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A Man of Constant Sorrows: Tracing Representations of Odysseus in 21st Century Cinema (Part Two)

Written by Justin Biggi. Having explored two different interpretations of Odysseus in Part One, our focus now shifts to the 2000 film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, a 'loosely based on' re-telling of Homer's Odyssey, in an attempt to answer the question: are the Homeric epics really that timeless?

In the first part of this article, we explored two different interpretations of Odysseus. The first one, Sean Bean’s Odysseus in 2004’s film Troy, seemed less intent on appreciating Odysseus’ moral complexity, rather making use of him as an easy entry point for the audience. The second one, Joseph Mawle’s 2018’s miniseries Troy: Fall of a City, attempted to strike a balance between the ‘complicated man’, as defined recently by Emily Wilson, and the easily accessible audience stand-in. A third interpretation, however, does more justice to the character than either of these. 

Let us set the scene: in a tobacco field, three men are escaping a chain gang. We are in Mississippi, the year is 1937, and the Great Depression is in full swing. The men escaping are Ulysses (George Clooney) and his associates and brothers-in-arms, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). As they duck to escape the guards’ notice, the traditional folk song ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountains’ plays over the opening credits. It is a song about a cloud cuckoo land, where there’s ‘a lake of stew, and of whiskey too’ and, of course, ‘the jails are made of tin.’ These are the first few minutes of the Cohen brothers’ 2000 film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? a ‘loosely based on’ re-telling of the Odyssey. It is a short step from dusty Ilium to the rocky roads of the American South, or so writer-directors Joel and Ethan Cohen would like to have you believe.  

Compared to a ten-year war and a ten-year return home, the stakes of Ulysses Everett McGill’s journey are far lower: his wife has written him that she is about to re-marry, and he orchestrates a plot to escape in order to reach her before she does. Not that he has told this to Peter or Delmar; as far as they’re concerned, Ulysses is a seasoned bank robber, who is leading them to where he buried the money from the bank job that, they assume, landed him in prison in the first place. What follows is a colourful, often absurd, journey through an American South soaked to the bone in magical realism.  

Unlike his 2004 and 2018 counterparts, this Odysseus is barely a likeable man. He is charming and witty, but also terribly self-absorbed. Soon after the three escapees – still chained together – have escaped the guards, they attempt to board a train. ‘Say, are any of you smithies?’ Ulysses asks, after managing to hop onto an open car a group of freighthoppers is sitting in, ‘Or, otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts?’ he continues (he likes to use big words and does it a lot). Behind him, Delmar and Pete scream, attempting to also board the train and failing to. Not that Ulysses seems to care, or notice, until Pete trips and sends the trio tumbling off the train and down the hill. Ulysses’ reaction is hardly magnanimous: ‘Jesus, can’t I count on you people?’ 

This is a trend as many of Ulysses’ attempts at charming, swindling, or otherwise tricking people are often thwarted either by Pete and Delmar’s antics or by his own inability to accept that not everyone is completely overwhelmed by his charm. Nonetheless, he still helps break Pete out of prison when he is captured again. He is unlikable, but not cruel. This is perhaps the biggest difference between Ulysses McGill and Homer’s Odysseus: in this version, there are no traitorous girls to hang from the rafters like birds. He is shown as being crafty (he manages to trick a record producer into giving them more money), silver-tongued (big words aside, he is quite good at, if not convincing, then certainly confabulating other people), and inventive. Though his plans might not always work out, he is still determined to return home and reunite with his wife. Cruelty aside, compared to the other versions we have already explored, I would argue that this version of Odysseus is by far the most accurate to the original Homeric text.  

The Cohen brothers are less distrustful of their audience and more open to taking risks. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? does not concern itself with the need for an audience stand-in. The story in and of itself has little pretense of realism: the adventures of Ulysses, Delmar, and Pete are a whirlwind of absurdity. At a certain point, Delmar firmly believes Pete’s been turned into a toad. This Odyssey is a fairy tale – not because it does not care about its setting or context, but because it is deeply aware of its source material.  

The stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey are stories, first and foremost, of people and events that are by definition ‘larger than life’. Epic is as an epic does: the protagonists of these texts can lift boulders like pebbles, withstand the fury of a swollen river, and shoot an arrow through twelve axe handles. The world represented is not a world that is real. Gods can shut all winds away into a wineskin. Goddesses step into the thick of battle to whisk heroes away to safety. 2004’s Troy attempted to divorce itself from the epic dimension completely, removing all references to gods, demi-gods, and impossible feats. Troy: Fall of A City could not make up its mind: the first half of the show features the gods prominently, only for them to retreat in the second half. Both pieces of media, obsessed with the popular idea that the Homeric epics are innately timeless, focus on the ‘humanity’ of its characters, choosing to depict them ‘just like us.’ 

But are the Homeric epics really that timeless? Are its characters really that relatable on a deep human level? Achilles’ much-sung anger is due to Agamemnon taking from him a girl he had won as war-booty. Odysseus orders the enslaved girls of his household to be murdered for betraying him by sleeping with their suitors, themselves nobles. The world within which these characters operate is deeply alien to ours, not just because the sea has teeth or gods walk the earth, but because their values are so different.  

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? understands two important things: Homeric epic had no semblance of realism, and the context it was written in is impossibly alien to ours. The choice then comes down to what one thinks is worth preserving: characterisation or setting? Unlike the other examples I have discussed, this film chooses the former over the latter. By abandoning all pretense of historical accuracy, it is able to focus on the true timeless elements of the epics: captivating characterisations, and a world tinged with wonder and magic. 

Written by Justin Biggi

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Foley, J.M. “Reading Homer through Oral Tradition.” College Literature 34, no. 2 (2007): 1-28. 

Homer, Odyssey. Transl. by Emily Wilson. New York City: Norton Press, 2018. 

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. Dir. by Joel Cohen. Writ. by Ethan Cohen. Touchstone Pictures. 2000.  

Robinson, L. “Winged Words and Gods as Birds: Magical Realism and Nature in the Homeric Epics.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Magical Realism in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Richard Perez and Victoria A. Chevalier. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.  

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