The Trojan Trilogy
by Michael Cacoyannis / 1
The cinematic vision of one of the most important directors in the history of Greek cinema
By Francis Ouellet
November 19, 2023
The idea of ruin and the race towards disaster, foreshadowing the misfortunes to come, has always haunted popular culture. As far back as Antiquity, Greece was often the scene of curses, of fateful destinies from which heroes could not escape, despite their best efforts. Although their destinies were orchestrated by the gods, who seemed to take pleasure in the suffering of mortals, the characters in these legends more often than not caused their own downfall through bad decisions.
Didn’t Theseus cause the death of his father Aegeus through his recklessness? Didn’t Prometheus incur the wrath of the Olympian gods when he defied them? And what of the lineage of the Atreides, the most cursed of all families? Its most illustrious members have, from generation to generation, chosen the darkest paths, deaf to the warnings of the oracles, rushing blindly into a succession of barbarities, suffering and vengeance, ending their course in death.
Euripides, one of the most illustrious Greek poets of antiquity, wrote numerous plays featuring characters from this dark family. Whether puppets of the gods, victims of their own inclinations, their thirst for power or their desire for revenge, these characters were portrayed by Euripides in a realistic and humane manner, while always retaining a certain ambiguity. They are neither worse nor better than many of us. They are simply human, therefore imperfect, and very often the victims of situations that drive them to commit acts they would often have been incapable of committing in other circumstances.
The finest and most sumptuous adaptation of some of Euripides’ tragedies is the work of the ancient poet’s distant compatriot, Michael Cacoyannis.
Classical texts dating back thousands of years, Euripides’ tragedies nonetheless possess an undeniable modernity, a universality and, like children’s stories, they convey a message steeped in morality that is timeless, and therefore just as relevant today. So it’s hardly surprising that, in my opinion, the richest and most sumptuous adaptation of some of these tragedies is the work of the ancient poet’s distant compatriot, Michael Cacoyannis, one of the most important directors in the history of Greek cinema.
Originally from Cyprus, Cacoyannis shot to fame in 1964 with his film Zorba the Greek, a superb adaptation of the novel of the same name by Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis, starring Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates. The film’s success brought Greek cinema out of anonymity and to the attention of a wide international audience.
Sadly, however, the film’s success overshadowed the rest of the director’s rich and vibrant oeuvre. Among a filmography of quality, it’s essential to give pride of place to what I call The Trojan Trilogy, a dazzlingly rich adaptation of three of Euripides’ major works: Electra, The Troyan Women and finally Iphigenia.
All three films take place during the Trojan War but were shot in anti chronological order. They feature important characters from the legend of the Atreides and perfectly illustrate the idea of a dark, poisoned destiny from which the characters cannot escape.
L’histoire d’Électre, tournée
The story of Electra, filmed in 1961, begins at the end of the Trojan War. The victorious Greeks return home, having reduced the enemy city to rubble. King Agamemnon is awaited by his children, Electra and Orestes, who adore and venerate him. His wife, Clytemnestra, however, with the help of her lover Aegisthus, murders him as soon as he returns to the palace.
Orestes, who witnesses the murder, is taken into exile by a servant loyal to the late king. His sister Electra, who has also seen everything, continues to live at the palace, closely watched over by her mother, whose death she now wishes. Years later, when Orestes returns home, the brother and sister can take their revenge by killing their mother and her lover in turn. Once again, the wheel of fate turns, heralding death, as blood always calls for blood.
‘Among Cacoyannis’s filmography, it’s essential to give pride of place to the Trojan trilogy, a dazzlingly rich adaptation of three of Euripides’s major works.’
Filmed in the sun-drenched natural setting of Mycenae, photographed in rich black and white by Walter Lassaly and lulled by the spellbinding music of Mikis Theodorakis, this splendid adaptation, a veritable reincarnation of the classic work, is rendered in a respectful yet modern manner by Cacoyannis, who has made the original text his own. A real tour de force and a major success, this work is carried off by the masterly performance of modern tragedienne Irene Papas.
Featured image: commons.wikimedia.org
Other images: Michael Cacoyannis Foundation
Francis Ouellet has been working in advertising and communications for over 20 years and has been an avid fan of film, animation, and comics since a very young age.