The final books of Homer’s Iliad are a bloodbath. Our hero Achilles, having lost his friend Patrocles, is thrown into a rage that consumes him. He dons new armor given to him by the gods themselves and wades into the Trojan army, laying waste to all that he sees. The detail of the blood and gore is horrific, with organs spilled in gruesome detail on the sands of Troy. At one point he even holds his own against a river god, demonstrating that he has transcended human enemies. This incredible prowess and bloodshed is what the book has been building towards, and it is what modern readers most remember about Achilles.
There is a similar scene in Homer’s Odyssey, a work concerned more with homecoming than with the glories of battlefield violence. Yet still, when Odysseus finally returns home from his ten years of wandering, he brings death and destruction to his wife’s suitors. Together with his son, and with the favor of the goddess Athena, our hero devastates the men who have defaced his home and sought to marry his wife. Homer describes it as such:
“Now shrugging off his rags the wiliest fighter of the islands leapt and stood on the broad door sill, his own bow in his hand. He poured out at his feet a rain of arrows from the quiver… He drew to his fist the cruel head of an arrow for Antinoos just as the young man leaned to lift his beautiful drinking cup… Did he dream of death? How could he… Odysseus’ arrow hit him under the chin and punched up the feathers through his throat.”
This depiction of Odysseus, presumably with biceps bulging and pectorals quivering, seems out of place with the hero with whom we have become acquainted throughout the Odyssey. The hero who made it home to Ithaca is a man of intelligence and wit, prideful perhaps, but always well intentioned. Although he may not always do the right thing he does his best, and earned Joyce’s description of him as the “first gentleman of Europe.” Odysseus has craftily survived the trickery of men, the curse of gods, and the wrath of monsters solely by relying upon his own cleverness.
The cleverness of Odysseus is the aspect of the hero that we remember most clearly. This is the man who devised the Trojan horse, and the man who escaped Cyclopes using wordplay. He stands in stark contrast to the bloodstained glory of Achilles. The Romans famously despised Odysseus for his tricky nature, but I do not think that it is an accident that this is the aspect hero that has made him famous. His determination and pluck, his wit and cleverness are what make him special, not his ability to fight and kill.
Perhaps this is why Homer was so fond of the wily king of Ithaka, because he (if he was a he, or if he even existed) saw more of himself in Odysseus than in the more martially inclined Greek heroes. Odysseus is presented in the Odyssey as a flawed but decent man whose chief desire is to make his way home. He is a king, but not a god, he is not even semi-divine as characters such as Achilles. When he defeats his enemies, he does it through cleverness, and often through blind luck. Odysseus and Achilles represent the two kinds of heroes commonly seen in action and adventure films.
Odysseus heroes are everyman characters who stumble into great things and dangerous situations. They are not driven by any desire to achieve greatness. They just want to do accomplish their goal and go home to their families. When they finally triumph over their foes it is often due to their cleverness rather than their skill or abilities. Think of any movie you have seen where the hero, for example, finds a way to defeat his foe using a clever manipulation of his surroundings. He cuts the rope and crushes the villain under the chandelier. She pushes a button and the monster falls to his doom, shouting the heroine’s name dramatically as he falls. It is this combination of luck, grit, and cleverness that defines Odysseus heroes.
Take for example a perfect model for an Odysseus hero, John McClane in the first Die Hard movie. In addition to being essentially a perfect film, and the third best Christmas movie (I’ll get to that some day), Die Hard provides a remarkable example of an Odysseus character. Although we know that McClane is a police officer and presumably good at his job, he is thrown into a situation that he is woefully unprepared for. He does not know who his enemies are, what they want, or where his shoes are. Every inch of ground that he gains is hard won. Yet despite it all, McClane manages to outsmart his enemies, gain the upper hand, and come out on top. He is finally able to go home, reuniting with his wife and children just as Odysseus did.
This can easily be juxtaposed to the Achilles characters, who are portrayed as nearly unstoppable power-houses. They defeat their enemies because they are simply better than them. Although they might have some close calls along the way, these heroes possess strengths and skills that make them tower over other men, often literally. Think of any of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s characters. As wave upon wave of bad guy charges up to them and attacks them (one at a time of course) the hero disposes of them and moves along. The hordes of nameless extras are brought low by the heroine’s fists, feet, or firearms. They are tremendously fun to watch, and are a visual sensation for the audience.
To find an example of this kind of hero we need look no further than John McClane in the later Die Hard films. This character is almost unrecognizable from the flawed but well-meaning cop from the first film, or even the two following it. In his most recent two outings he is presented as a seasoned veteran of his own brand of insane adventures. He maintains his cool, and disposes with his enemies with practiced ease and efficiency. McClane never seems challenged or out of place, and he is clearly superior to anyone who is thrown in his path. This is a John McClane who has been re-imagined to fit into the mold of Achilles, albeit somewhat sloppily.
(I believe that I saw a similar comparison drawn before in a YouTube video by Rossatron, who has excellent content. I sincerely apologize that I can’t remember and will be posting links at the end of the entry to all of the YouTube film channels I follow to make sure that my bases are covered. Also, just go check them out, because they’re all great.)
The reason that the Odysseus hero is so entertaining is that the average audience member can see him/herself in the hero. These heroes show fear when they are confronted by situations outside of their control. They struggle to rise to the occasion, and make near-fatal mistakes along the way. Yet despite this, they manage to find the strength to stand up to the obstacles that fate has put in front of them and win the day. When we watch these heroes’ adventures, we are able to believe that we could perhaps show the same courage and fortitude if placed in the same situation.
Moreover, the drama is intense in the conflicts that Odysseus characters find themselves caught up in. They are pushed to the absolute limit by circumstances completely outside of their control, and their victory seems that much sweeter because of it. Consider the perfect Odysseus, Indiana Jones.
The genius of Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Indiana Jones is that he always seems to be somewhat out of his depth. He rarely ever enters into a fight or struggle fully prepared, and he takes a tremendous amount of punishment. Indy is dangled out of planes, thrown off of cars, and battered by hulking fascists in every film in the series. Because he seems vulnerable, we feel genuinely afraid for Indy. Yet in the end he always manages to turn things around using his wits, his determination, and absurd amounts of luck. Ford’s wide-eyed, scrambling physicality adds to this, and we feel satisfied when he finally manages to trick his enemies into their own doom.
We see characters such as Indy pushed to their limit, and get to watch as they struggle through this to find a way to win. This can be seen in any number of different heroes in countless action franchises. Jackie Chan’s brilliant stunt work is predicated on his ability to constantly seem outclassed and in danger while performing remarkable feats. In Mad Max: Fury Road our protagonist Max is constantly beaten down and barely seems to be able to pull of a win against anyone until the final act of the film. Harry Potter spends eight films escaping by the skin of his teeth and devising ways to outsmart and out-luck his enemies. These heroes struggle through their darkest hour, and we as the audience are taken along for the ride.
If the Odysseus is a mirror, than the Achilles is an Instagram filter. While the Odysseus character is a kind of reflection of the viewer, whose flaws make him/her exposed and vulnerable, the Achilles is how the viewer wishes to see him/herself. We see ourselves in these characters, but as a dream of what we want to be. As we watch them devastate muscular foes with relative ease, we revel in the skill and strength of our protagonist. We feel for them when they succeed, but it can be difficult to feel scared for them when they are in danger. They are a kind of power fantasy for the viewer, a chance to momentarily inhabit this unstoppable hero.
To look at an example of this character we need look no further than Keanu Reeves’ finest creation, John Wick. Although I have yet to see the second film, (it was sold out when I went) the first film is a perfect example of an Achilles character being brought to life. Stirred on by the death of his wife and of the dog that she left him, Wick embarks upon on a vengeful rampage, destroying his former allies’ criminal empire. He is described as “Not exactly the bogeyman… the man you sent to kill the fucking bogeyman.” Although the film-maker found unique ways to make him relatable, the audience’s thrill comes from the catharsis of seeing this character devastate his enemies with relative ease.
An even better example is that of the late, great, mythic, Bruce Lee. His skills and fight scenes are the stuff of legends, but he also had a tremendous effect on the cinematic world. Lee’s characters strode into danger with relaxed composure and then systematically broke down waves of attackers while looking impossibly cool. There is a reason that his films have inspired millions of people around the world to take up martial arts. The idea of being like Bruce Lee after watching one of his action masterpieces is almost painfully tempting. He allowed small people, and people from marginalized groups, to live vicariously through his characters and dream that they could achieve the same level of skill.
If you don’t think about this every single time you do pull-ups. You’re doing them wrong.
I do not believe that either the Odysseus character or the Achilles character is inherently better than the other. I just think that they belong in different movies. An Odysseus is perfect for a fish-out-of-water story about a hero rising to the occasion. We can relate to this hero, and his journey allows for great dramatic tension and suspense. Yet an Achilles is equally entertaining in his own way, and in a film that emphasizes choreography and excellent action sequences this can be thrilling. It is a power fantasy of sorts, but not a harmful one. At their best, these characters can inspire viewers to hold them up as an ideal and strive to be more like them.
The problem comes when these characters are dropped into the wrong stories, or when they are not used to their full potential. We wouldn’t feel the same way about Indiana Jones if he was a kung-fu master who knocked out Nazi soldiers with wheel kicks. Each of these character-types takes time to construct, and they can only reach their full potential when they are correctly introduced and developed for the audience. When properly constructed, these characters can each excite our imagination and create incredibly exciting films. But what do I know? I actually really want to see that Indian Jones Kung Fu movie…
YouTubers that I want to plug:
Lessons from the Screenplay: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCErSSa3CaP_GJxmFpdjG9Jw
Boby Burns: https://www.youtube.com/user/BobbyBurnsOfficial
Super Eyepatch Wolf: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtGoikgbxP4F3rgI9PldI9g
Channel Criswell: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCL5kBJmBUVFLYBDiSiK1VDw