I recently taught “The Iliad” for the fortieth time in my Western Civilization class, so I decided to rewatch “Troy” and review it with an eye to how close the movie retells the epic poem. It seems appropriate that a web site that reviews war movies should examine a movie based on the first war story in Western literature. Before you say “what took you so long?”, I want to point out that I did review the movie as part of my Best War Movie of the 21st Century Tournament. (It defeated “The Last Samurai”, but lost to “Master and Commander”.) This review will concentrate on the plot. So if you haven’t read “The Iliad” - spoiler alert. And, come on, get that off your bucket list! And, if you think watching this movie takes the place of reading Homer’s incredibly long poem, think again. (But high school students trying to avoid reading the poem and using my review instead, you’re welcome!)
“Troy” is actually the story of the entire Trojan War whereas “The Iliad” covers just six months in the ninth year. A title card introduces the movie with background information pre-war. King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) has united the Greek cities into a loose alliance, except for Thessaly. His brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) is negotiating peace with Princes Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) of Troy. While the King of Sparta is making peace, his brother is making war with Thessaly. Instead of a bloody battle, it is decided that each army will put up a champion for a duel. Agamemnon’s champ is Achilles (Brad Pitt), which is awkward because they despise each other. The duel ends with Achilles doing his signature move. Meanwhile, back in Sparta, Menelaus’ wife Helen (Diane Kruger) is showing Paris more than the normal hospitality. This could end up ramming (this is Ancient Greece) the peace treaty. Especially when Helen elopes with Paris. When Hector finds out, he decides bro and his ho before the entire population of Troy. Menelaus goes crying to big brother, who uses the cuckolding as an excuse to conquer Troy. If that is going to happen, the Greeks will need their main man Achilles. Odysseus (Sean Bean) convinces Achilles to accompany the expedition in spite of it being suicidal for Achilles. Achilles’ mother points out that it is better to die a glorious death and be remembered forever than to provide her with grandchildren. Odysseus points out that since he is being played by Sean Bean, he is committing suicide also.
|the move - as described by Homer|
Achilles leads the beach assault. He and his Myrmidons avoid the fire arrows by getting into a testudo. Romans, take note. Achilles is a killing machine and the entire Trojan army retreats from him. To add insult to injury, he desecrates the Temple of Apollo. Hector rides to the rescue and finds out why Achilles is the J.J. Watts of the Greek army. Achilles nobly spares Hector’s life because it is too early in the movie for that duel. Or as Achilles puts it: “It’s too early in the day for killing princes”. The victory celebration is marred by Achilles and Agamemnon debating who deserves credit for the win. Agamemnon’s argument is the king determines who gets the credit – and that would be me. Achilles responds with: “War is young men dying and old men talking”. Oh, snap! To emphasize where the power lies, Agamemnon insists on taking a beautiful captive girl named Briseis (Rose Byrne – Angelina Jolie not available?) away from Achilles and makes it clear she will not be just dusting his tent. Achilles is so upset he says “you sack of wine!” He’s more of a physical fighter than a verbal taunter. Until his sex slave is returned, he will not kill any more thousands of Trojans.
At a Trojan council meeting, Paris stops the debating by proposing a duel with Menelaus to end the war. (The royal family rushes to place bets on Menelaus.) The duel between the vengeance-minded brute and the wimpy, ladies-man goes as you would expect. End of war and end of movie, right? Except that the winner dies and the war continues with a phalanx battle. Trojan archers from the city walls turn the tide and the Greeks retreat. This would never have happened if Achilles were here, so Agamemnon returns Briseis who is so grateful to have that weight lifted from her chest that she falls in love with Achilles. Good sex is not enough to rekindle Achilles' blood-lust. A night attack using fire-balls (Spartacus take note) puts the Greeks on the brink of having to accept that a semi-hot chick might not be returning with them.
When the daylight comes, Achilles best buddy Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) sneaks off in Achilles’ armor and leads a counterattack. Like on a playground, everyone gathers around for the duel between the faux Achilles and Hector. Patroclus may look like Achilles, but… Achilles is not going to take this well. But on the plus side, Achilles will stop his pouting and return to slaughtering. But first, he has some unfinished business with Hector. Achilles calls Hector out (literally) and they have the type of fight that you would expect from two superstar actors who refuse to use stuntmen and rely on robotic choreography. The duel turns when Hector trips over the only rock located on the plain outside Troy. In a great act of poor sportsmanship, Achilles drags the corpse back to the camp. ( I assume this was not in the original script, but was an idea that came to the ever-competitive Pitt.) Later, King Priam (Peter O’Toole) comes to beg his son’s body back and prove that he can still act circles around these young whippersnappers. Patroclus is cremated in the third funeral pyre scene in the movie. At this rate they are going to run out of coins to put on eyes. This, by the way, is where “The Iliad” ends, but the movie goes on to conclude the war because too many theatergoers have money riding on who wins the war.
|ladies, he wants you|
Odysseus (Sean Bean is still alive!) gets a bright idea for a way into the city. The horse does look like it was built from ship timbers. Nice prop! Paris wants to burn it, but being the most unpopular man in Troy, no one listens. During the night, Achilles and other sneaky Greeks initiate the sack of Troy. Achilles is not interested in the fun stuff – looting, raping, killing. He is on a quest to rescue Briseis. Andromache and Helen escape, along with Aeneas – a character introduced so intellectuals can feel superior to the rest of the audience. Google him. Agamemnon stabs Priam in the back (literally). And as though that does not bring enough hisses, he moves on to abusing Briseis. She stabs him in the neck. It’s like a gift for her boy-friend Achilles. But before he can thank her, Paris puts an arrow in his ankle. Lucky inaccurate shot! The next three shots are more accurate. Who wants to see Achilles die from an errant arrow to the ankle? Paris and Briseis escape. He knows a way out – he would! Another funeral pyre. Sean Bean survives! Maybe there will be a sequel featuring Odysseus. Is there a story that could be adapted into a screenplay?
|a Trump rally|
My belief is that a movie should improve upon the book it is based upon. “Troy” is a mixed bag in that respect. It jettisons the ridiculous role played by the gods in the war, but then the screenplay changes the deaths of virtually every main character and messes with the ending in a move purely aimed at satisfying the audience. In many ways the movie treats the audience as dummies. This includes the simplistic theme of glory equals immortality. This differs from Homer’s theme of “the wrath of Achilles” because Brad Pitt can’t be seen playing a jerk. In reality, Achilles is one of the great heels in history. The movie plays into the common ignorant belief that he was a hero. For this reason, Pitt’s Achilles does not commit atrocities like cutting the throats of twelve prisoners at Patroclus’ funeral as he does in “The Iliad”. The transformation of Achilles to an empathetic, lady-rescuer is laughable. Although Achilles is not quite the brute of “The Iliad”, the other characters are spot on in their personalities. The movie insists on making Agamemnon into a supervillain which is beyond Homer’s depiction of him as a dick. The cast is all-star and they do a good job. At least the men do, the female characters are weaker. The biggest problem being the key role of Helen. A little known Diane Kruger was cast and she is not up to playing the most beautiful woman in the Ancient World. (Why not the modern “face that launched a thousand ships” – Jennifer Anniston? Another case of a Pitt veto?)
|she's pretty, but a thousand ships?|
“Troy” has all the strengths and weaknesses of an epic. Director Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot”) knows how to make crowd-pleasing, big budget blockbusters. He uses CGI well for the fleet and army scenes, but there are still a lot of extras in the film. The sets are kitschy. Basically what a modern interior designer imagined a Trojan palace would have looked like. The dialogue matches the look. It is pompous and heavy-handed. “I will remember your name”. (Because that is the theme of this movie.) “I hate Achilles”. (In case my scowl is not clear enough.) The cinematography is showy. There is a tracking shot over the beach that cribs from “The Longest Day”. There is a sudden appearance of POV when Paris fights Menelaus. Petersen can’t force explosions in, but he does manage to get rolling fire balls. (Fire – the go-to effect until Alfred Noble revolutionized action movies.) The score is what you would expect. James Horner took over after test audiences found Gabriel Yared’s work too old-fashioned. I found Horner’s work too “Enemy at the Gates”. Is it okay to plagiarize from yourself? He actually was accused by some critics of stealing from several classical composers.
As a combat film, the movie is visceral, but anachronistic. If you read Homer, most of the fighting involves individual duels. The movie stops to reenact the key duels, but the rest of the combat is basically a Hollywood melee. The Greeks did not fight this way at that time. The movie also pays lip service to the use of chariots, but in the “Iliad” every prominent warrior used a chariot to move to and retreat from the battlefield. The role of archery is ginned up because Hollywood loves blizzards. Hollywood also loves twists. This explains why the Homer-challenged are fooled into thinking Hector has killed Achilles. One good thing about the combat is it is not repetitive, like in Homer. Each battle scene is different. And they are spaced out so the movie does have a nice flow and no long boring stretches.
|"it's not so bad - dying, the gods know I've|
done it enough times"
“Troy” will not make my 100 Best War Movies list. It is a great example of how Hollywood tampers with classic literature to make it more appealing to modern audiences. I will be doing a “Homer vs. Hollywood” post in the future, but as a preview, “Troy” is far from a Cliff Notes version of “The Iliad”. Please do not watch it and then take reading “The Iliad” off your bucket list.
GRADE = C