It Is Not War #1: Troy

The title of this post comes from a famous quotation of French General Pierre Bosquet. Observing the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, he remarked “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie” (“It is magnificent, but it is not war: it is madness”).

War makes for good entertainment. We all love a good battle scene. We like to see conflict on the big screen.

But more often than not, what we see on the screen bears little resemblance to reality. Whether it’s in the tactics employed, the success of types of troops against others or the behavior of leaders, I watch battle scenes and repeatedly become baffled.

Introducing a new multi-part blog post series: “It Is Not War” where I’ll take a look at battle scenes from a wide variety of film and television, analyzing where it gets it wrong, what armies should be doing differently, why it is portrayed the way it is and more. I’m trying to avoid the standard “its just fiction!” defence. While that’s a valid argument, for the purposes of this little project, it’s of no use to me.

It was while watching my inaugural entry the other day that I came up with the idea for these little series.

Troy – The First Assault

An initial disclaimer: Troy is based on the Iliad, an ancient text that heavily plays up the critical effects certain individuals – “the godlike” as Homer frequently refers to them- on large scale battles. It certainly is a good read, one I would recommend to anyone. Homer knows how to describe battle.

I say this, because I know some will point at many of my upcoming criticisms and say “Well Dave, the reason they’re fighting so bad is that Achilles isn’t there!”

This is certainly the point that the film and the source material is trying to make. But as I will demonstrate, it still doesn’t make any sense. Moreover, Troy chooses to cut out the Gods from the story, who are a large part of the reason men like Achilles and Hector are so, well, “godlike”. The supernatural element of the heroes military prowess is missing, so their necessity to the battle is in question.

Finally, before I get into it, Pietersen (the director) has attempted to make an adaptation of the Epic Cycle grounded in reality. I’m just judging him and his work by the same standard.

Above is the first big battle scene of the movie, the Greeks initial assault on the walls of Troy. Lets take this one bit at a time.

Firstly, the set-up. We have two armies here. The Greeks, 50’000 strong, attacking the Trojans, a fraction of that. The battlefield is a flat desert plain outside the front wall of Troy. The Trojans ranks are packed just outside the walls, maybe 30 lines thick. The wall forms a curve, creating what I’ll call ‘the enclave’. All of the Trojans are within this space. The Greeks appear to be just one single mass of troops, maybe 300 metres from the Trojans. The cinematography doesn’t lend itself well to determining it (probably deliberate) but we can assume that the Greek lines are both wider and have more depth than the Trojans. However, the enclave cancels this advantage out.

The Trojans appear to have a handful of cavalry. The Greeks too, but in the form of several chariots. However, these are for commanders and take no active part in the battle.

The Trojans are commanded by Hector, a battle hardened solider, veteran of numerous campaigns against the Greeks. The Greeks are commanded by Agamemnon, a King who has just finished conquering Greece.

Both sides have archers. The Greeks choose to leave theirs a while back. The Trojans put theirs up on the walls.

So Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) have their fight, Hector (Eric Bana) kills Menelaus and Agamemnon (Brian Cox), with Odysseus (Sean Bean) in tow, gives the order to attack.

What word springs to mind when we discuss Troy and the Epic Cycle? Heroes? Horse? Gods?

You know what comes into my mind? Siege.

This is supposed to be a siege. The famous siege of Troy. But what we are seeing on screen isn’t a siege. It isn’t even a blockade or cover. No encirclement of the city has been attempted. No other roads or entrances have been covered. No other point in the cities defences is the subject of an attack (more on that later).

Siege warfare in the ancient world was a simple affair. By and large, it was a matter of simply encircling the target and waiting it out. The discipline had not evolved to the point that effective assault tactics had been developed. The Greeks in the Iliad had been doing it for ten years.

But no siege here. Just an assault.

A mass charge assault. The Greeks are in no kind of recognizable formation. No divisions, no units. Just a big pile of men running at the enemy.

See, Agamemnon is a military leader who has just conquered Greece. He’s beaten armies in the field. Even with the factor that Achilles was winning most of the battles single-handed, is it much of a stretch to assume that Agamemnon, while arrogant and foolhardy, had experience of warfare during his lifetime?

Even with that, Agamemnon has just organised the formation and transportation of the largest army and fleet in Greek history. He’s clearly got some kind of mind for logistics.

He can’t be a complete moron is what I’m saying. This mass charge, against a packed defence, no archers helping out, makes no sense and it makes no sense for Agamemnon to order it.

Maybe he was distraught over the death of his brother. It’s the only rational explanation. But, then again, Agamemnon was always planning to attack after the duel and didn’t seem to ever really like his brother in the movie.

Anyway the attack is on. Hector scrambles back and gives the extremely sensible order for his archers to nail the now in range Greeks (4.50).

Odysseus, who’s supposed to be the smartest man in the Greek army, offers this stunning assessment: “Our men are too close to the walls!” (4.55).

Well, yeah. My issue here is that Odysseus seems to not realise what was going on. This was clearly going to be an attack, Agamemnon wasn’t hiding that. So, the Greeks were going to assault the Trojan position. So, they were inevitably going to get close to the walls. That’s what happens when you assault the walls of a city. Did Odysseus think they were just going to show off their massive army? What’s his plan for the attack, that somehow doesn’t require the army to get without bowshot of the walls?

Achilles, watching from the rear (4.57) agrees, thinking that Agamemnon should pull back. I’d like to know what Achilles would do differently, but screw it, I’m not the godlike one here.

The Greeks smash into the Trojan lines, and as any fan of Sparta knows, this just isn’t going to work. The Trojans are packed tight, spears outward, with shields that can cover the whole body. The Greeks have the advantage of momentum only. This helps some of them to smash a couple of lines in, but no definitive breakthrough is going to be made here.

With the aid of the enclave walls, the Trojans are using a Roman type tactic, using the stone to funnel the Greeks into a killing zone, where the attacker’s numbers don’t count for anything, unless the advantage is absolutely huge with a will to match.

The Trojans have their arrows reconnoitred. They hit the Greeks well before they get to the frontline insuring that the invaders get to the battlepoint in a reduced state, with no risk of the Trojan army getting hit by friendly fire. Still, the Greeks don’t seem to care and they keep flinging themselves forward.

Where are the Greek archers? Sure, they won’t have much chance of hitting their opposing numbers on the Trojan walls, but they could at least fling some projectile death into the Trojan infantry, loosen the square a little.

The Trojan archers are remarkably accurate by the way, especially for soldiers just shooting without specific targets in mind. Check out 5.56 where a whole bubble of the attack is taken down. No shields raised at all, even though this is the 6th or so volley. Have these guys ever fought a battle before? They just took over Greece so I assume so.

Achilles extorts Agamemnon “to get em line!” What exactly spending the vital moments to get your mass of men into a few neat lines will accomplish at this stage, other then give the Trojan archers better targets, is alien to me.

Anyway, Odysseus agrees, as if the only reason the Greeks are losing is because they’re not in lines like the Trojans. They weren’t in lines when they started, but that didn’t seem to bother Odysseus then.

A line formation might have been a success if employed from the start, but would require a slow, methodical advance. With shields up, the Greeks could have avoided the casualties from the arrows, but would have found themselves in a grinding assault against a wellpacked enemy, with his back to a wall. The result would have been a temporary stalemate. The Greeks would have eventually, either through a build up of arrow fatalities or a lack of nerve, abandoned the attack, though admittedly, the casualties on the Trojan side would have been worse.

At this stage, it’s become a bit of shieldwall battle, which was indeed common in ancient times. The two armies are just hitting off each other, but because the Trojans are much better organised, and because the Greek attack has no direction, all they have to is hold on and they’ll win.

But oh no! Hector decides that if Agamemnon is doing things with no sense to them, he’s going to join in the fun. He orders his men to push and oh boy do they do so.

Keep in mind, with their backs to a wall and the enemy floundering, its no surprise the Greeks can’t push the Trojans back. It is a bit of a surprise though, when the outnumbered Trojans, who have 50’000 men in front of them, not only push back, but get the enemy to fall back a huge way. This doesn’t make any sense. It’s just simple weight: The Trojans, logically speaking, don’t have the numbers to do this.

Anyway, at this point, a circle has conveniently been made for Ajax to start battering Trojans left and right, before Hector comes along and kills him. While these midst-of-battle, one on one duels were common in the Epic Cycle, they make no sense within the universe that Pietersen is presenting, leaving a weakpoint in the defensive structure of the Trojans.

Agamemnon isn’t dissuaded anyway and, against all common logic, presses the attack. It is at this point that I’ll point out the other, rather serious, flaw in the assault plan.

How are they getting into Troy?

Let’s say it all goes according to plan and the Greeks kill all the Trojans. How are they getting into this city? Where are the ladders? The grappling hooks? The battering rams? The siege towers, the catapults? Does Agamemnon think they’ll just open up when the army is defeated? Why would they? Especially when no other part of the city is under attack and escape is still perfectly possible? With the Trojans archers raining death from above?

Agamemnon, and more so Odysseus, is supposed to be a better general then this. Pietersen was portraying them as incompetent, but with this oversight, they really are just morons.

Anyway, it’s the Trojans turn to go forward and leave the protection of the enclave. They just walk out of the cover of the flanking stone.

Are you kidding me? They do that and it should be over (the battle anyway). The Greek army should immediately be able to outflank them on both sides, and start slaughtering infantry. Judging by the actions of the commanders so far, it shouldn’t be so much of a stretch to imagine at least part of the Trojan army being surrounded and killed to a man (The Romans at Cannae spring to mind). An encircling move here would be a killer blow.

But it doesn’t happen. The Greeks just keep pulling back. The spear throwing abilities of the Trojans get shown off at this point, begging the question as to why the Greeks didn’t do the same earlier on or now.

Hector grabs a spare horse. The lack of cavalry is never rightly explained here. Certainly, some Greek cavalry could have played havoc with advancing Trojans, while this inexplicable Trojan advance could have become a full fledged rout with pursuing horse in the mix. Not explained and we’re moving on. Makes no sense for these armies not to have more horses though.

Anyway, two dead leaders and hundreds of troops later, Odysseus finally decides to tell Agamemnon that “we need to retreat!” Why he waited so long is left open to question. Agamemnon counters that his “army hasn’t lost a battle yet!”

I find that hard to believe with the sheer tactical idiocy they’re displaying here. Odysseus tells him that if they keep this up “he won’t have an army!”

That might be a bit of a stretch. I doubt the Greek soldiers would have willingly kept flinging themselves at the Trojan lines till they were all dead (with retreat possible at any time I mean).

Agamemnon gives in and away they go, fleeing for their lives. No orderly retreat to the beach here, just a race. Never lost a battle huh? Not with this lack of discipline.

The Trojans actually pursue them a bit and appear to lose formation. A better led and organised Greek army could easily about turn and maul them here, get into the flanks, create some panic, turn it around. This is pretty much exactly what happened at the Battle of Hastings, where the invading Normans suffered badly in initial attacks, but drew the English out of formation when they retreated, allowing them to flank and defeat the previously disciplined enemy. No such luck here though.

Hector reins his men in before they get too far, since they’re “within range of their archers”. Why the Greek had their archers so far back as to be useless (and how Hector knew about their location), goes unexplained.

The Greeks, despite the fact that most of the army is still intact, and they’ve been fighting for only four minutes, attempt no mother manoeuvres that day, no second assault, no probing of the cities defences elsewhere.

So, 1-0 to the Trojans then. They eventually lose the war of course, but only because they couldn’t tell the difference between a parting gift and a horse full of soldiers.

So, why then?

Well, I expect I’ll end up saying this a lot in this series, but: entertainment. Combined with the battle becoming a sort of character development scene.

Entertainment wise, a full on shieldwall battle like I proposed above wouldn’t be as entertaining to watch as this brawl was. For example, check out this battle scene from HBO series Rome, depicting the Battle of Philippi. It’s not a great fight scene is it? (The actual Battle of Phillippi wasn’t a shieldwall fight, if you’re interested).

Here we get blood, we get people stuck with arrows, and we get a charging army which everyone loves to see. The Trojans get to look like a legitimately powerful foe (up to this point, they’ve looked anything but) and the Greeks get shown up as powerless without Achilles.

But really, this scene is just a ham-fisted way to get some crude character development in. Taking it one at a time:

Agamemnon: We reinforce that he’s foolhardy, has trouble taking advice or backing down and is a bit stupid. None of which is different from the source material, only it’s taken to an extreme degree here.

Odysseus: The fact that he sees the danger of the archers and tries to get the men into line is supposed to show him as smart and militarily capable (notice he’s echoing the words of absent Achilles, the big military force of the story). But really, he comes off as someone whose observations would have been handy five minutes earlier, who allows the slaughter of his troops for no good reason. We need some Richard Sharpe here, Mr Bean. He’d not only have won the battle single handed, he would have found a way into the city, kicked Paris in the groin and bedded Helen, and in the same amount of time it took Agamemnon to lose a large portion of his army.

Achilles: I am the best fighter of all time! I’ll be proved right when Agamemnon conveniently loses his mind for five minutes!

Hector: Supposed to be brave and capable looking. Instead we see him order offensive moves that make no sense, which are successful only because the opposition are seemingly retarded.

So, there it is. It wasn’t a battle, it was a brawl with more people then normal. It is a common symptom of movie battles that they are often portrayed as simply two different piles of soldiers smashing into each other until one side is completely dead.

The real flaw here comes from what we see compared to what the characters are saying. We’re told the Greeks are an all-conquering force, never lost a battle, with some of the best military minds of the mythical world leading them. We’re told the Trojans are a disciplined, brave underdog. But what we see is a pointlessly reckless assault and a dangerous counterattack that would invariably fail in logical war. It makes the battle, while visually impressive, unbelievable. The audience can’t buy it. We’re supposed to think that if Achilles had been there, it would have been different. One man, without divine support, couldn’t break that shield wall. Then again, maybe he would have brought a ladder.

Troy. It’s magnificent looking, but it’s not war.

If anyone has a suggestion for what I should cover next, feel free to leave a comment.

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7 Responses to It Is Not War #1: Troy

  1. Eoin says:

    That was an interesting read, looking forward to seeing more of them.

  2. Traci Moore says:

    I found this fascinating and since you are such a fan of Bernard Cornwell and Sharpe I would love to see you cover some of the Sharpe episodes–keeping in mind that the shows were on a limited production budget to begin with; but then you would have the strategies of the books at your disposal as well. Keep up the great work!

    • HandsofBlue says:

      Thank you. I am certainly a big Cornwell fan and I love Sharpe. But I was thinking the treatment Talavera got at the conclusion of Sharpes Eagle might be good to cover.

      You’re right though. Its easier to criticise something like Troy, which had a truy gigantic budget, rather then Sharpe, which had a comparativly tiny one.

  3. Aido says:

    It’s good stuff but I’d almost go a step further. At the start of that truly appaling film hector rides out with his two dozen cavalry and breifly irritates the myrmidons. It does seem somewhat silly that during the entire film the battle see-saws back and forth with enemy camps within spitting distance of each other.

    You know me Dave, you know what I like.

    If the Greeks are in that lousy a state after one piddly little battle, then they should have followed them all the way back to their ships and burned them in the damn things. In fact, the real battle shouldn’t have been at the gates, with that kind of distance, it should have been:
    1) Establishing a beach-head against opposition.
    2) Establishing an effective seige perimetre from that position.

    If the trojans had really wanted to keep their city, they shouldn’t have let the Greeks land under their noses, because that sort of operation would have/could have been way more costly for the greeks. True eventually the Greeks would have been able to land at so many points they would force the trojans to withdraw, but the material and logistic cost to that point would have been horrible.

    Finally Sun Tzu thinks attacking cities is barmy, unless you can take them in a rush or by subterfuge…

    Maybe Agamemnon learned his strategy in America?

    • HandsofBlue says:

      The Trojans do follow their success up a little bit later with a night attack (that goes rather well, until the death of Patroclus fucks everything up). That was the Spartacus callback as I recall, where the Trojans use flaming straw balls to break Greek lines.

      I didn’t say anything about the rest of the movies fighting since I wanted to focus on this one specfic battle, but you’re right of course. The fact that the Trojans are seemingly caught off guard so specatulurly by the landing is very stupid, considering everyone and his aunt in Greece knew it was happening.

  4. Aido says:

    Just looking at that bit again just gets steadily more annoying. The archer drill defies logic. Why are they stepping back? Then they do this two rank shooting malarky that doesn’t make a lick of sense.

    Damn those arrows are awfully accurate aren’t they? The amount of men dropping, stone dead, wow, from firing blindly into the mob.

    Still I guess that’s what happens when fifty thousand greeks show up for a fight, don’t break up into units and operate as one giant mindless, idiotic mass.

    Speaking of idiotic, hollywood once again makes an ass out of the fine art of swordsmanship.

  5. Pingback: Happy Birthday To Me | Never Felt Better

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