Like the end of the Iliad, The Trojan Women begins in a state of despair. We’re presented with a shell of a city: Troy, a once mighty and flourishing empire that now bleeds like a fallen soldier- mortally wounded yet still clinging to life. Amongst the crumbling walls and dust-soaked rubble dozens of creatures still fight for existence, running to and fro with panic-stricken eyes. These frightened women are all that remain of a once magnificent kingdom, and the movie devotes itself to forcing audiences to watch unflinchingly as they react to their plight.
In the Iliad, the story ends with the women of Troy crying out, grief-stricken as they cast their eyes upon Hector’s lifeless body. The author chooses not to end the tale with dramatic action, but instead with the external exploration of human emotion. Though the Iliad is filled with scenes depicting the brutality of war-related violence, it also contains scenes of humanity, such as Hector’s touching reunion with his wife and young child. Similarly, The Trojan Women immediately continues the Iliad’s closing theme of grief, but now their despair is for their own fate. And like the Iliad, The Trojan Women does have moments of brutality; Andromache’s young child is killed by order of their captors. The brutality of war, as well as the sorrowful aftermath, are woven into both tales. The Iliad concerns itself more with themes of violence and glory, while The Trojan Women continues the exploration of the psychological effects of war that were prominent toward the end of Homer’s story.
Because this film was not driven by action and climactic events found in the Iliad, the element which contributed the most to the movie’s effect was the acting. Four famous Trojan women (Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen) were the sole focus of the plot, and because the audience finds them in the most dire of circumstances, the cast requires actresses with a knack for drama. Luckily, the most prominent character, Hecuba, is placed in the hands of the always fiery Katherine Hepburn.
As the once powerful queen of a nation ravaged by war, this character has the most to mourn. She has lost sons, a husband, and her daughter is carted away before her eyes and tossed into the bed of an enemy. Though her heart is breaking, every member of her family is either dead or enslaved, and she’ll soon be forced into lifelong servitude, she remains a pillar of strength and fire. Hepburn infuses her character with the grace and dignity Homer’s Hecuba exhibited; though she is defeated she carries herself, head held high, refusing to collapse in an emotional heap before her enemies. Her words are always spoken with venom when addressing her captors, empathy when addressing her people.
The actress playing Cassandra perfectly captures the character’s fleeting moments of clarity followed by frenzied rants. The character of Helen is given a morality makeover in the film, played saucily by Irene Papas. Interestingly, this film portrays Helen as a materialistic temptress, a departure from the noble and angelic Helen in the Iliad. The scene in which Hecuba, then Menelaus, condemn Helen and sentence her to death is very intense; at one point Hecuba seems as if she is about to leap forward and strangle Helen with her bare hands.
The only uneven performance comes from Vanessa Redgrave (as Andromache). She constantly teeters back and forth whining, speaking calmly, yelling, and weeping. Her roller coaster of emotions shifts so suddenly that the actress seemed better suited for the role of Cassandra. I know Redgrave is a revered actress of stage and screen, but in this role her depiction of Andromache struck me as erratic and directionless.
The only prominent male role in The Trojan Women was that of the Herald, the leader of the captors. Though his dialogue was minimal, his character was interesting because it reflected both compassion and resolve. He was firm in carrying out his orders, whether it was to haul off Cassandra and deliver her to a man intent on sexually enslaving her, or killing Andromache’s innocent child. But there were times he also attempted to comfort his captives, telling them to be strong, almost empathizing with them. In a way he served as a father figure to the tribe of frightened women; he was both stern disciplinarian and nurturer.
As a visual experience, the film’s cinematographer did the best he could with the minimal setting and lack of physical action. Because the play focuses almost exclusively on the four central women, the majority of shots were close-ups or group shots of the band of women as they reacted to what was being said. The affecting speeches and expressions of rage, despair, and fear were what drove the film and these were emphasized over action and setting. Still, the way in which these scenes were shot did convey a certain amount of drama and creativity. The camera often used the sun directly or indirectly to add the element of heat to the women’s suffering. Quick glimpses of stark landscapes under the pulsing sun furthered a sense of unrelenting torment to the women, and when trickles of sweat streamed down their dirty faces during an impassioned plea, their words had an even more powerful effect.
Though The Trojan Women was a continuation of themes present in the Iliad, there was an emotional richness throughout the film that was given more sparsely in the story. Epic stories, though they contain female characters, often lack true female voice. This film allows women to give another perspective of war, the aftermath, a much needed voice.