THE FURY OF ACHILLES – the film for CLASSICAL MYTHOLOGY
Opening: FADE IN:
The image of a bust Homer calls the muses to give him inspiration to tell the story. The nine muses are the daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, ruler of the gods. “O heavenly goddess, tell me of the many woes brought upon the Greeks by the wrath (anger) of Achilles.”
CUE ANNOUNCER: A narrator tells us that THE ILIAD of Homer begins outside the walls of Troy. “For ten long years, the Greek army has vainly besieged the city, and if the Trojans have suffered under this relentless assault, the Greeks too feel the hardships of war. Exhausted by many battles and short of supplies, the Greeks are camped on the coast where they live by ravaging the countryside. All the towns along the coast have been sacked, and now the Greeks are forced to look farther afield for plunder [A map shows that we are inland, away from the coast]. The expedition is marching against the city of Lynessos. It is led by Agamemnon, son of Atreus, King of Mycenaean Corinth, commander of all the Greek armies. With him is Ulysses [Odysseus] of Ithaka, wisest and most cunning of all Greek warriors.
“But stronger than all others is Achilles, King of Phthia, son of Peleus and Thetis [a minor goddess]. This famous hero has been made invulnerable by divine will. With Achilles is Patroclus, his best friend; they have fought together in a hundred battles. Before such an array of force [sic], the city of Lynessos is doomed.”
Thus begins a film that is surprisingly faithful to Homer’s original THE ILIAD, much more so than bigger-budgeted films such as TROY and the 1956 HELEN OF TROY, directed by Robert Wise and featuring a stellar British cast.
Writing negative reviews of these low-budget, sword-and-sandal, Italian- made pec-taculars is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unfortunately, there is much to criticize: poorly dubbed dialogue, scratchy prints, washed out colors, ludicrous battle scenes, and plots that little to do with anything historical or mythological. These films still have their fans, and I don’t mean only teachers of mythology and world literature like myself, but there are not enough of them to make something like a Trekkie fan convention profitable. They merely exist as remnants of a time — late 1950s and early 1960s — when these imports were flooding the drive-in and second-feature market.
Then along comes a little film like THE FURY OF ACHILLES which remains true to Homer’s epic poem — including attempts at reproducing the inflated poetic language, stilted though it is as presented by wooden actors. Only the much-longer, made-for-TV version of HELEN OF TROY tries to be as faithful to Homer, but this latter effort — made cartoonish by the heavy handed use of CGI — crashes like a computer.
The army gathers, waiting until Agamemnon gives the order to attack. The battle cry of Achilles is “Phthia,” echoed by his troops. But this Achilles is not a pretty boy like Brad Pitt; he is an ugly but muscular actor named Gordon Mitchell who looks as though he could bench press Volkswagens. Despite his horrible acting, or the inept dubbing of his voice, he has the presence to suggest an Olympian-type hero. He looks as though he could knock down a hoard of men, unlike Brad Pitt at the beginning of TROY who leaps into the air in slow-motion and plunges his sword down through the body of a giant pillar of a warrior who obliges him by standing still long enough to be slain.
The next morning, after the capture of Lynessos, Patroclus and Achilles are oogling the women, particularly Zania [a blonde with the heavy eye make-up] and Briseis. Achilles says: “That pretty little girl in the yellow dress [Briseis] already knows I’m thinking of her. When my turn comes, I’ll choose her.”
When Patroclus says he wants her companion, Achilles says: “Unfortunately, Agamemon has first choice. But we don’t have to worry about Ulysses. Who do you think that gold brazier will go to, for example?”
Patroclus: “His wife needn’t worry as long as there’s gold. He’ll be faithful to her.” What gold has to do with his being faithful to his wife, Penelope, is not made clear to me, nor is Achilles’ next statement: “And to Hermes, the god of thieves. But his greed does not displease me.” Patroclus says that he sees what he means; I’m glad that Patroclus understands because but I don’t.
The dialogue is like this throughout the film, particularly when Agamemnon starts spouting his lines, or when Hector, sometimes accompanied by soulful music, is speaking to the Trojans. “Agamemnon, Ulysses, Achilles and Patroclus are away on an expedition. What are we waiting for? Without these leaders, the Greeks on the coast are completely lacking in authority, cunning, and strength.”
Hector knows that he “shall die by the hand of Achilles. . . according to the oracle.” Paris, whose abduction of Helen caused the entire mess, tries to say something but is cut off by the king. “If I fear the king of Phthia, the invulnerable, it is only because my services are useful to my country. On the day of victory, Achilles can drive his lance through my body and throw me to the dogs, as he promised.”
This is what I mean by the poetic language. Unfortunately, we don’t see Cassandra or Hecuba in this film, but neither do they appear in the mega-hit TROY.
Priam: “At last, you all know what the oracle said. [Apollo’s Oracle of Delphi, which, of course, predicts the future.] It’s true, and it is terrible for me as a father.” And not too cheerful for Hector either.
Later Briseis discovers that Achilles’ hide is magical when she tries to stab him with a dagger. She approaches him from the back as the music swells to indicate suspense. She stabs him in the back, but the dagger blade melts when it contacts his body. Sparks fly out. He is invulnerable except for one spot, but even he does not know where it is.
Achilles is enraged: “Hector flees me. And a female from Lynessos dares so much?? What do you want me to do with you, break you in like a wild mare? Throw you into the arms of my warriors?”
The melting dagger is a good touch, as is a later scene when Minera materializes to stop him from killing the arrogant and rude Agamemnon. These scenes keep us in touch with the gods that are a necessary and important aspect of Homer’s epic poem. Achilles tells Briseis that he is not invulnerable or immortal.
In one of the longer speeches in the film, he tells her: “Even you could have killed me. The vagrant gods protect all of me . . . except one spot. A fighting machine. . .created to destroy. . . and that also can be destroyed. . . when and where they [the gods] wish. As I said, you could have killed me. It is not necessary to be a hero. A child could have killed me. . . providing he struck me in the right spot. I do not know where they fatal point is, but I know that I will not return alive from Troy. This the Oracle said before I left Greece – that Troy will only fall after the death of Hector – that Hector must be killed by Achilles, but that I Achilles will die after the death of Hector. Immediately after. Thus spoke the Oracle, Briseis. The other warriors have hopes of defending themselves against death. . . and surviving. . . to return home. But not I. Thus I ask of the wine as I ask of your beauty: the illusion of being a man like all the others. But when I drink too much wine, I behave like an animal. And you repulsed me, denying me the gift that out of pity you would give to the least of my warriors.”
Apollo, unlike Achilles’ mother and Minerva, is never seen, but we do hear his echoing voice and see his powerful touch. Chryses is given his chance to deliver a powerful speech. With science-fiction music (a theramin) on the soundtrack to indicate that supernatural events are taking place. He says: “Divine, Apollo, god of the Silver Bow, your priest has nothing more to ask of you. It is right that you abandon one not able to defend your sacred altar. But Apollo, as a father, I implore your assistance, father who must lament the unjust fate of his daughter, she who also, 0 god, offered you her many prayers and sacrifices and spirit of purest love. [Thunder on the soundtrack] Apollo. Apollo. Chryseis is at the mercy of a pitiless enemy. Her youthful gentleness and her beauty – her very honor – is consecrated to you, has now become the pleasing of the Greeks as fate desires. Apollo, protect my daughter. I beg you to hear the words of Chryses, your priest, and save my poor child.”
Apollo’s voice echoes as if in an empty room to suggest his divine nature. He tells him to go to the camp of the Greeks and lay wealth before King Agamemnon. When Chryses asks what wealth can he offer him, a lightning bolt splits open the altar stone. A vast treasure is revealed within it. Chryses examines the abundant wealth. Then, with the theramin music again in the background, a white chariot drawn by white horses materializes in the temple – a divine gift.
Throughout this film we find these minor gems of moments that one rarely finds in this genre. It a compact version of Homer, yes, but it delivers the basics of the story. For students studying mythology and world literature, it is a good introduction. It is not overly graphic like TROY and is suitable for younger aged students. Even the inevitable, climactic man-to-man duel between Achilles and Hector is shown with its tragic as well as heroic aspects.
Despite the flaws in this DVD version — and maybe a clearer one doesn’t exist because no good negative remains — I highly recommend it as an introduction to Greek mythology. The director wisely decided not to rewrite the ending of the story with Agamemnon and Menelaus being killed and Paris surviving to escape with Helen.
If I had the time in class, I would show this film and the 1956 version of HELEN OF TROY or THE TROJAN HORSE. Given only one choice, however, I would be tempted to lean toward this THE FURY OF ACHILLES. Check it out yourselves, mythology scholars and teachers, and see what you think.
The Italian film THE TROJAN HORSE with Steve Reeves as Aeneas and John Drew Barrymore chewing up the scenery as Ulysses begins almost where this one ends. THE FURY OF ACHILLES, like Homer’s THE ILIAD, ends before the Trojan horse appears. It might not be as well-made as HELEN OF TROY, but it might make an interesting follow-up. Expose your students to the original story, which is, in itself, a Greek tragedy.
And this is what the Greeks liked.