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Trojan Women, The
Michael Cacoyannis was rather uneven in the overrated Zorba the Greek and had a resounding commercial no-show with his The Day the Fish Came Out, but this 1971 version of a play written thousands of years ago is not at all bad. Euripides knew how to favor his actors, and unless this is a reshuffled classic deck, The Trojan Women shapes up as a series of powerful performances by its female stars. It's not the 'greatest anti-war film ever' as touted by some spokespeople, but it does raise some cogent questions about wars and why they are fought - it's an international civics lesson from 2,000 years ago.
The Trojan Women makes good drama out of the aftermath of war, where it's discovered that pride, plunder and personal ambition were the factors that launched a thousand Greek ships, not the face of Helen, who is neither a kidnap victim nor an innocent. But we don't see any of this from the Greek point of view. Of the big names, only Menelaus is seen, a cuckolded husband unsure of his recaptured wife. Euripides' play busies itself to consider the fates of the royal women of Troy at the hands of the Greek conquerors.
Back then, war was a game exclusively for winners. After ten years of bitter siege and traumatic losses on both sides - the most glorious warriors of both Troy and Greece have been slain - the defeated are either put to death or transported back to Greece as slaves. Troy is to be burned to the ground, eradicated. Their is no talk of bringing freedom to Troy.
The play begins with Queen Hecuba lifting herself from the ground where she's been agonizing over the defeat and the death of her husband, the king. News arrives that one daughter has been slain, and from time to time a Greek messenger (Brian Blessed) brings more bad news, each piece worse than the last. The Greeks have loaded their ships with gold and are almost ready to take on their human cargo.
Hecuba is the matriarch, and she witnesses what happens to three important Trojan women. Her surviving daughter Cassandra, the madwomen, needs constant attention. She drifts off into odd reveries that sound like prophecy, or, in the case of the Greeks, provocative defiance. Geneviève Bujold plays her very interestingly, as a woman who knows very well that she's insane. She some control over herself, but no control over the wanderings of her mind. She's rounded up and taken away.
The highest-born women are slated as wives for Greek royalty, or in the case of Hecuba, to be a lowly servant to a king. The noble widow of Hector, Andromache is a true innocent totally lacking a desire for vengeance for her fallen husband, whose armor she carries around on a chariot. The Greeks are too cowardly to confront their new charges in person; they send the messenger to inform Andromache that not only will she be wed to a Greek, but that her beautiful young son by Hector must die, to insure that his bloodline will be ended.
Hecuba can't really advise Cassandra but she tries to give Andromache courage to make a new life and find a new home, to have more children if she can, even if they're Greek children. As you can imagine, with actresses this accomplished, we soon forget about the formality of the dialogue and are swept up by the human problems created by war.
The last woman to be considered is Helen, who is portrayed rather differently than the Helens of large-scale epics. Irene Papas' temptress is an unregenerate, selfish egotist and has no particular feeling toward the fall of Troy or the death of Paris. She's convinced that Menelaus will take her back. The crowds of captive females boo and curse her, but thanks to Hecuba's intervention, Menelaus doesn't take Helen's promises of fidelity at face value. Yet as she's led off, we have a hard time believing that she won't be pardoned before she gets back to Greece.
Hecuba is the one that has to carry the weight of her fallen city, as the Greeks set it ablaze and the captive women are marched to the waiting ships. Katherine Hepburn's speeches make us feel ready to see more classic Greek theater, even tragedies like this one.
Director Cacoyannis uses ancient ruins to represent the breached walls of Troy, and it works quite well. We never see giant armies or armadas of ships, yet there are enough extras and trappings to convince us that this is the aftermath of a bloody siege. All of the action is shot out in the elements, and it can't have been comfortable for the actresses to stand in the stark sun all day. With little opportunity for attractive lighting, the photography under these conditions is quite good. The most conspicuous aspect of the production are the excellent costumes, which are as credible and lived-in as those in one of Pasolini's period film.
Kino Video's DVD of The Trojan Women is a full-frame transfer of a show that looks comfortable at that ratio - I don't think widescreen cropping would do it any favors. The source element has subdued color and isn't in perfect shape but it's more than acceptable. The original English soundtrack is clear, which is a good thing because there is no subtitle track. Mikis Theodorakis' music is more mood-setting than arresting, but his style is immediately recognizable.
There's a trailer, some stills, a note from director Cacoyannis and a text filmography for him.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Trojan Women rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, stills, text bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 13, 2004