A Historical Review of Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy

By Taylor Pierce

Wolfgang Peterson’s retelling of the events of Homer’s Iliad embodied much of what is thought typical of the heroic age of literature: glory, fate, tragedy and irony. However, there were many instances in the movie that make it questionable as historical.

Most people attribute the whole Trojan/Greek conflict to the love affair between Helen of Sparta and Paris of Troy; they imagine how, in the dead of night, the star-struck lovers took to the sea and fled Sparta for the welcoming beaches of Troy, whose impenetrable walls would be the protective citadel of their passions, and whose people would see their lives ending in a tragic case of cause and consequence. Most people do not recognize the fact that Helen and Paris were essentially like the spasm of the muscle that caused the hand to strike the flint that sparked the fire. Though imbedded deeply in the story, the Trojan War would probably have happened otherwise, by means less romantic, due to Agamemnon’s unquenchable desire for conquest.

Troy depicted their role quite well; the lovers' side-story was intentionally underdeveloped compared to that of other characters and the relationships between them, such as Achilles’ decision between his destinies, Hector’s sense of honor, and the struggle and pride of Agamemnon. Orlando Bloom portrayed Paris not as a masculine hero, but as a man more adept between the sheets than on the battlefield, who fumbles with the sword, cowers before certain death at Menelaus’ hand, and kills Achilles by a stroke of dumb-luck and bad aim. The similarities end there. Unfortunately, whether to save from confusion, to make the plot fit into the allotted time for the film, or just to deceive the audience into thinking that the lovers live happily-ever-after, Peterson’s Troy diverges from traditional accounts of the lovers and their fate. The film hardly does justice to Helen’s character, how she, after having made that fateful decision to leave Sparta, becomes a woman filled with remorse and self-loathing; according to Homer’s Iliad, she looks for her brothers Castor and Polydeuces within the hordes of Greeks, but never sees them again. Margaret George’s Helen of Troy gives a fairly accurate account of the events of the Trojan War through the eyes of the tragic heroine, all tinged with the colors of regret and guilt. Helen does not go along blissfully in love, but rather, lives out her days watching all the people she ever loved, Greek and Trojan, die because of her impiety. In Troy, after Paris and Menelaus’ battle, Diane Kruger as Helen soothes the wounded vanity of her boyfriend, claiming that she does not want a hero, but rather a man she can grow old with; such a statement would probably have never been uttered by any former-Spartan, who lived in a day and age when a man’s worse crime would be to face death dishonorably. Realistically, it would have been embarrassing for her, and in actuality she readily scolds Paris for his cowardice. Helen is an unstable character, one whose allegiance and love waver; this all comes in to plain view when, in Homer’s Odyssey, she recounts Odysseus’ slaughter of many Trojans, how she was secretly glad for it, and how she “mourned the infatuation which Aphrodite brought upon (her).” Whether she genuinely had switched teams at half-time isn’t certain, but nonetheless, the true Spartan/Trojan Helen embodies all of the shortcomings associated with women by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, enforcing prejudices that would influence western society for many centuries to come.

The fates of the lovers in Troy, however bittersweet, are completely fictional. Paris and Helen do not flee the burning Troy together by Hector’s secret passageway. They do not live happily-ever-after. They don’t even die in each other’s arms. Paris is killed by the arrows of Heracles before the sacking of Troy, Helen is given to Priam’s next-eldest Deiphobus, who is slaughtered by Menelaus, who then drags Helen back to Sparta with him. Any hint at an ending in Troy that is something other than tragic is due to the director’s sense of artistic liberty and license, and should not be taken as historical fact.

Another major character in both Troy and the Iliad is Achilles, the half-mortal son of Thetis, the water nymph. Brad Pitt plays an ideal Achilles, one whose divine blood shines past his gleaming muscles on the field, and whose brow is forever furrowed in the kind of manly brooding we women come to adore. He is a character torn by a decision; this the audience can see when Thetis prophesies to him in the beginning of the film, as he is about the ship out with his Myrmidons to Troy, that if he goes to war he will surely die a glorious death, but if he refrains from it, his life will be long, fruitful, but eventually be forgotten. With this hanging over his head, he leads many campaigns against Troy, but after relentless opposition from and competition with Agamemnon, he decided to sit out the rest of the war until the stubborn kings begs to have him return.

The film highly exaggerates his affair with Briseis, the aristocratic war-prize, portrayed by Rose Byrne. It is true that Agamemnon demands to have her, but really as a substitute for his own prize rather than as a way to spite the hero, and it is uncertain as to whether or not Achilles treated her as a lover or as a captive concubine. It is more likely that in the film the relationship between the two was sensationalized as a way to balance the testosterone-dominated plot, as a courtesy for the lady folk who undoubtedly lived vicariously through the virgin Briseis as she spent many nights taming the tormented Achilles in his tent. In the movie, the romanticism is taken so far as to suggest that it was her passionate urging for peace that caused Achilles to pull out of the war effort. To believe that a man, crafted by the gods to be a weapon of mass destruction, whose every instinct is warlike and filled with adrenaline, and whose whole goal in the conflict is to glorify himself, would be so easily dissuaded from his path by a woman is highly unlikely. It’s a nice concept, but based on nothing but fiction. It would not be so much of a problem if the idea did not completely contradict the character set by the line in the Epic Cycle, depicting Achilles to be more romantic and humanitarian than the battering-ram that he really was.

It was a common device in the film Troy to alter events and relationships to fit the values of the audience. This is seen with Paris and Helen’s escape into the wilderness, the relationship between Briseis and Achilles, which depicted a healthy, equal man-women affair, and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. In the film, Patroclus is Achilles’ younger cousin, so it was acceptable for the two to get along fondly; this also would explain Achilles’ immense rage when Patroclus is killed accidentally by Hector. On the contrary, the two were not cousins; they were either very close friends, or rather, two males in the common Greek practice of pederasty, in which a younger male becomes the student and lover of an older one. The misrepresentation of the relationship is due to the highly controversial nature of the subject of pederasty, something that, even in Hollywood, people don’t openly tackle.

Achilles is struck by Paris’ arrow sooner in the original retelling of the Trojan War, rather than later, not allowing him to participate in the sacking of Troy, but not necessarily taking him out of the story. His son Neoptolemus, conceived with Deidamia while Achilles was in hiding at Lycomedes’ court, becomes an essential character to the tale, one that it is jarring to see excluded from the film. Whether fueled by the beckoning of his father’s angry spirit, or by the desire to outdo him in wartime accomplishments, Neoptolemus fares well, contributing to the downfall of Troy. Neoptolemus is the one who murders Priam, captures Andromache, and sacrifices Polyxena at his father’s tomb. In the film, Priam is killed by his counterpart, Agememnon, Andromache escapes through Hector’s hidden passageway, and human sacrifices aren’t mentioned.

There were four great kings portrayed in Troy, all of whom have differing reasons for going to war. First is Agamemnon, the generally-agreed-upon antagonist, who typifies the kingly downfalls of greed, stubbornness, and self-righteousness. His reasons for war were purely territorial ones, as it is with most players in most wars. He figures that if he can overthrow Troy, then he will have rule over all of the Aegean Sea, something that even the most peaceable of kings would squabble over. Played by Brian Cox, Agamemnon readily asserts his self-proclaimed authority over the rest of the Greek kings, bullying them with the might of his secret weapon, Achilles, and demanding victory over the Trojans at any cost. Excluded from the film is an example of his militant ideology, when he goes so far as to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis so that he may be seen through the war with success. That’s right, his own daughter; this leads to another conflict between the Epic Cycle and Troy: in the movie, Agamemnon is killed by Briseis, Achilles’ lover, leaving no room for the homecoming of Agamemnon, where according to the Nostoi of the Epic Cycle he is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, who is enraged by the sacrifice of her daughter and seeks retribution.

Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, is the king-by-marriage of Sparta. After hearing of his wife’s adulterous abduction, he goes to Agamemnon, asking his brother to aid him in his vendetta against Troy, most particularly against Paris. Menelaus, played by Brendan Gleeson, is less interested in territorial gain than he is in regaining what he feels is rightfully his. Having obtained Helen fair-and-square, he is unafraid of recalling the oath of Tyndarus, in which all of Helen’s forty suitors swore to protect the rights of the winner of her. In the film, Menelaus falls by Hector’s sword, but this is another fictional twist intended to allow the happy-ending for the lovers. As mentioned earlier, the Spartan king sees the end of the war, retrieves his prize, and live out the rest of his days with relatively little excitement.

Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, whose story is central to Homer’s Odyssey, is remarkably underplayed in Troy. Sean Bean portrays the Greek Odysseus less as a man commended for his intelligence and more as a peacemaker between Agamemnon and Achilles; his only scenes in the movie are the one of him placating Achilles, acting as Agamemnon’s Labrador, or randomly looking off in to the distance, slightly worried, maybe thinking of his wife. When asked why he decided to join forces with Agamemnon in the struggle against Troy, Odysseus shows a small shade of his truer character by replying that he’d rather have all of the Greeks fighting a common enemy than fighting each other. However, as a main character in the Iliad and Odyssey, Odysseus deserves more representation than is bestowed on him in the film.

The aged Priam, played by Peter O’Toole, is the king of Troy and the counterpart in many ways to Agamemnon, yet despite his better qualities, he is not spared from a bitter downfall. O’Toole excellently portrays Priam in Troy as the man who had his eyes so often set on the sky that he neglected to look at what was in front of his face. He agreed to accept Helen into Troy because he believed in the strength of Apollo and the fortifications of his walls, thus agreeing to fight the war and consequently, he doomed his people from the start. Although the old man had his faults, they were uncharacteristic of the greed and land-lust shown in Agamemnon; his flaw was trusting in the gods too much. It could be asserted that Priam was one of the most pitiable characters in Troy, because for the majority of his life, he was a glorified king, loved by his people, who spent his days fathering his fifty sons and presiding over one of the richest cities in the Aegean. But all of a sudden, in his twilight years, he witnesses his favorite son die before him, then watches as that son’s body is tied to the back of a chariot and dragged all around Troy. He has to get down on his feeble knees, humbled, and beg Achilles for his son’s body back. In the matter of one night, he watches as all he ever loved is burned, raped, or pillaged, in a hopeless state, just to be silenced forever by Neoptolemus.

The most striking difference between Troy and the Iliad it so claims to be based on the stark absence of divine intervention. In Homer’s retelling of the event, the gods are so involved in the war that some even fight alongside the soldiers, yet in Troy they are existent only in passing conversation or prophesy. Brad Pitt as Achilles even goes so far as to desecrate Apollo’s temple in Troy, and confide in Briseis that the gods are jealous of mankind’s mortality. It is understandable that he would disregard Apollo, Troy’s patron god, but as a half-mortal, the child of Thetis the water nymph, who at his request pleads with Zeus on his behalf, it seems unlikely that he would ever utter such a statement, even in the privacy of his own bed. The film neglects to tell the story as it was intended, making it a completely human affair, when the gods often influence characters’ judgments, give them super-powers, and even save favored ones from death. For example, Helen is awarded to Paris as a prize for deeming Aphrodite the most beautiful of the goddesses; Hera and Athena are both angered by this decision and side with the Greeks in the war. Zeus incited the Trojan War as a form of thinning out the population of mankind, and often intervenes on both sides. When Paris is about to be killed by Menelaus, Aphrodite delivers him from the battle field and into bed with Helen, saving his life. The gods play favorites, as if they were participating in sport; by excluding this important element of Greek culture and consciousness Troy, cannot be considered a well-rounded depiction of the portrayal of the Trojan conflict.
Troy, in and of itself is a film well worth watching, simply because it is a good movie with an amazing cast and an interesting story-line. It should, however, not be taken as a historical reference, due to alterations far too removed from the original history.


Primary sources for this paper are the works of Homer in translation and the Epic Cycle (Cypria, Aithiopis, ilipoersis, Nostoi and Telegony).

Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II translated by Christopher Cranch. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2007.

George, Margaret. Helen of Troy. New York: Penguin Publishing, 2006.