As the first major war of the 21st century rages on, continuing to dominate our collective consciousness, cinema takes us back to the most legendary battle of antiquity with “Troy,” director Wolfgang Petersen’s opulent re-creation of Bronze Age conflict. The question is, in re-visiting one of Western civilization’s bedrock myths, what can we learn from it today?
Well, apparently not much. We learn that life is short and war is hell, but glory on the battlefield is immortal. And that’s about it. Sit back and enjoy the swordplay, but be aware that screenwriter David Benioff, author of “25th Hour,” has also been hacking away. His target? Homer (the bard, not Simpson) and his magnum opus “The Iliad,” from which the writer has chopped a considerable amount of timeless wisdom.
First and foremost, “Troy” is a film concerned with spectacle, with the height of its battlements and the size of its armies. While that makes the film watchable, often enjoyable, in a popcorn-flick sort of way, it does a disservice to the myth. For myths, aside from being action-packed and fantastic stories, are also supposed to serve as allegory — primal tales that contain universal, timeless truths about human nature.
One gets the impression that the power of myth was on the director’s mind far less than the power of Brad Pitt’s pecs; both he and Orlando Bloom, as Achilles and Paris respectively, get bare-torsoed frontal shots that stop just short of the mosaic zone. (Hetero male viewers are less well-serviced; when Helen disrobes, it’s a chaste camera angle.) Overall, “Troy” is the sort of movie in which the hair styling is more interesting than the characters, where historical accuracy extends to every groove in a warrior’s armor, but not to the story as it’s been handed down for 3,000 years. In a word: Hollywood.
If you’re not familiar with the story, good; ignorance is bliss and you won’t wince as it gets butchered. Yes, it’s the same tale of a war waged over a woman, fought between the Phrygian city of Troy and an array of Greek city-states circa 1200 B.C., which culminated when the Greeks pulled off that famous trick with the wooden horse. The particulars, however, have lost a lot of color. Gone are central characters such as Cassandra, the prophetess cursed with the ability to see the future, but have no one believe her; Aeneas, hero of Virgil’s epic “The Aeneid” and founder of Rome; Iphigenia, the sacrificed daughter of Agamemnon, immortalized by Goethe and Racine; and Laocoon, priest of Apollo, dragged to his death by serpents while trying to warn his countrymen of treachery by the Greeks.
Even the war’s origin is “re-imagined.” In “The Iliad,” the goddesses Hera, Athene and Aphrodite appear before a handsome young cowherd, Paris — long lost son of Priam, King of Troy (the guy had 50 sons, so cut him some slack) — and ask him to pick the most beautiful. Paris chose Aphrodite, goddess of love, swayed by her promise that she would deliver him Helen, the most desirable woman in all of Greece. (Played here by unknown Diane Kruger, who’s too bland to live up to that billing.) When Paris collected on this promise, Helen’s husband, Menelaus, king of Sparta, didn’t take it well, and called in help from his brother, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, and set sail for Troy and vengeance.
In the movie, Paris seduces Helen while visiting Sparta as part of a Trojan peace delegation, a far more craven move than receiving a divine gift. In excising the gods and the supernatural from this part of the story, Benioff reveals the approach that he brings to the material, a “realist,” antimyth version of the war. He must have presumed that modern audiences wouldn’t buy the concept of godly intervention in human affairs . . . unless, of course, it’s Jesus Christ, whose every bit of magic must be treated as literal truth.
Now if Benioff thinks he can rewrite Homer to better effect, more power to him, but he’d better prove up to the challenge — something that Shakespeare, Chaucer, Virgil, Euripides, Eugene O’Neill and others have achieved. Benioff, however, never gets very deep into his characters. The great love of Helen and Paris is noticeably low on gas, while Agamemnon is a one-note tyrant whom Dr. Evil would have no problem relating to. Eric Bana does a fine job as Hector, son of Priam and Troy’s most gallant defender, bringing a quiet dignity to the role and convincing you that he’s a man born to lead. But the script lets him down at every turn. Take his rousing speech to his troops before battle: “I’ve lived by a code, and the code is simple: Honor the gods, love your woman and defend your country!” Words to echo across the centuries?
Benioff also guts the character of Achilles, who he places front and center here. Achilles, the superwarrior of the Greeks, invulnerable except for his heel (another choice bit that is skipped by the “Troy” screenplay), is an incredibly complex and savage figure in the myths. Reluctant to join the war (his mother prophesied his death), he at first hid in drag in a palace harem. Later, on the battlefield, he ordered a handsome male opponent in combat to “submit to my caresses or die.” He killed the Queen of the Amazons and had his way with her corpse. He was prepared to betray the Greek camp to the Trojans in exchange for the hand of Polyxena. And he refused to fight for an extended period when Agamemnon dissed him by seizing a female prisoner — Brseis — who Achilles felt was rightly his. That last bit is the only part that made it into the film, and sure enough, Achilles falls in love with the feisty priestess. The scene where they finally kiss while she holds a knife to his throat is about as hokey Hollywood as you can get. But hokey Hollywood is what this film’s about, with Helen and Paris getting a last-minute escape instead of the fates they so richly deserved in the original.
For the most part, though, the cast does the best with what they’ve got. Pitt can sure do “vain,” and that’s what Achilles requires in spades. Sean Bean’s cunning, smooth-talking Odysseus is spot-on, and deserves the obvious sequel. Orlando Bloom brings a good dose of unthinking naivete to Paris, and it’s Peter O’Toole as old king Priam who finally manages to break through the turgid script and make us feel something.
Taken as your monthly dose of hyperkinetic action, “Troy” does deliver in spurts. The battles are mostly shot in the chaotic, blurry style established by the opening of “Gladiator,” but they have a flow that makes sense. The personal combats — duels between Hector and Ajax, Paris and Menelaus — are shot with flair, set to a tense conga solo and full of ramped-up Hong Kong style sound effects so you can hear the swords whoosh through the air. Less effective are the Filmmaking 101 cut-aways to the reaction shots — sudden close-ups of Helen or Priam watching the combat with a worried look on their faces — a none-too-subtle reminder of how we’re supposed to feel.
“Troy” is most gripping when it lets the extremity of human emotion seep through — not just honor, dignity and courage, but lust, jealousy, vanity, duplicity and cowardice. It’s in showing the contradictions within the characters — Hector’s love for his brother being so great he would slay a man ignobly to avenge him; Achilles’ rage at the death of his cousin changing to sympathy when Priam appeals to him to return the corpse of his son — that the film gets closest to the truths of the story.
Overall, the best thing one can say about “Troy” is that it could have been worse. Much worse. Achilles doesn’t run up the walls or fly through the air in “Matrix”-esque slow-motion. Nor are we shown the flesh ripped from Hector’s bones as Achilles drags him behind his chariot, something Mel Gibson would have rendered in loving micro-detail.
On the other hand, it could have been so much better. The myth of the Trojan horse, as Barbara Tuchman pointed out so well in “The March of Folly,” “has endured deep in our minds for 28 centuries because it speaks to us of ourselves, not least when least rational.” Why the Trojans brought the wooden horse into their city — despite the dire warnings of Cassandra and Laocoon, who even hurled a spear into its side — speaks volumes regarding the tendency of those in power to reject opinions contrary to what they wish to believe. Tuchman drew a parallel to Vietnam. If this aspect of the film had been retained, it would have been just as poignant today in pointing out the pig-headed hubris — that great old Greek word — of refusing to believe what’s before your eyes.