This week I have been thinking about the Greeks a lot. Not all that tosh about democracy. Because, as we know, Greek democracy was propped up by a massive slave underclass, was exclusive to male citizens, and took a lot of commitment. No, I’ve been looking at Greek myths. Because frankly, they’re awesome!
I’ve also written a guest blog about ancient Greece for History Behind Game of Thrones, so let’s give that a quick plug, too.
But the main reason I wanted to cover this subject, is to contrast some of the ways that films deal with the subject of Greek myths, the gods and demigods they portray. Specifically, I have been watching Troy (2004), Clash of the Titans (2010), and Immortals (2011). None are overly faithful to the source material, but they stick to the gods you love, the heroes you know, and the plot arcs you expect.
Of the three, the surprise highlight was Immortals. I had low expectations for a film where Mickey Rourke is the bad guy, but it was visually amazing. Take note, Hollywood! The colour palette was carefully prepared, the CGI was relatively low key (compared to Clash’s giant scorpions at least), and the use of effects like speed ramping were tastefully applied.
Still, nothing is as awesome as Liam Neeson commanding ‘Release the Kraken!’
Clash is much more of a romp, bold, colourful, and unashamed. This is impressive, because it has a lot to be ashamed of. This was a film with Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson, and it made both of them seem old and hackneyed. Compared to Troy’s Peter O’Toole, or Immortals’ John Hurt, they’re decidedly wooden.
And Troy? I loved Troy. It set the bar for modern swords and sandals films, but it might honestly be the worst of the bunch. The duel between Hector and Achilles is one of the best I’ve ever seen, but in a lot of other places, the film missed the ball completely.
Given that the story of Troy is one of the most famous stories ever, the film’s decision to focus on the key plot points as much as the character moments is perhaps the wrong way to go. Time spent with Helen and Paris is, frankly, wasted in my eyes. Both lack any real depth.
I have previously both defended and condemned focus on historical accuracy but knowing that the Trojan War was in the middle of the Bronze Age also affects my verdict. I know that armies would not have been uniformed units, but more akin to heavily armoured lords, with less-well equipped retainers behind them. I could go on, but perhaps I’m being too picky?
Bottom line? Less is definitely more. For example, Immortals’ depiction of the minotaur as a man in a bull helmet was a simple, inspired choice that grounded the conflict, without reducing the threat level. Less armour, fewer men in the armies, fewer characters for me to remember. If you can’t make them utterly unique, interesting individuals, cut them out altogether. Some films do this better than others.