Troy (2004) Retro Review

Continuing the Greek theme for this week, we slide down the timeline from the adventures of Heracles and onto the next generation of heroes. 2004’s Troy adapted the epic Iliad into an epic three hour film that had the balls to go for an R rating but pissed off literary purists and disgruntled Roger Ebert. “Homer’s estate should sue,” he jibed. “The movie sidesteps the existence of the Greek gods, turns its heroes into action movie cliches and demonstrates that we’re getting tired of computer-generated armies.” Looking back on reviews for the film, I read a lot of similar vitriol from Ebert’s contemporaries. Apparently the Lord of the Rings trilogy had spoiled these Hollywood staples for any films thereafter.

Troy doubtless was funded to capitalize on the extraordinary success of LOTR, but I have a confession to make: I love this movie more than all three of those films combined. Granted, this love did not begin with the film’s 2004 premiere. I’m fairly certain I missed out on it when it debuted in theaters, and specifically because it did not adhere to the original’s story of fate and gods and superhuman ultraviolence. But I have a second confession to make: When Troy hit theaters I had not even read The Iliad. I could not have told you that the title refers to Ilios, the ancient name of Troy. So I, along with all the other poseurs, had no idea that Troy was respectful of its source material, at least as far as the title went. There are many more respectful nods to The Iliad in Troy, some obvious and others less so. My favorite is probably the single and strange scene of Achilles talking to his mother.

In the mythology, Achilles is the son of Peleus, a mortal, and Thetis, a sea nymph. Originally the betrothed of Poseidon, Thetis was eventually abandoned by the god when a prophecy foretold that she would give birth to a son that was greater than his father. This matters little to the movie but, though Troy avoids any obvious supernatural elements, Thetis’ appearance is deliberately peculiar. After Achilles is approached to go to Troy he notices his mother collecting sea shells. Their dialogue can be interpreted as either magical or mundane in nature and it is perfectly ambiguous. It works for both lovers of the source material and for casual filmgoers and it talks down to neither.

I’ll boil down the summary to these essential details. Paris (Orlando Bloom) falls in love with Helen (Diane Kruger). Helen, unfortunately, is the wife of Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), the King of Sparta. After a gathering to broker peace between Sparta and Troy, Paris absconds with Helen, taking her back to Troy and pissing off the Spartan king. Menelaus goes to his brother Agamememnon (Brian Cox), who has already conquered all the countries of the Aegean. Caring nothing for Helen but greedy for the spoils of Troy, Agamemnon gathers his armies to conquer the unconquerable city. Foremost among his warlords is the mighty Achilles (Brad Pitt), who hates Agamemnon but is desperate for everlasting glory. The Greeks will battle the Trojans in the most tragic and legendary war of all time.

Director Wolfgang Petersen deftly balances the realistic and epic elements of this story, and what I believe critics disliked about Troy was that they went in with too many expectations of whose story this is supposed to be. Perfectly understandable for a work as old as The Iliad, but a work as old as The Iliad easily accepts new interpretations. I have become even more fond of the film as I read more Greek myths, as the further one delves into the literature the more versions of the myths one finds. There is some evidence that a city like Troy existed in the archaeological record, but we primarily know of it based on stories. To envision the siege of Troy through contemporary eyes and with contemporary values does no more disservice to the poem than Renaissance painters depicting Ancient Greece in Italian fashions or tableaus of Jesus using classical iconography. The disservice is entirely up to the critic to decide, and if there is no truth in the tale the tale deserves to be discarded. But there is much that is good in Troy and, if you’re willing to let ten years of historiography be distilled into three hours of cinema, you can enjoy it for what it is.

The values of the ancient Greeks were very different from ours: strength of arms and big, boastful language were the primary means of distinguishing the good guys from the bad. They took women as slaves and worse, they killed their enemies and stole their armor and money and they bickered over who got what. Many of the most impressive heroes in The Iliad are, by almost any definition, little better than mercenaries and pirates. And, according to some interpretations, that is the entire point of the poem. The Battle of Troy is a gray conflict, with the leaders on both sides displaying despicable and laudable characteristics. The Aegeans, or Greeks, are the nominal protagonists, but the Trojans come off much better, especially in the character of their champion, Hector. When we delve into the literature, we can appreciate all the subtleties that the film is playing with and what it manages to achieve in its running time.

I point to both this film and the excellent HBO series Rome for reigniting my interest in Greek and Roman history, which began at the tail end of college and continues through today. I’d like to get even deeper into the details but there is really too much to cover and I’ve already packed this puppy with my apologetic prologue. It’s a great action film and finely written/adapted by David Benioff. Like Rome, however, it does suffer from one giant, glaring flaw. In Rome’s case, the flaw is its entire second season. In Troy’s case, the flaw is its horrendously miscast lead, Brad Pitt.

I could write you pages praising the cast of this film. I could write you pages upon pages upon pages drowning that praise with the absolute awfulness of Pitt’s portrayal of Achilles. It is so strange and so baffling that it is impossible to watch this movie without thinking that every single actor around Pitt is trying desperately to make up for the lack of effort on his part. Even Vincent Regan, playing Achilles’ second-in-command with a little more subtlety than the second-in-command he played in 300, goes to his thankless role with more interest and gravity than this infamous A-lister. And here’s the thing: I like Brad Pitt. I think the man acquits himself nicely in roles that he cares about. But for whatever reason, and it’s strange to consider in a movie as overwhelmingly expensive as this one, Pitt spends this entire movie with a pocketful of fucks and not a single one to spare.

He’s not a total wash, as his physical stunts are gracefully performed, those that are actually performed by him and not his balletic stunt double. To this day one of my favorite action sequences of all time is the penultimate fight scene between Achilles and Hector (Eric Bana). It is beautifully choreographed, each shot elegantly framed, the music right, the scene sparse and focused. You believe in the passion of the battle, that both men are actually trying to kill each other, and yet the two are fighting for so much more than their lives. Hector is fighting with the weight of his kingdom on his shoulders. He knows that his father is old, that his brother will be a worthless ruler, and that if he dies Troy will fall soon after. He knows that he is a great fighter, but he believes Achilles is greater. Achilles also believes this, and is fighting not to prove that fact but to exact his selfish revenge. He knows that if he kills Hector his reputation will be cemented, but he also has no fear of the outcome. Hector is desperate and tired; Achilles is a force of nature. So much has led up to the moment on both sides and the execution of the fight is not a moment longer than it needs to be. The sound editing is glorious.

So, too, does the movie succeed when Achilles is not speaking. In the first battle on the shores of Troy, Achilles’ relentless murder of soldiers leading up to the decapitation of Apollo is exhilarating. What the film gets about the story of Troy, what is perhaps overlooked in the bombast, is that this was an age when the only, the only thing that mattered – in the myths and in real life – was the power of a man’s reputation. A man’s wealth was one thing, his land another, but there was no newspaper, no popular literature, there was no internet, no telephone. How you got people’s attention was by being really, really, really fierce. So fearsome that your very name could win a war. In Achilles’ battle up the beach, the Greeks on the boats begin to shout his name, and that is the very essence of what the ancient myth is about. As depicted in Troy, Achilles is a man who is only good at one thing: killing people. But he is so good at it that men, women and children around the world know who he is. There are also hints throughout the film that Achilles’ very invincibility has less to do with his prowess – which is still unquestionable – and more to do with the fact that he is perceived by both himself and his enemies to be unbeatable.

But that is what Petersen and Benioff get so very right about this tale. How we perceive ourselves and our history is what creates our reality.

Pitt does the role of a preternatural killing machine justice, but it’s in every other capacity he utterly fails. If I’m wrong and Pitt really was trying to act in this movie, then the problem is that he’s constantly making the wrong choices. If he was choosing to depict Achilles as weary or aloof he just comes off as bored. For Pete’s sake he’s sharing the screen with Brian Cox, Sean Bean and Peter O’Toole! All three of these guys act circles around Pitt, and that’s not even counting Eric Bana, who may not have the gravitas of O’Toole but who does great work as Hector and is far more interesting to watch. Even Orlando Bloom, whose range is about as limited as any working Hollywood actor, does the best that he can do.

Yes, that’s right. Legolas outacts Tyler Durden in this movie. It’s true, the Achilles of the original epic spends most of it sulking in his tent, and Pitt is probably as pretty as the hero was supposed to be, but he had the opportunity to do anything he wanted in this role and he just whiffs it, in scene after scene.

Apart from its protagonist, Troy is a beautiful film, with solid sets, a great score, performances that appropriately fit the tone and epic sweep of the material, and battle scenes that do not shy away from the carnage and brutality of war – especially in the Director’s Cut. Because the film is such an immense production, it’s possible to ignore the shortcomings of its main character. It’s unfortunate that this is the best way to enjoy Troy, but its details are lush and its story is immortal.

Inspired by The Iliad by Homer

Troy (2004)
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Warner Bros. Pictures
163 Minutes

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