Briseis is revealed as Achilles’ Achilles’ heel in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004), a cleverly postmodern retelling of the plot of Homer’s Iliad. Homer himself enclosed the Calydonian boar hunt in his Iliad, a myth within the myth, as both a nod to what was previously big box office for bards, and a guide to old hat newly worn (Iliad: Loeb 1991 edition, 9.529–605; Fagles 1990 translation, 9.646–737). Phoenix’s internal account of the mythical Meleagar thus mirrors Homer’s own innovative portrayal of the insufficient merit, in the archaic age, of a virtuous warrior’s mere rage. Petersen’s own Troy likewise constructs a new story around the re-interpreted core events of an old myth, appropriating and humanizing the characters for a new age.
In Homer, Briseis is a bit part. She is mere booty, a prize occasioning Achilles and Agamemnon’s quarrel as they compete for wartime power and recognition (Iliad: Loeb 1.118–187, 285–303; Fagles 1.138–221, 334–355). Homer uses this quarrel to explore the common humanity of both Achilles and Agamemnon. Eventually they abandon the mad fantasies that have shattered their lives (Iliad: Loeb 9.17–28, 9.115–116, 16.96–100; Fagles 9.19–32, 9.137–139, 16.115–119). Homer ends with their reconciliation to each other and also with Achilles’ reconciliation to his own mortality (Iliad: Loeb 23.884–895, 24.506–551; Fagles 23.979–92, 24.591–646). The theme of the narrative, as announced in its famous opening line, is thus Achilles’ resentment; and, as Eric Gans has argued, the poem exhibits the cultural expulsion of this ethically destructive and morally potent rage, thus attaining its narrative closure.
In the Troy movie, Briseis reprises her role as the narrative’s plot device. But she assumes a new centrality with her postmodern victim status. Disappointingly, Agamemnon is a stock Hollywood villain with no redeeming qualities, and he gets his (politically correct) postmodern comeuppance when the empowered female victim, Briseis, kills him with her knife. This spares Clytaemestra her famous murder (Odyssey: Loeb 1995 edition, 11.387–466, 24.199–204; Fagles 1996 translation, 11.439–529, 24.219–225), and also, in our own age of global war, amidst wild accusations of empire, demographically satisfies the resentment of the masses on the periphery, but with the cheapest of pop culture’s narrative tricks: killing the purported “bad guy.” Achilles himself arrives too late to rescue Briseis, the feminist damsel in distress. But he is not too late to be shot down by Paris’ arrows, the first one penetrating into his notable heel. Briseis thus becomes (in the movie’s reinterpretation of the human desires driving the Trojan War) Achilles’ fatal weakness (whereas in Homer it is his outsized rage and resentment).
The formally clichéd tragic Hollywood ending is deployed, however, with self-conscious formal innovations involving the new femme fatale, Briseis. Played out in an A.D.D. time span of days, and not (as in Homer) as the culmination of a ten-year war, Achilles’ character arc is reconfigured to pivot on new heroic content: his erotic surrender under Briseis’ knife. His heroism is thus rehabilitated (according to postmodern necessity) by Briseis. She allows him to get in touch with his sensitive side, to make the fatal decision: to resolve to abandon the Trojan War, and to sail for Greece with her. Patroclus’ death functions to dispel this fantasy (which here romantically doubles Helen’s; but compare Homer’s version in the Iliad: Loeb 16.96–100; Fagles 16.115–119). Achilles’ reconceived character thus marks the movie as an intelligent postmodern reflection on the clichéd sacrificial requirements still requisite for politically correct aesthetics. Although belatedly (and anachronistically) heroic for his lover Briseis, Achilles must die in a violent Hollywood catharsis anyway. Yet Paris’ arrows bring salvific release for the classical hero, in a redemption palatable to the romantics of the new millennium.
In this postmodern retelling of the legend, it is Achilles’ desire to rescue Briseis from the sack of Troy, and to play the apparently obsolete male hero, that constitutes his fatal mythical flaw, rendering the warrior vulnerable. But his willing sacrifice of himself to these (politically correct) postmodern narrative exigencies is what tragically highlights the problem that Briseis’ newfound victimary centrality poses for classical male heroism. Both erotic and martial desire (Paris and Patroclus) claim victim status, putting the affirmative action on the victims’ behalf (Hector and Achilles, respectively) into plot-driving conflict. The sacrificial solution reveals a doubling of the romantic tragedy: if Paris and Helen are victims, then so are Achilles and Briseis. But this Hollywood ending is not just Achilles’ but also postmodernism’s Achilles’ heel: Apollo’s delayed sacrifice of the impious Achilles to his priestess Briseis, reconstitutes Achilles’ real (and heretofore undisclosed) glory—as nothing less than immortal chivalry.
[Line numbers for Homer’s Greek text are cited according to the Loeb Classical Library editions of Homer. For the English translation, I cite my favorite, by Robert Fagles, which follows its own line numbering system. I provide references to both, to facilitate maximum reading pleasure.]
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Gans, Eric. “The Culture of Resentment,” Philosophy and Literature 8.1 (1984): 55–66.
Homer, The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin, 1990.
Homer, The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin, 1996.
Homer, The Iliad. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press, 1999.
Homer, The Odyssey. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press, 1995.