Posted by: gdevi | January 12, 2011

Movie Review: The Trojan Women (1971)

Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women (415 BCE) is plotless and thus constitutes a significant challenge to the cinematic form as we conventionally understand it: what do we do with all this screen time? Who wants to pay money to experience duration?  But as with anything lacking in linear temporal excitement, The Trojan Women, both the original play and Michael Cacoyannis’s screen adaptation, immerse us in the tormenting vertical dimension of individual subjective time, time experienced by each character in harrowing detail.

The story starts at the end of the Trojan war; Greece has completely destroyed Troy, killed or taken every Trojan man prisoner, and has gathered all the women and children of the city to be taken to Greece as slaves. It is a stony, ruined setting faithful to the original play. The original chorus that sings the strophic and antistrophic odes in the Greek tragedy are played by a mass of black-clad ruined women wailing for their killed husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. As the movie opens, these Trojan women headed by their ruined queen Hecuba (Katherine Hepburn), Priam’s widow are visited by the Greek messenger to tell them what the Greeks have planned for them. Women and children are the spoils of the war and they are going to be apportioned thusly: Hecuba will become Odysseus’s slave; King Agamemnon will take her virgin daughter Cassandra (Genevieve Bujold) for his mistress; Andromache (Vanessa Redgrave), Hector’s wife will become Odysseus’s son’s slave. Unbeknownst to Hecuba, the Greeks have already taken her other daughter Polyxena and killed her on Achilles’s grave as a sacrifice. Katherine Hepburn’s exchanges with the Greek messenger ( in Edith Hamilton’s verse translation from the original Greek) shows us how the sheer physical despondency of an outraged, grieving, enraged mother, wife and queen confined to a hillside can invest any space big or small with the agony of an irreversible curse. Hepburn is particularly poignant as she goes to comfort her deranged daughter Cassandra soon to be raped by Ajax and taken to Greece as Agamemnon’s mistress; Hecuba takes the flaming torch from Cassandra’s hands telling her, “you’re holding it wrongly,” slowly leading her down from the neck of the cliff. It is customary to speak of wars having two sides to the story: there are no two sides to the destruction of Troy. The sheer accumulation of both calculated and gratuitous violence unleashed on Trojans by the Greeks, the greed and profiteering from the war–Euripides shows us an immoral war in all its gore, its iconic shame embodied in the glamorously decked-out Helen who moves about the ruined Trojan women with one accustomed to the finer things in life and always on the side of the victors.  A young Genevieve Bujold, the French-Canadian actress plays Cassandra with equal parts pristine terror and mature clairvoyance; Apollo had given her the gift of prophecy with the curse that no one will believe her–she knows as she leaves that Agamemnon who is taking her as a slave will be killed and so will she.

Reading Homer’s Iliad is one of those life-changing experiences; the sheer density of human experience packed into epics such as the Iliad or the Mahabharata will color how you view the world forever. In Homer’s Iliad, Andromache’s book is one of the most poignant and painful books to read; in this war-epic, Andromache is the strongest voice against war. The great Vanessa Redgrave is unforgettable as Andromache in the movie version; unlike Helen, Andromache represents women who don’t play along with patriarchy. When told by the Greek messenger that the Greeks have decided to kill her young son Astyanax so that Hector’s line will die and that Troy will never have a king, Andromache tells him, “I gave birth to Hector’s son to raise him, not for the Greeks to slay him.” The chasing and killing of the young boy Astyanax in some ways violates the injunction against spectacle in the Greek theatre, but these are ritually stylized in their on-screen portrayal thus lending them a sober and unsentimental quality. Even Redgrave’s wailing has this quality; it is meant to distance you from the spectacle, not to grab you into it.

The Greek actress Irene Papas portrays Helen, the fourth lead character in The Trojan Women. Of all the women characters, Helen has the least depth and development of character, perhaps owing to her treatment in historical records. Helen, courted by many men, was given in marriage to Menelaus of Sparta from where she eloped (or was kidnapped–but all versions agree that Helen was in love with Paris, the Trojan prince) with Paris to Troy thus marking the beginning of the Trojan war. Historical records portray Helen as a woman who seduced men to live a life of pleasure and leisure; she takes Menelaus’s wealth when she leaves with Paris. When Paris is killed, she takes Paris’s younger brother as her lover. When Greek victory becomes imminent, she hides the young man’s sword, thus assisting Menelaus to kill him. Irene Papas plays Helen in a historically faithful manner. Her glamorous appearance in opulent clothes and expensive jewelry amongst the ruined women, her long speeches to excuse herself, her seductive reasoning with Menelaus appealing to his love and status, appealing to his sexuality, appealing to his ability to forgive her, flattering his vanity–Papas plays these distasteful moments with just the right amount of restraint, corruption and exposure–as in her pursed smile as Hecuba recounts the death of all of her sons. With the four women–Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache and Helen we see the real contrast between women who lose everything in wars and those who survive and profit by siding with the victors. Helen is the least woman-like character in The Trojan Women; ethically she is a Greek man.

Euripides’ tragedy is itself not an easy read, and this is a harrowing movie to watch as well.  I had seen this movie version years ago at a British Council showing and was really pleased to find it on Netflix. It is a theatrical movie, in the sense that the director is faithful to the original drama text.  With its intimate exposure of a destroyed world through the tormented lives of three women and its uncompromising portrayal of the human cost of man-made wars, The Trojan Women still has the power to deliver  its anti-war message in our troubled times.

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