Excellent production values, but hard to recommend. A hollow epic. This movie was well-written. It had all the necessary elements of a good epic: a strong warrior lead in Brad Pitt as Achilles, superb acting, superior supporting cast that fit their roles perfectly, excellent and profound dialogue, good slimmed down battle scenes, a focus on the individuals over the masses, bigger than life issues of honor, courage, love, nobility, revenge, greed, gods and country. The problem is that it lacked the most important ingredient that gives true meaning to everything else: transcendence. Oh, it tried to have transcendence, don’t get me wrong. But it quintessentially could not achieve transcendence because it appears that the storytellers (ie: the writer and director) did not themselves believe in transcendence so they fundamentally could not manufacture it no matter how hard they tried. Let me explain. Epics like Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Patriot Games, Last of the Mohicans, Rob Roy, all achieve a profound moving of the heart that lingers in our souls because of the transcendence of the worldview in the story. The characters are fighting for things like freedom, love and honor because they are rooted in a higher reality, a higher law, a higher existence than mortal experience. Now, the truth is that only the triune God of Christianity can provide the necessary philosophical foundation of our belief in such things as human rights, universal freedom, and these things. These movies may reveal that truth to varying greater or lesser degrees, but they point to it nonetheless. And since we are created in the image of God, these truths, no matter how incompletely expressed, resonate in our souls. In Braveheart, we know that king Edward Longshanks is evil and the people of Scotland have a right to freedom because there is a higher king, a higher reality (ie: God and His law) upon which our belief in human rights is founded. But you see, if there is no higher reality, no transcendent law or God, then there is no such thing as evil, and one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter as they say. Without the idea of God, human rights, absolute wrongs are all illusions and reality reduces to the will to power (there goes Nietzsche again). There is no “right” there is only might. So within a worldview that negates transcendence, Longshanks would really be a hero (an “Overman”) because he rejects moral absolutes and creates his own values (As Nietzsche would have it). Longshanks would be beyond good and evil, and beyond criticism. As the Overman, he does not bow to the prejudices of tradition and society, etc.
My point is that this modern/postmodern belief of today, that morality and truth is relative is not workable and does not ring true to us if we play it out in our stories, and no matter how much they protesteth, no matter how much modernists and pomos try to persuade us that there is no objective truth, no absolute right and wrong, no transcendence, it does not resonate with our souls because we are created in the image of God. We know better. And epics are the profound expression of this transcendence. Now, the problem with Troy is not the paganism so much as the humanism. Of course, the paganism is silly superstition, and I concur with the filmmakers’ critique of it. The problem is that the critique comes out of a humanist immanence that ultimately rejects true transcendence and tries to replace it with an Existential appeal to living bravado. The two main warriors, Achilles and Hektor, are both humanists who mock the gods subtley (Hektor with his comments about how many battalions does Apollo command for Troy) or outright (Achilles defiantly cuts off the head of the Apollo statue, a blasphemous act, even to his fellow soldiers). They don’t believe in gods, only the peons and masses of mindless soldiers do. Of course, King Agamemnon doesn’t believe in gods either, but he uses them for his own selfish gain. The point is that through the protagonist and antagonist of Troy we see the storytellers’ contempt for religion. Achilles retorts to his lover that “The gods envy us because we are mortal” rather than the other way around. To him, this life and mortality is of more value than the next life and deity. This is also expressed when he seeks revenge for his cousin’s death because “there is nothing higher” than personal vengeance. In other words, there is no vengeance in the next world. There are no higher things than man’s own existence, than the natural world. There is no supernatural. Achilles is an Existentialist, “Everything is more beautiful because we are doomed.” As if we could not appreciate this life if we are concerned about the next. Achilles is a western individualist as he is the lone warrior who defies King Agamemnon, doesn’t follow orders, is captain of his own fate and master of his own destiny, does what he wants, sleeps with several women at once, parties hardy and cares not for politics and politicians, princes and royalty. Achilles in this film is the American hero, the cowboy of the ancient world, a Greek James Dean. He is the Nietzschean Overman. So because of this nihilistic worldview that there is nothing higher than “this life,” he seeks greatness though glory, through being remembered. That is the dominant theme of this film, that immortality is not spiritual, but mortal. It is through being remembered and not forgotten in this world that we receive glory, not through spiritual transcendence in the next world or after life. It is this world that counts, not the next. The movie ends with the narration that “these names will never die. Men will say “I lived in the time of Hektor, I lived in the time of Achilles.” Okay, that is why the story is ultimately empty and we walk away without really caring about it. Because if there is no higher reality, no transcendence that roots our beliefs in eternity, then all of life is vain, no matter how full you think you may live it. Nothing is of ultimate value, not even personal gratification of the senses. The highest experience of life is but a blink of nothingness in the vast sea of time. All meaning and value is illusion, created by us to soothe us to the truth. Honor, nobility, courage are foolish delusions and are of equal moral value with dishonor, ignobility and cowardice.
Do you see what I mean? The story undercuts it’s own epic values. And this is why it is hard to recommend the film. It has some really great appeals to courage, honor, love, consequences of sin, love of country and loyalty. In the story, Achilles, finds a certain redemption from his selfishness when he realizes his pride and vegeance as wrong and allows the King of Troy to bury his son, rather than desecrating him. Achilles apologizes to his closest officer for his temper tantrum, and seeks true love with a captured priestess of Apollo. Paris starts out a cowardly child and redeems himself as a patriotic warrior willing to die and even fight Achilles. The loyalty of friends and family is seen in Achilles and his cousin and fellow warriors. Servant-like leadership is exalted in the king of Troy versus the power warmonger Agamemnon. These are all good epic values, I won’t deny that. And they were somewhat touching. But you see, all these revelations are empty and especially Achilles’ redemption is a delusion if there is no next life, no transcendence, no God. There is not one whit of a value difference between Achilles repenting or Achilles killing if there is no transcendent reality. There is no redemption and there is no meaning if there is no transcendent reality. So the movie rejects transcendence but then tries to rescue it by maintaining the transcendent values of courage, honor, love and valor that it has already negated. This rational/irrational dialectic makes it a very dissatisfying myth.
Another thing that makes Troy dissatisfying is the modern/postmodern negation of good and evil apparent in the story. There is no good guy or evil guy. Everyone is a mixture of both, with mostly evil. Now, this may satisfy the politically correct pomo agenda that there is no such thing as good and evil sides in any war (and I’m not against a certain amount of it within a bigger context of good and evil), but it makes for bad storytelling in this case because there is no one to root for. There is no good and evil, only the will to power of men and nations. You see? When you try to incarnate postmodernism, it results in empty storytelling. Hollow epics, delusionary love. That is another reason why we leave the theater not caring at all for anyone because they were all just tragically messed up. The closest it comes to good guys are the king of Troy and Hektor. But the king is a relic of an era past and is rather incidental. And Hektor, the most honorable one, good guy Hektor’s goodness and honorableness just leads to his death. So his goodness is his tragic weakness that we know will lead to his downfall in this world of will to power. Well, if you don’t really root for anyone, you’re not going to care at the end how it all turns out because you’re not going to really care for anyone. In short, contrary to the film’s thematic proposition, all of these characters and their story will be easily forgotten because there is no transcendence to the story or to their lives. Here’s what King Solomon said about remembrance:
Ecclesiastes 2:16 For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die!… 24 There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. 25 For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?… 12:13 The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.
NOW THAT’S WORTH REMEMBERING.