Skip to content The Open University

Troy: views & reviews

Priam and Achilles

One of the most striking episodes in the film Troy is the exchange between Priam and Achilles when the Trojan king goes to the Greek camp to try to regain the body of Hector, which Achilles has defiled and dragged behind his chariot. In the film the conversation is low-key, framed by the simple and darkly lit interior of Achilles’ tent. The camera focuses on Priam from above and the cultural and psychological force of his supplication is communicated with a close quotation of Priam’s words from Homer Iliad XXIV –

‘I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through;
I have put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children’
(translated RL Lattimore, 1951, lines 505-6)

Robert Fagles in his 1990 translation is slightly crisper –

‘I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before –
I put my lips to the hands of the man who killed my son.’

Homer’s lines, echoed by Lattimore, reflect the emphasis in the episode as a whole on the enormity of Priam’s loss of many sons and on the contrast between his age and mortality and Achilles’ youth and apparent immortality. Even more striking in the treatment in the film is the starkness of Priam’s arrival and departure. Gone is the guidance from Hermes and the assurances from Achilles’ henchman that the gods have prevented Hector’s body from decaying. Also missing are the elaborate supplication and hospitality rituals and the ‘glorious gifts’ for Achilles which were brought on Priam’s wagon as the basis for material exchange of valuables for the valued.

The social aspects of the episode are replaced in the film by a more directly individualistic encounter. Even the resemblance of Priam to Achilles’ own father is enacted rather than embedded in the narrative. The retrieval of Hector’s body is related back to the assurance of honourable treatment that Hector offered Achilles before their final fight, an assurance that Achilles violently and abusively refused. The plea of the wounded Hector in Iliad XXII does not appear in the film and Hector’s offer of and request for honour to the dead is there made only from a position of strength, increasing the nobility with which he is portrayed. In the film Priam’s supplication is mainly verbal. In Homer it is literal and physical – he clasps Achilles knees as well as kissing his hands.

The differences in cultural structures and dramatic details of the scene in Homer and in the film emphasise how key episodes in the story of Troy lend themselves to reinterpretation and refocusing in different situations and for different audiences. The treatment by the Irish poet Michael Longley adapts the material to a different context. Longley’s short poem ‘Ceasefire’ (The Ghost Orchid, 1991, p 39) follows the Homeric outline and includes Achilles’ response to Priam and their meal of reconciliation. However, there is an inversion of Homeric chronology in that only at the end of the poem does Priam’s own voice recount the price that had to be paid –

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son’.

Longley’s poem was composed at the time of the calling of a truce in the Troubles in the North of Ireland and encodes comment on the demands made by reconciliation as well as implicit recognition of the fragility of the truce. His choice of Priam’s comment as the climax to his poem changes the emphasis from the recovery of the body to the actions that are necessary to achieve this.

All three works – Iliad Book XX1V, the film Troy and Longley’s poem ‘Ceasefire’ – respond to a situation that is common to most cultures, the desire for return of the bodies of those who have been killed, the need for families to mourn and hold funerals and the obligation on the victors to treat the defeated with dignity. All three works can be appreciated in their own right but the differences in cultural and political context and in the ways in which the three art forms direct the audience/readers’ emotions and ethical judgements suggest rich potential in returning to the Homeric poems as a basis for cross-cultural comparisons.

Lorna Hardwick

back to Troy

Trojan horse image