mother before the war, as she said that he either will remain and live a long and happy but inglorious life, or become famous forever, but quickly perish (Petersen). Thus, Achilles chose the courage and glory of a warrior, which is also quite evident in the movie. At the same time, the valor of the warrior correlated with glory and trophies. To lose the trophy meant losing military honor, which is the greatest insult to a warrior’s dignity.

Achilles does not understand why he must obey the Mycenaean king Agamemnon. After all, he is more valiant than Agamemnon, and he brought the largest contribution to the common victory, so he does not understand why all the honors should be reserved to this average warrior. Proceeding from this, Achilles seemingly agreed on the role of a subordinate but continually violates the subordination, which leads to the inevitability of the conflict. Agamemnon decides to take Achilles’ captive slave Briseis as a punishment for disobedience and thus disregards the main object of Achilles’ pride: his valor. Thus, love is irrelevant concerning Briseis in the original narrative, and the dispute is about honor and power.

On the other hand, in the film, this conflict is described quite differently. Achilles is still presented as a noble barbarian, but at the same time, he gradually develops warm feelings towards Briseis. For the sake of Briseis, he is ready to end the war and even abandon the dangerous chase for eternal glory. Eventually, it evolves into a strong feeling. It is particularly evident at the end of the film when Achilles searches for her in despair during the siege of Troy (Petersen). Of course, this behavior was not typical for Greek heroes and more in line with modern moods of romantic heroism. Safran and Cyrino also acknowledge the motives of “redemption of the sinner through the self-sacrifice, or transcendent value of heterosexual romance” as narratives and themes that are much more convenient for the contemporary viewer than for ancient Greece (3). On the other hand, Achilles’ blind chase for glory and valor is less understandable for modern moviegoers. Hence, contemporary interpretations of ancient heroes tend to transform the characters and their behavior to fit contemporary trends and narratives, so Achilles’ exaggerated self-pride shifts to romantic heroism. Similarly, the film does not disclose the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon until the end, and the very goal of Achilles, namely, eternal glory, ceases to be his purpose since Briseis changed his heart (Allen 160). Overall, this point does not try to criticize Troy for the lack of authenticity or flaws of representation but articulates that the context of modern mass culture requires to adapt and interpret the myth and the depiction of epic heroes according to the culture, public discourse, and worldview of the modern viewer.

For instance, the character of Hector is one of the most appealing. Hector is a noble warrior who defends his land, knowing that if he backs down, others will flee as well, so he knows how to overcome fear. At the same time, Hector is a civilized leader of the state. In the film, he tries to restrain the impulses of Trojan elders, thereby showing prudence and restraint as befits a judicious ruler (Petersen). In this regard, Hector is contrasting his frivolous brother Paris. However, the image of Paris is not criticized in the movie. Moreover, his cowardliness in the battle against Menelaus is justified by Helen in stark contrast to the Homerian version, where Helen objected that Menelaus is a more brave man (Blondell 11). Thus, this shift was also influenced by the spirit of the time where the loving and caring man is more attractive than a brave warrior. Most likely for the same reason, the depiction of Achilles’ character is twofold as well. Thus, he combines what Kisieliute refers to as “a hero torn between the human, emotional self and the celebrity bringing superpowers” (31). Hence, the entire film tries to reconsider and transform the ancient image of the hero.

Furthermore, it is also necessary to note other transformations of the heroic image in Greek mythology. If the earlier Greek myths tell of the deeds of the heroes physically overcoming their enemies like Achilles or Leonidas, then the late heroism is associated with the intellectualization of the characters. For example, this is present in the clever Odysseus, who invented a skillful plan for taking Troy by deception with the help of the Trojan horse. Moreover, there is also a rethinking of the male image of the hero in the space of mass culture. The ideal type of hero with traditionally masculine qualities like braveness, ambition, and decisiveness, which are maximized in the images of Achilles or King Leonidas from 300, gradually go on the second plan. The modern hero possesses androgynous traits as well, combining both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine characteristics. This is not only a strong and beautiful character but a smart, peaceful defender of the weak, who is a loving father and husband. Here it is possible to mention Hector or Paris. At the same time, even ancient female characters have evolved in the context of modern cinematography. Hence, there is the image of the heroine as an active character, who is no less important in the plot along with the masculine heroes. Of course, in ancient Greece these aspects were rare, but, for instance, Troy has a strong heroine of Briseis, who is resisting captivity, and who also kills King Agamemnon in the finale of the movie to consolidate her empowering (Winkler 161). As is seen, Hollywood developed and transformed the ancient understanding of a hero and provided it new features that fit the modern culture.

Moreover, since the depiction of the historical events has become the responsibility of the American film industry, there is a latent broadcasting of American cultural values. After all, the US has a long-lasting cultural tradition of drawing parallels and analogies with classical history or myth (Winkler 1). For example, the movie 300 insists on the unconditional nature of three values: freedom, homeland, and family. Everything, which is connected with an attempt to undermine these values, acts as alien or dangerous. In many respects, these values reflect the very American ideology, both politically and culturally, and that is why these values are elevated in the Hollywood interpretation to the absolute. Troy also translates its values thanks to the image of Hector. Thus, the US does not just reflect other cultures in the cinema but enhances their appropriation and adaptation according to their cultural pattern.

In conclusion, the interpretation and comprehension of the epic of ancient Greece became a popular topic for contemporary cinema. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to give a new look to classic stories, and on the other, it is a way to draw certain analogies and to identify modern American culture with antiquity. At the same time, the analysis of films and critics’ findings showed that Troy and 300 largely rethought the image of the classic hero and gave him new qualities that correspond to the spirit of the era and the cultural discourse of the 2000s. Modern mass culture still depicts the hero as brave and strong, but the differences suggest that the hero should also be appealing, noble, just, caring and loving, and possess intelligence and emotional depth. Simultaneously, the depiction of heroes has evolved following experiences and perceptions of the viewers, thus reflecting the adaptation of classical and eternal images to common narratives of romantic heroism, protection of the homeland, and self-sacrifice for the sake of beloved people.

Works Cited

Allen, Alena. “Briseis in Homer, Ovid, and Troy.” Troy: From Homer’s Iliad to Hollywood Epic, Martin M. Winkler, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2009, pp. 148-163, Accessed 29 June 2018.
Blondell, Ruby. “‘Third Cheerleader from the Left’: From Homer’s Helen to Helen of Troy.” Classical Receptions Journal, vol 1, no. 1, 2009, pp. 4-22. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1093/crj/clp003. Accessed 29 June 2018.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 2004.
Cyrino, Monica Silveira, and Meredith E Safran. Classical Myth on Screen. Springer, 2015.
Department of Greek and Roman Art. “Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dbag/hd_dbag.htm.
Ebert, Roger. “Troy Movie Review & Film Summary.” Rogerebert.com, 2004, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/troy-2004. Accessed 29 June 2018.
Kisieliute, Ieva. “This War Will Never Be Forgotten – A Study of Intertextual Relations Between Homer’s Iliad and Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy.” Södertörn University, 2009.
Petersen, Wolfgang. Troy. Warner Bros., 2004.
Pomeroy, Arthur J. A Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2017.
Snyder, Zack. 300. Warner Bros., 2006.
“Troy 101 – Academics Weigh in on Wolfgang Petersen’s Epic.” AMC, 2008, https://www.amc.com/talk/2008/05/troy-101-academics-weigh-in. Accessed 28 June 2018.
Winkler, Martin M. Troy: From Homer’s Iliad to Hollywood Epic. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

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