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Fame, Achilles and Troy, the Movie

As Troy (2004) opens, a young boy asks an over-sexed and hung over Achilles why he goes to fight, considering that his opponent is so monstrously huge and terrifying. Achilles turns to the boy and says, “That is why no one will remember your name.”

In screenwriter David Benioff and director Wolfgang Peterson’s version of the Trojan War, Achilles fights for fame.  He doesn’t care about Greece or the Delian league. He doesn’t point to the two naked women in his bed and say, “That’s why.” He doesn’t mention the respect, or his desire to protect his homeland. No, he wants to be remembered, hopefully for a thousand years. This is, perhaps, the worst character motivation in the history of cinema.

When translating ancient literature to film, the old junk gets cut and replaced with modern themes and motivations. I accept this. However, Achilles’ desire for glory does not work as a modern theme. They take the character flaws of vanity and pride -- traits we can all relate to -- and change them to an obsession with fame only movie starlets, star atheletes, and reality show C-Listers can relate to. He might as well say, “I fight because I want Hollywood to make films about me in 2004.” It’s circular logic: this movie’s production is also Achilles motivation.

This logic, and motivation, is fundamentally flawed. Who can predict who/what will be remembered in later years? The Trojan War allegedly took place during the dark ages of ancient Greece -- not a great time to record your history for posterity. Wars and famine routinely wiped out whole city states. The Greek language fundamentally changed after the alleged war. Poets and dramatists, including Homer, rewrote stories as they saw fit.

In fact, very little from Greek antiquity made it to modern times. How many plays by Euripides, Sophocles and Aechysclus, among countless others have we lost? It’s a miracle we have anything. Despite these hurdles, Achilles believes that he will be remembered? I doubt it.

Realism, historical accuracy, and literary faithfulness aside, this is a terrible moral justification. Going to war to achieve fame has to be the saddest explanation for taking another person’s life I’ve ever heard. You know who kills to be famous? Serial killers.

Finally, in the context of the modern soldier, this reason rings hollow. No soldier went to World War II or Iraq saying, “I want to be famous.” Just writing it feels ridiculous. Now, how many actors and film makers go to Hollywood to become famous? Exactly.

four comments

For modern times, you’re absolutely right. But that was one of the things that TROY got right about the Iliad —- according to Homer, Achilles fought for enduring fame. He was a warrior, not a soldier, and his different value system echoes that. Warriors of that time needed a name to attract followers. Followers were the route to money and power through the ability to sack towns and cities and extort protection money. The kings of the Iliad were little more than pirate lords and glorified bandits —- Odysseus and Achilles both brag about such exploits regularly.

Vikings lived by a similar code. The closest thing we have to that nowadays is maybe the warlord armies of the Congo, or men like Hekmatyar and Haqqani and Dostum in Afghanistan. And it’s a great thing that we in the First World live in an age of soldiers rather than warriors.

Men have fought for glory since the dawn of conflict. They do it now in mma and ufc form. And they are remembered for it. As far as our last century, what name will be most remembered?Einstein? Dr. King? Hannah Montana? Or maybe Hitler for cauing the deaths of millions?

Great comments all around. I totally agree that warriors fight for honor, which I think is shallow, but I think honor is different than fame, especially in the modern context.

Since I mostly read the Odyssey in high school, I did some research before I wrote the article (mainly spark notes and cliff notes.) They confirm what I said in the third paragraph: Achilles main attribute was pride, and pride is different then fame. He acted brashly and often destructively to protect his honor, but he didn’t do it for fame, especially not our modern conception of fame. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here.

And in the Iliad, Achilles looks bad, and his portrayal was negative. The film portrayed him as noble. Why? because he was played by Brad Pitt, and Hollywood doesn’t like nuance.

It should also be mentioned that while the film had some intricate fight scenes, generally it was pretty loose with how wel it followed the original (or as close to the original that survived. Like how the war lasted weeks instead of decades, the death of Ajax, and the whole character of Odysseus. So long as the violence looks good I guess you can scimp on accuracy I guess.