International Journal of the Classical Tradition

, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 391–406 | Cite as

Impersonation and identity:Sommersby, the return of Martin Guerre, and theOdyssey

  • Robert J. Rabel


Initial newspaper reviews of the 1993 filmSommersby were mostly unfavorable, and, when discussed by film critics, the film has usually been judged to be a pale imitation of a more important French film,The Return of Martin Guerre. This article attempts to show thatSommersby achieves a level of originality by conflating the earlier French film with Homer'sOdyssey and in the process depicting a view of the nature of human identity different from what is found in both its major sources. TheOdyssey andThe Return of Martin Guerre treat the self in a commonsense way as an entity withobjective existence, the inner essence of a person.Sommersby, I try to show, posits a more radical view of the self that is best understood by reference to the work of German philosopher Max Stirner and, more importantly, his successor Friendrich Nietzsche, both of whom treat the self as a fictional creation, a mutable entity capable of being created and recreated through acts of human will.Sommersby operates with a similar model of identity that treats the self as mutable, the outcome of an act of self-legislation.


Classical Tradition Ancient World Human Identity French Original Mutable Entity 
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Works Cited

  1. 1.
    Sommersby (dir. Jon Amiel, 1993).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The Return of Martin Guerre (Le Retour de Martin Guerre) (dir. Daniel Vigne, 1982).Google Scholar
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    Remarks on the Odyssean background ofSommersby are few and restricted to specific points of comparison. Thus Jon D. Solomon, “In the Wake ofCleopatra: The Ancient World in the Cinema Since 1963,”Classical Journal 91 (1996), 130, andThe Ancient World in the Cinema, rev. ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 22, points out that the film's protagonist, like Odysseus, returns to a wife who fails to recognize him. Elizabeth Guild, “Adultery on Trial: Martin Guerre and his Wife, from Judge's Tale to the Screen,” in: Nicholas White and Naomi Segal, eds.,Scarlet Letters: Fictions of Adultery from Antiquity to the 1990's (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), 52, claims that the hero ofSommersby, like Odysseus, creates identity through verbal performance, a point to be addressed below. Diane Sippl, “… Even As Also I Am Known: Vicarious Miscegenation on Postcolonial Screens,”Cine Action 23 (1994), 25, findsSommersby like theOdyssey in its concern for the journey back and reconciliation with those left at home. Both Solomon and Sippl find significance in the fact that the hero of the film reads from theIliad, a point to be addressed below.Google Scholar
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    Roger Ebert, “Sommersby,”Chicago Sun-Times (5 February 1993), dismissedSommersby as a bad American remake of a French original. Stuart Klawans, “Films:Matinée, Sommersby, The Vanishing,” The Nation (8 March 1993), 316–19, also comparedSommersby unfavorably withThe Return of Martin Guerre, seeing it as “an imposture of a Hollywood film.” James Bowman, “Dogs and Groundhogs,”The American Spectator 26 (April 1993), 56, calledSommersby “lightweight psychological drama.” Vincent Canby, “Husband Back From War: Too Good to Be True?,”New York Times (5 February 1993), C8, said that the film bogged down in a treatment of issues like “worn out land, crop rotation and fertilizer.” Favorable review, however, was accorded the film by Rita Kempley in theWashington Post (5 February 1993).Google Scholar
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    Cf. Brigitte E. Humbert, “Re-making History and Cultural Identity: FromThe Return of Martin Guerre to Sommersby,”Film Criticism 26 (2001), 2–24; and Sippl. (above, n. 3) “… Even As Also I Am Known: Vicarious Miscegenation on Postcolonial Screens,”Cine Action 23 (1994), 25–9.Google Scholar
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    Natalie Zemon Davis,The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1983). Aspects of Davis' interpretation of events in the life of the historical Martin Guerre are critiqued by Robert Finlay, “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,”American Historical Review 93 (1988), 553–71.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Natalie Zemon Davis,Remaking Impostors: From Martin Guerre to Sommersby (Egham, Surrey: Royal Holloway, University of London, 1997), 17–22.Google Scholar
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    Guild (above, n. 3) “, 52. Ginette Vincendeau, “Hijacked,”Sight and Sound 3 (July 1993), 23–5, also analyzesSommersby as a commercial Hollywood remake of what she considers a more ambiguous and interesting French film.Google Scholar
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    Jean de Coras,Arrest Memorable, du Parlement de Tolose, Contenant une histoire prodigieuse, de nostre temps, avec cent belles, & doctes Annotations, de monsieur maistre Jean de Coras, Conseiller en ladite Cour, & rapporteur du proces. Prononcé es Arrestz Generaulx le xii Septembre MDLX (Lyon: Antoine Vincent, 1561). Coras' important work has been translated into English by Jeannette K. Ringold and Janet Lewis inTriquarterly 55 (fall 1982), 86–103. Unfortunately, Coras' annotations, containing numerous references to Homer, Vergil, and other Classical authors, have been omitted from the translation. Since all of Coras' classical allusions are found in the annotations, my citations of Coras will be confined to the original French edition. The most complete bibliography of early works discussing the case of Martin Guerre can be found in Davis (above, n. 6)The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1983), 127–31.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Pietro Pucci,Odysseus Polutropos: Intertextual Readings in the Odyssey and the Iliad, Cornell studies in classical philology 46 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987; repr. with new afterword, ibid.Odysseus Polutropos: Intertextual Readings in the Odyssey and the Iliad, Cornell studies in classical philology 46 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995), 178: “Odysseus himself exemplifies thegastēr of the beggar. He is at once the hero of the enduring heart (thumos), ofmētis, and the man of the active and (in disguise) of the passivegastēr.”Google Scholar
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    Cf. Davis (above, n. 6), 36–7. Odysseus was also rather short but broad in the chest and shoulders (Il. 3. 193–4). His facility of speech is noted by Antenor (Il. 3. 221–3) and is especially evident in the lying tales he tells frequently throughout theOdyssey. According to Euryalus (Od. 8. 159–60), Odysseus does not look like a man who knows much about sports, but of course the hero immediately proves this estimation incorrect.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Frederick Ahl and Hanna M. Roisman,The Odyssey Re-Formed (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996), 152–3. According to Ahl and Roisman,Recognition involves the knowledge or suspicion that one has grasped the identity of a newcomer.Acknowledgment is the overt statement, whether true or false, of that recognition.Google Scholar
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    I use the termmise en abyme to designate “any aspect enclosed within a work that shows a similarity with the work that contains it”: cf. L. Dällenbach,The Mirror in the Text, trans. J. Whiteley and E. Hughes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 8 (Le Récit spéculaire: Essai sur la mise en abyme [Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1977], 18).Google Scholar
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    Coras (above, n. 11), 25, annotation 16. Coras' depiction of the historical Bertrande departs significantly from the picture presented inThe Return of Martin Guerre. Thinking that Bertrande was tricked by the impostor, Coras the author likens her also to Alcmena, deceived by Jupiter in Plautus'Amphitruo: Coras (above, n. 11), 6, annotation 3. Davis (above, n. 6),The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1983), 18, detects in Coras' text evidence that the historical Bertrande in fact played a double role: she only claimed to have been tricked by the impostor but in fact told stories that Arnaud was able to repeat and thus deceive everyone.Google Scholar
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    Other modern renditions of the story of Martin Guerre include Janet Lewis' novelThe Wife of Martin Guerre (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1941), and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musicalMartin Guerre (Beverly Hills, Ca.: Dream Works Records, 1999). Neither novel nor musical—at least in its recorded form—makes allusion to Homer, though both invite comparison to theOdyssey.Google Scholar
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    Pucci (above, n. 12),, 83, points out: “Disguise is of such an uncanny nature that it is perceived as ‘disguise’ only when it is detected and exposed—that is precisely, when it no longer functions successfully as a disguise.” However, Davis (above, n. 6),The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1983), 41, argues that thehistorical Pansette was actually seeking to forge a new identity and become Martin Guerre.Google Scholar
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    Guild (above, n. 3), “, 49, nicely captures this aspect of the film's cinematography: “[T]he framing of scenographic space is authoritative. Long shots open and close the film; there is a high percentage of fixed frontal scenes and close-ups of the characters, as if the steady hold of the camera could reveal what is hidden; a high proportion, too of ‘master shots’, that is the overall view which ‘allows the scene to be dominated in the course of its reconstitution narratively as dramatic unity’. Scences are presented as spectacle and establish the spectator as unifying centre, authoritative witness, as if the lens’ steady focus matched the spectator's gaze; the spectacle is offered for mastery and witness.” The internal quotation is taken from S. Heath, “Narrative Space,” in:Questions of Cinema (London: Macmillan, 1981), 41.Google Scholar
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    I use the terms “filmmakers” or “makers of the film” to designate the committee consisting of directors, writers, editors, and others who are often able to give the impression of speaking to the audience with a single voice. Chatman considers this committee the “implied author” of the film; cf. Chatman (above, n. 23), cites, 92–7.Google Scholar
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    Sippl (above, n. 3), “, 28, describes Joseph in terms that will suggest Eumaeus to even the most casual reader of theOdyssey: “Joseph, a freed slave, is portrayed as unassuming, hardworking, and a bit skeptical at best. …”Google Scholar
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    Indeed, the story of Odysseus seems particularly relevant to the modern world. For Odysseus as the first “modern man” and the inspiration for many works of literature and film, cf. Theor Reucher,Der unbekannte Odysseus; eine Interpretation der Odyssee (Bern und Stuttgart: Francke Verlag, 1989), 8; and especially Markus Janka, “Odysseus 1996: Ithaca auf der Bühne, im Rundfunk und im Buch. Die Rezeption derOdyssee im Multimedia-Zeitalter,” in: Martin Korenjak and Karlheinz Töchterle (eds.),Pontes I,Akten der ersten Innsbrucker Tagung zur Rezeption der klassischen Antike, Comparanda. Literaturwissenschaftliche Studien zu Antike und Moderne 2 (Innsbruck, Wien, München etc.: Studien Verlag, 2001), 79–107.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Harold Bloom,The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (London, Oxford, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 122. Bloom uses the termskenosis anddaemonization to signify this act of repression. He is, of course, speaking of poetry, but his theory can be easily generalized so as to cover film (and poetry's influence on film).Google Scholar
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    Cf. John Peradotto,Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey, Martin Classical Lectures n.s. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 31: “The most impressive example of this [sc. the poet's sense of his power to control and manipulate his material] is his character Odysseus' ability to narrate a fictitious world—a made-up world—an ability that is not formally distinguishable from the poet-narrator's own exercise of his craft.”Google Scholar
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    Some might object thatSommersby pays relatively little attention to the journey, while putting the major emphasis on recovery of wife and home. But as William H. Race, “Classical and Romantic Poetic Journeys,”Classical and Modern Literature 10 (1989), 27–45, has shown, theOdyssey is really concerned with Odysseus' homecoming; the modern over-emphasis on the hero'sreturn is symptomatic of a “romantic” (mis)reading of the epic that values the journey over the return.Google Scholar
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    Peradotto (above, n. 29),, 154–5, for example, gives the scene such an anti-essentialist reading.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno,Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente, in: Adorno,Gesammelte Schriften 3 (Frankfurt an Main: Suhrkamp, 1981), 86–7= Horkheimer,Gesammelte Schriften 5 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1987), 91–2.Google Scholar
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    Peradotto (above, n. 29) 156. provides a wonderful analysis of the recognition scene between Penelope and Odysseus, though I might quibble with his claim that philosophers commonly “cite twocompeting [my emphasis] criteria for the reidentification of persons: the identity of the bodies that they have or the identity of their sets of memories.”Google Scholar
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    Thus I disagree with Guild (above, n. 3), “, 54–5, who argues that the film positstwo senses of identity: a weaker sense in which the desire of the community to identify Horace as Jack determines his identity and a stronger sense in which Jack's performance accomplishes this function. Guild's criticism that the film reduces the courtroom to an admiring audience and Laurel to a grieving widow, while justified on feminist grounds, seems to me to undermine her own argument that Laurel and the community of Vine Hill actually determine “Jack's” identity. On the contrary, I think, they merely testify to his power.Google Scholar
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    Meyer's authorship of theOdyssey screenplay was pointed out to me by Eric Parks.— Meyer's version was not ultimately used, although he remained involved as an Executive Producer; his screenplay can nevertheless be read on his website, Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert J. Rabel
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and CulturesUniversity of KentuckyLexingtonUSA

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