Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are:
Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war. — Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Prologue
So long is the shadow of The Iliad over the history of Western literature that before considering the merits of Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy it may be helpful to recall that the story of the Trojan War was not only likely told by poets long before Homer, certainly after Homer it has been retold and reworked by numerous poets and writers, including Virgil, Euripides, Quintus, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.
This is significant, in part, because one of Troy’s most obvious departures from the text of Homer is the conspicuous absence of the immortal members of Homer’s cast of characters — Zeus, Aphrodite, Thetis, and other luminaries of the Greek pantheon. Offended purists should note that Petersen’s is not the first recounting of the Trojan War to tell the story from a mortal point of view; Shakespeare did the same centuries ago.
That’s not to say Troy is remotely in the same class as Shakespeare, or even that Troilus and Cressida is in the same class as Shakespeare’s best works. Rather, the point is that the story of the siege of Troy is one of the seminal myths of Western civilization, and, like other myths from King Arthur to Superman, it’s sturdy enough to survive retellings both mythological and demythologized, poetic and political, psychological and tactical.
Of course, it’s equally true that no good movie about the Trojan war has ever actually been made, even at the height of Hollywood’s sword-and-sandal period. Lots of things can go wrong in a sword-and-sandal picture, and many of them did in Robert Wise’s 1953 Helen of Troy, probably the most notable previous cinematic stab at the tale.
Now, though, we have a Trojan war movie for the Gladiator generation, with all that that implies for good and ill. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s mostly for good. Troy is not great art, but it’s a mostly satisfying action-adventure adaptation of the classical story.
For one thing, the screenplay by David Benioff (25th Hour) retains the basic contours of the established story. That’s not to say important liberties aren’t taken, but on the whole major plot points are preserved. This applies not just to the two elements everybody remembers, the Trojan horse and Achilles’ heel (though Achilles’ heel is not actually from Homer), but also to such plot points as the falling-out of Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Agamemnon (Brian Cox) over Achilles’ Trojan comfort woman Briseis (Rose Byrne); a critical sequence in which one soldier is mistaken for another; and an eerily topical incident involving the abuse of an enemy soldier’s dead body.
Just as important, key themes and outlooks common to various retellings from Homer to Shakespeare carry over into the film, including a tragic view of human nature, war, anger, and revenge. Like its predecessors, Troy isn’t a story of heroes and villians, of good triumphing over evil, but of flawed, selfish men locked in a deadly struggle in which there can be no winners, only losers. In contrast to Gladiator, which celebrated revenge and villified its antagonist, Troy sees in the pursuit of vengeance only tragedy and deceit, and its one great occasion of nobility is a heartbreaking moment of shared humanity between sworn enemies.
Unfortunately, the mythic characters themselves are less successfully realized than plot points and themes. Even when the same things happen, they happen to less interesting and noteworthy people.
The adulterous affair of Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Helen (Diane Kruger) is still the catalyst for war with the cuckolded Spartan king Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), but the lovers’ relationship here feels about as weighty as a fling on Friends. (As portrayed by Kruger, Helen is a fine-looking young woman, though her beauty doesn’t necessarily bring to mind the launching of a thousand ships; a friend at the screening suggested that a number closer to 250 would be more on target.)
Indomitable Achilles still clashes with Agamemnon over Briseis, but instead of being petulantly offended by the affront to his pride, Achilles here seems more disgusted at the king’s dictatorial pettiness.
Worse, the film actually develops a relationship between Achilles and Briseis, so that in opposing Agamemnon’s desire for Briseis, Achilles is also protecting Briseis. In fact, Achilles’ conquest of Briseis is given at least as much dramatic weight as his quarrel with Agamemnon. Briseis is a consecrated virgin of Apollo ("I think you’ll find the romance one-sided," Achilles mocks), but she succumbs to Achilles so willingly, after such token resistance, that it seems the filmmakers gave her vows of virginity solely for the sake of breaking them.
Troy skews basically negative on religion generally, and certainly on having any sort of confidence or faith in the gods or on attempts to discern their will. Those who think they know the gods’ will, or expect the gods to aid them, are invariably mistaken. However, Achilles’ confidence that he will not face divine wrath for desecrating a statue of Apollo or killing his priests seems to be borne out. Achilles is openly dismissive of the gods: "The gods envy us — because every breath might be our last. Everything’s more beautiful that way." Of course the filmmakers don’t endorse everything Achilles says or does; but on the other hand no alternate view of the gods is put forward as a viable alternative.
Despite all this, as a retelling of a classic war tale Troy does a more than respectable job. Many of the battle scenes are riveting, especially a dramatic early scene involving a spectacular stunt and the bravura showdown between Achilles and Hector (Eric Bana, Hulk), one of the best duels I’ve ever seen. The drama is engaging; unlike Gladiator, which expected us to root for the hero, Troy asks us only to appreciate the characters’ conflicts and situations. And Peter O’Toole as the Trojan king Priam steals the entire film with one single scene.
The film’s wobbly center is Brad Pitt, who is poetry in motion on the battlefield, and can even be intimidating standing all alone in the plain before the massive gates of Troy, but is unconvincing in quiet moments and does nothing to make the gratuitous bedroom scenes less laughable. (Memo to the filmmakers re. Pitt’s first appearance: It’s called Troy, not Trois.)
The production design is handsome and persuasive, though less than overwhelming so soon after the wonders of Peter Jackson’s Minas Tirith and the like. The art directors get top points, though, for the Trojan horse itself, the conception of which is kind of inspired.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.