Director/Screenwriter: Michael Cacoyannis
By Roderick Heath
Euripides’ play, first performed in 415 BC, is one of those jewels that only requires the slightest polishing by a good modern translator to come up as perfect. Not so much a tragedy, or even a drama, it is perhaps more an acted lament, and a tallying up of the horrors humankind can heap upon itself and testament to the small, pitying comforts and paltry flashes of meaning that due honour can bring. Euripides was never popular with his Athenian audiences and judges, who only gave him top laurels at the Drama festival a scant few times over a very long writing career largely because he never quite offered the consoling quality of tragedy as being ruled by inexorable fate. In Euripides’ harshly ironic works, humans were quite often so vile that they needed gods to step in and sort the insanity out, hence his famous dramatic invention, the deus ex machina. The Trojan Women doesn’t even have that (though Poseidon and Athena watch with heavy hearts), for his take on the aftermath of the great Homeric founding myth of Greek nationalism evoked brutality, chauvinism, hysteria, and recrimination.
Written when Euripides’ home city of Athens was engaged in the desperate battle for hegemony with Sparta, with the anxieties of that looming defeat writ large in the work, The Trojan Women is nonetheless one of the most thorough and universal approximations of desolation ever written. It’s distinguished by a relentlessly simple structure: the captured women of the fallen city, famous names all—Queen Hecuba, Andromache, Helen, Cassandra—come out one by one to meet their various fates, to be shoved into someone’s bed or kept as trophy of excellence, and, in Andromache’s excruciating case, to have her young son thrown to his death from the city walls so that he’ll never grown up to be as strong as his father Hector. Cassandra, virgin priestess raped by Ajax, goes half out of her mind and still cursed with foresight in perceiving what will be the grotesque end of her brief fate as Agamemnon’s concubine. Hecuba, stripped of everything that was once her source of majestic pride, is claimed by Odysseus, Homer’s robust intellectual hero always rendered by Euripides as the epitome of conniving politicians. And Helen, loathed by both sides, maintains such fierce self-possession and spirited cunning that she seems the most warlike, victorious entity in Troy.
Michael Cacoyannis (Anglicised from Mihalis Kakogiannis), a director who often adapted stage works and a prominent figure of a small but eye-catching Greek New Wave in early ’60s cinema, had become known worldwide with a Cannes prize-winning version of another Euripides play, Electra (1962), and then his excellent, earthy adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek (1964). His subsequent film career stumbled with the much-loathed gay nuclear comedy The Day the Fish Came Out (1967), and a lot of subsequent missed opportunities, such as often befell European directors of the era who wavered uneasily between their roots and Hollywood. His adaptation of The Trojan Women, however, more than deserves disinterring: it deserves celebration as a sublimely gritty film, with primal intensity in its performances and naturalistic location photography. A few years ago, when Wolfgang Peterson’s prosaic Troy was released, some critics recalled Cacoyannis’ film, and in particular, Irene Papas’ staggering Helen, with new nostalgia. Papas, who had played the ill-fated lover of Alan Bates’ English scholar in Zorba, plays a variation on that character here, a woman whose infernal beauty and galvanising pride—simply for the fact of her being—so outrages the lesser mortals about her that it drives them to screaming, stone-hurling outrage.
Cacoyannis’ adaptation, taken from Edith Hamilton’s respected translation of the play, strips away the metaphysical framing devices and most of the chorus interludes, and introduces the action instead with a functional voiceover to set the scene. This leaves the dramatic dialogues, in which Hecuba, waiting with the hundreds of other Trojan women on the sun-withered hills outside the city, accounts her own woes. She also tries to console Cassandra (Genevieve Bujold), as Greek herald Talthybius (Brian Blessed) comes to fetch her for Agamemnon. Cassandra reels through the vast interior of a holy cave in her unhinged ferocity, singing songs to Hymen, the god of nuptials, a bitterly ironic epistle considering she’s lost her virginity in rape and is about to be dragged off as a sex slave. Andromache (Vanessa Redgrave) keeps her young son Astyanax (Alberto Sanz) close to her whilst her dead husband Hector’s armour is hauled to the Greek encampment as a prize; Talthybius, who detests the grim duties he’s been given but doesn’t shrink from them, tells Andromache that the Greek chieftains have decided Astyanax is to be killed to prevent his growing into a man who might avenge his father.
Although based on classical tragedy, The Trojan Women is very much a product of the cinematic atmosphere of the early ’70s, with its virulent antiwar and protofeminist themes, and very physical New Wave cinematic techniques: sweeping, swooping zoom shots, interludes of aggressively realistic handheld camerawork, and a purposeful lack of artifice in lighting and costuming. Shot in Spain, the baking sun that’s dehydrating and maddening the waiting women is practically palpable. Such verisimilitude was a consistent approach for films tackling venerable material at the time, like Philip Saville’s Oedipus the King (1968), a moderate example, and Pasolini’s “Mythical” and “Medieval” series, or Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), superior ones. Rather than use clouds of ominous portent to suggest tragedy, Cacoyannis’s staging in the heat of the brightest day is both a response to the simple truth of climate, but also canny in making nature as incisive, revealing, and pitiless as the unfolding situation.
Although the look of The Trojan Woman is realistic, the acting styles are more distinctly stylised, though kept mostly just this side of the theatrical. Considering the colossal, outsized emotions and events the actresses must represent, such stylisation is not inappropriate. And the ritualised form of the play is essential to its effect and meaning: it’s not a work of historical reportage, nor does Cacoyannis pretend it’s one. Hepburn uses her dry, snapping voice to wound and snarl and mourn with orchestral effect. The condensed anguish buckles the actresses’ bodies and threatens to wrench their spirits out of their flesh, building to the bloodcurdling moment when Andromache, realising exactly what the Greeks propose to do to her son, emits a slight groaning sound as if she’s been stabbed in the lung, slowly rising to a hideous cry of woe, one of those moments that would make good any claim that Redgrave’s the finest English-speaking actress of the past 40-odd years.
Adapting the device of the chorus to make it work for a modern audience is a difficult feat in the theatre—never mind cinema—and Cacoyannis cut away all of it except for one spellbinding moment when the Trojan women mass together and recount how the city was taken. Cacoyannis, who did his own editing, cuts rapidly through ultra-close-ups of their ranked faces, eyes filling frames as the story of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy drones on, the tale falling from their lips as a litany of betrayals and abuses. The heightened realism works, though it does point to a lack in The Trojan Women as adaptation: Euripides’ choruses were usually the vessels of his finest poetry and offered islets of peace and reflection. Losing most of them robs the story of balance and beauty, but it’s largely necessary to maintaining the kind of dramatic integrity needed in motion pictures, and the film flows with proper remorselessness.
The women are sometimes as much at war with each other, it seems, as they were with the Greeks, and there’s a darkly misanthropic aspect to how each of them tries to outdo the others in listing their woes, as if there’s a kind of triumph in trying to mask and mediate the devastation. Where in any situation but this one grief, loss, and defeat would be ennobling at least in how one’s immediate society treats one, when an entire society has been annihilated, there’s no respite at all, only other haggard, sorrow-corroded faces to look at. Yet fellowship continually asserts itself, as Hecuba chides Cassandra with enough astringent force to bring her daughter out of her hysteria, and instructs Andromache in the arts of accepting cruel decisions. Andromache angrily derides Hecuba’s almost exultant self-celebration as a figure of woe whose sons and husband are now dead, pointing out that such was at least the honourable death of warriors, whilst she’s left to raise a young son with no place in the world—and even that proves to be a better burden than the final one she’s given. Hecuba, with her still explosive, regal energy, turns her own survival and defiance into an ongoing resistance.
The war isn’t even finished yet: the Greeks are still afraid of Hector, parading his armour about on a stand to display their capture of his memory, and still needing the blood of his son to be spilt in the most savage fashion possible. When Menelaus (Patrick Magee) turns up, he asserts complete power over what to do with Helen, the war’s nominal cause, and everyone expects her to be executed for her treachery. Helen lurks, caged like a wild beast, behind the wooden slats of a gated hut. But her guards take no chances, not wanting to be blamed in case Helen, as everyone senses, can weasel her way out of her situation: when soldiers deny the parched, panting prisoners any water, instead pouring out libations for themselves, the guard attempts to surreptitiously slip a dish of it to Helen, immediately stirring the anger of the other prisoners. Helen defiantly doesn’t even drink the water, but strips off her clothes to wash herself, stoking the other women’s wrath to foaming rage; they begin pelting her prison with stones and work up the will to charge the prison, drag her out, and tear her to pieces. The Greek soldiers have to rally to push them back.
Papas’ Helen, when she finally emerges, looks every bit as martially fierce as any warrior, never demurring or trying to look humble even as she attempts to soften Menelaus’ anger, spinning a tale that Hecuba furiously mocks about how she had tried to return to the Greek camp to end the war, and also sharpening her own vicious tongue to a point in reminding her one-time husband that the war, in spite of the Greeks’ aggrieved rhetoric, hasn’t worked out too badly for them. Whilst playing the martyr, Helen still makes it clear that she’s nobody’s victim. Her appeals are successful enough to make Menelaus decide to hold off her execution until they return home, and, as Hecuba recognises, that’s all the foothold she needed to come through this slaughter free and clear. Talthybius presents Hecuba and the other women with Astyanax’s body after he’s been killed, and as both emblem of Troy and final, bleakest sacrifice to the spirit of war, they give him a funeral. As night falls, the Greeks torch what’s left of the city, and Hecuba, in a momentary fit of despair, attempts to hurl herself into the fires, but gives up and shuffles away into slavery with the remaining women.
It’s a sad saga the film recounts, but the final effect of the drama is satisfying only in its total evocation of defeat: all fear, anger, fight, and passion have been exhausted by the conclusion, and there’s nothing left indeed but to accept it and move on—that, of course, is the essence of catharsis. I can’t help but find it a pity Cacoyannis didn’t continue on and film, say, Euripides’ own feel-good sequel Andromache. Cacoyannis evokes Holocaust images as bushels of the women prisoners are rounded up and crowded onto carts to be hauled away, and the final burning of Troy lends the very finish an apocalyptic air, as if all the world’s ending, which, in a way, it is. The film’s immediate political resonances are suggestive, too: Greece was in the hands of a military junta at the time of production, and Cacoyannis’s regular collaborator, Mikis Theodorakis, having once been imprisoned by that regime for his activism, wrote the film’s score whilst in exile. The atmosphere of oppression, destruction, and hate is urgent, and whilst some of the camerawork gets hammy on occasions, that’s the price the film pays for never feels stagy or hidebound—far from it. Whilst the greater part of The Trojan Women‘s drama and effect flows from its words, it’s also vibrant and beautiful cinema, and a vital, bristling, morally engaged artwork.