Troy: behind the scenes of a Hollywood epic
It’s not often that museum curators get to hang out on Hollywood film sets. But it happened to me during the making of Troy, starring Brad Pitt and released by Warner Brothers in 2004. Director Wolfgang Petersen generously invited me both to visit Shepperton Studios and to spend a week in Malta watching the film being made.
It was exciting beyond belief to stand in the banqueting hall in Sparta while Paris and Helen carried on their dangerous liaison under cover of a boozy party, then to see Menelaus in Mycenae, persuading Agamemnon to lead the combined Greek forces to get Helen back. They hugged in apparent solidarity, but the glance that Agamemnon (Brian Cox) gave over Menelaus’ shoulder was a gleam of pure cupidity. The riches of Troy were in his eye, and clearly his real aim. Meanwhile, back in Troy – actually Shepperton Studios – Priam called a formal council, and the ever-adorable Hector (Eric Bana), reliably heroic but also sensible, tried hard to find alternatives to fighting this destructive war.
Of course the war was inevitable. I didn’t see the fighting scenes, which were not all filmed in Malta, but it was gruesome enough to see the props store, where shelves held horribly realistic severed heads, impaled bodies and damaged limbs. There were also endless weapons – shields, swords and spears – and a whole sub-team of people whose expertise lay in how to use them to create convincing fights. Yet another sub-team looked after the training of the Greek rowers in their carefully-reproduced ancient ships. They were practising in the Grand Harbour at Valletta and looked really good – you would never have guessed that each ship had a small motor hidden away, just in case the crews needed a bit of extra help!
It was fascinating to observe the process of film-making. The days were long and the work was intensive, requiring immense discipline. Although so many people were involved, and each set was quite crowded, absolute silence reigned during takes. You could have heard a pin drop – and when a hairdresser did indeed drop a pin, she nearly died of embarrassment. The actors repeated the scenes until the director uttered the longed-for words ‘check the gate.’ Nope, me neither – it’s something technical – but it meant the scene was finished and the process could move on.
The work demanded fierce concentration from all concerned, but there were also times when the actors were free to chat. I spent a happy five minutes with Agamemnon and Menelaus (Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson), both larger-than-life figures in their kingly costumes, who were sitting together between takes and joking about how uncomfortable their sandals were. Eric Bana showed me how to work the coffee machine and was as nice in real life as Hector is in the story. Orlando Bloom gave me autographs for my then-teenage daughters – yes, I know – I was crass enough to ask! But he was very kind, and drew hearts on them. My youngest daughter put hers in a silver frame, and I think she worships it still.
And of course, everyone’s question – did I get to meet Brad Pitt? Well, I’ll come to that in a moment…
First, I should explain how all this happened, and what I was doing there – apart, that is, from having a great time. It began with a phone call on an otherwise quiet day in the Greek and Roman department at the British Museum, where I was curator of the Greek Bronze Age collection. The Bronze Age, particularly the period around the 13th century BC, provides a feasible background for the story of the Trojan War. At this time, Mycenae was indeed powerful and influential, while Troy was a rich and strongly-fortified citadel. We have no evidence that the war really happened in the way that is described in Homer, but the archaeology of these two sites provides a possible backdrop for any such event. However, as you will know if you have seen our BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality, this is a complicated matter. The Greeks believed the war had happened at some early stage in their past, but this was not a period when history was recorded. Rather, Homer and the other bards who told the tale in around the eighth and seventh centuries BC inherited it in an oral tradition. This was poetry that was designed to be recited and listened to, not written down and read. So the story could evolve and change with each retelling, like a rolling stone gathering some things and losing others over time. The tradition was not fixed until around the sixth century BC and, even then, the tale was a springboard for invention in the hands of both writers and artists.
I had all this in the back of my mind when I picked up the phone and began to answer a question from one of the film-makers – actually about Bronze Age maps. One thing led to another, and over the course of the next few weeks I did my best with various questions. What pose should Priam adopt when worshipping the gods? What ancient Greek words should dying warriors mutter to create grim atmosphere in the aftermath of battle? Did the heroes smoke after a banquet, and if so, what? This last one took me by surprise – I could only surmise that they might have breathed in fumes of incense or perfumed oils, but they certainly wouldn’t have produced pipes or cigars. I tried to answer all the questions, but always found myself up against the question of ‘authenticity.’ The film-makers were serious about authenticity, but I had to keep saying that it was complicated, and it depended on what they wanted to be authentic to. To the Bronze Age? To the supposed time of Homer? To the world of Classical Greece, when art was full of Trojan War scenes , but envisaged in a 5th-century way?
In general, they were trying to be as Bronze Age as possible, but already by the time of my involvement all sorts of compromises had been made. The film was well into production, and in fact my answers didn’t have any noticeable impact on its finished state. As you will know if you have seen it, the film draws visual inspiration from many different archaeological sources. Some are Bronze Age – Mycenae has its Lion Gate, though brought indoors for the purpose, while Troy looks much like the Minoan palace of Knossos with its red, downward-tapering columns. Other elements are later – the statues in Priam’s palace and Helen’s flowing robes are two examples – while Middle Eastern cultures have an influence on some weaponry and props.
I told them all I knew about Bronze Age postures for worshipping – which was quite a lot, because figurines show worshippers with one hand to their forehead or both forearms held upwards against the chest – but in the end Priam (Peter O’Toole) knelt before his post-Bronze-Age statues of the gods. This was not surprising – the small-scale representations of the gods that we know from Bronze Age archaeology would have looked odd to modern audiences, and we are very used to people kneeling to pray. The ancient bards changed the stories to make sense to each new generation of listeners, so the film-makers had good precedents for doing the same. Nonetheless, they took some liberties that outraged scholars. The placing of coins on the eyes of the dead was hopelessly anachronistic, if this was meant to be a time before coinage was invented. But again, dramatic imperatives won out over archaeological evidence. And you can’t help but feel that this was right – the aim was not to make an archaeological documentary, but a good film.
Yet even if we forgive, and even enjoy, the rich but not really coherent visual picture, what do we make of how faithfully the film followed the myth? It’s time for a spoiler alert, because the fates of certain characters were completely different. Again this caused spluttering outrage from those who know their Greek myths, and one can see why. How can Menelaus die at Troy, when we ‘know’ he and Helen went back to Sparta together after the Trojan War? At least, that’s what most ancient versions of the story say. Similarly, how could Paris and Helen escape together into an entirely Hollywood happy ending, when she went back home and he was killed? Perhaps above all, what happens to the rest of the story of Agamemnon, if he dies? We all know he should go back to Mycenae and be killed in his bath by his wife Clytemnestra . And even if we don’t all know it, the great 5th-century Athenian tragedian Aeschylus did. In his Oresteia trilogy, he tells this continuation of the tale in three of the most brilliant Greek tragedies to have survived. Yet it couldn’t have happened in the world of the film, where Agamemnon doesn’t make it home.
Well, the credits read ‘inspired by Homer’s Iliad’ but make no claim to stick to it or any ancient version of the myth particularly closely. Indeed, scriptwriter David Benioff (later of Game of Thrones fame) said, ‘I’m not worried about desecrating a classic. Homer will survive Hollywood,’ and this is undoubtedly true. Director Wolfgang Petersen both knew and respected the classical texts and was perfectly well aware of how his version differed from them. But his artistic aim, and his job, was to make an epic version of the tale that would involve and engross the widest possible audiences. So we should probably take off our Classics heads, and just judge whether it is a good film. Audiences world-wide certainly thought so, and box-office success is of course the ultimate benchmark for an expensive Hollywood production.
One major scene in the film does, though, both closely follow the account in the Iliad and remain immensely moving on the big screen. This is when old King Priam bravely goes in to the Greek camp at night to beg Achilles for the body of his son Hector. Achilles, in his fury, has become nothing more than a killing-machine at this stage in the story. His anger and grief over the death of Patroclus have drained all humanity from him. He has not only killed Hector, but daily misuses his corpse, dragging it bloodily behind his chariot. Priam approaches him and kneels to kiss his hand. His words in the film are:
I have endured what no man on earth has endured. I have kissed the hands of the man who killed my son.
This is essentially word for word what he says in the Iliad (Book 24, lines 504-6) and the whole scene is a pivotal point in the poem. The Iliad is the story of Achilles and his rage – and here, towards the end of the poem, is the resolution of his anger and his redemption as a human being. He weeps with Priam, seeing in him a reflection of his own father, whom he knows will also soon be bereaved. He has chosen his fate – a short but glorious life and eternal fame – but now sees the human cost. He has regained empathy and gives Hector’s body back, allowing Priam to take it safely from the Greek camp to Troy. The funeral of Hector closes the poem. The film has more to tell, including the story of the Wooden Horse and the eventual fall of Troy. It too ends with funeral rites, but this time of Achilles himself. Leave aside any irritation with the coins on eyes, and enjoy the final monologue by Odysseus (Sean Bean), which always sends a shiver down my spine. Sadly I didn’t meet him, but I think his closing words are one of the best bits of the film:
If they ever tell my story, let them say that I walked with giants. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Hector, tamer of horses. Let them say I lived in the time of Achilles.
And finally – did I meet Brad Pitt? I wasn’t scheduled to see any of his scenes, and heard that he was away practising sword-fighting in the mountains. But on the one day off from filming during my week in Malta, we all went out for dinner in a restaurant in Valletta. I sat next to the film’s military advisor and, as we walked out together down the (quite dark) stairwell, I bumped into a familiar figure. Blond, with a back-to-front baseball cap, I recognised (or thought I did) Garrett Hedlund, the young actor who played Patroclus. In the film, Patroclus was portrayed not as Achilles’ lover but as his cousin, so Garrett had been chosen partly because of a general resemblance to Brad Pitt. You see where this is going. I’d met him a few times, so I said to him, ‘Hi. How are you?’ He said he was fine and asked how I was. I said fine, too, then I said, ‘Are you coming on to this salsa club now?’ because that was the general plan. He said he was, so I said ‘See you there’ and he said ‘Yes, see you there.’
Then the military adviser said to me, ‘Do you know who you were just talking to?’ I said ‘Garrett Hedlund,’ and he said ‘No…’
… and that was when I realised I had made a date with Brad Pitt!
The BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality ran from 21 November 2019 – 8 March 2020.
Buy the book accompanying the exhibition here.
Supported by BP