Strictly speaking, Troy isn’t an adaptation of The Iliad. The closing credits of Wolfgang Petersen’s production tell us that David Benioff’s screenplay was “inspired” by Homer’s epic. But actually most of the movie is an expensive guess at what inspired Homer. If a Trojan War really took place, what was it like?

Petersen and his collaborators seem to have been serving three urges while making Troy. First, there is that “real story” urge to excavate the history behind the myth. And so Agamemnon no longer presides over the Greeks as the King of Kings but as the Bully of Bullies, a land-grabbing, trade-route-coveting warmonger using Helen’s abduction as an excuse to wipe out Troy, his only real mercantile opposition. The lovers, by no means admirable in Homer, are here not the pawns of the gods but of their own selfish sentimental eroticism. Achilles comes across less as a prince than as a nihilistic mercenary clutching at fame as the only meaningful thing in an otherwise barren world.

Indeed, the universe does appear godless in Troy, and seems to provoke the rudiments of atheism in some of the characters. Mouthing a variation on Stalin’s sneer at the pope, somebody asks, “How many battalions does the sun god command?” (Curiously, Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, Thetis, survives the deity cut, but comes across as a sort of earth mother who opens an astrology shop on the Sunset Strip with a sideline in Tarot readings.) And, since there are no gods, there are no divine interventions. In the poem, Hector’s body, attached to Achilles’ chariot and dragged around Troy, cannot be mutilated because Aphrodite has anointed it with ambrosia. But in the movie, Hector’s face is virtually destroyed by the dragging. Troy’s mortals are on their own.

A second urge of the filmmakers shortly makes itself felt: to retain Homer’s purely human moments, though several of the characterizations have been altered. And it surprised me how well certain scenes played, even when their theological framework had been jettisoned. The domestic colloquies between Hector and his Andromache, the face-off between Hector and Achilles, and, above all, the nocturnal visit of Priam to the tent of Achilles gripped and touched the audience at the performance I attended.

Third, there is the filmmakers’ need to tidy up the multifarious story by not only focusing on Achilles (certainly the lead in the poem, too), but by making that fighting machine susceptible to humanistic conversion. They have reshaped the progress of the anger of Achilles to make it resemble those many film noir melodramas-think of Casablanca, On the Waterfront, This Gun for Hire, To Have and Have Not-in which an apparently disaffected loner, quite willing to work for vile men if the money is good, acquires a conscience through the love of a good woman. Here, the vile employer is Agamemnon while the civilizing female is Briseis, the captive Trojan priestess who softens Achilles’ heart with the usual movieland pillow talk until he is ready to intervene, during the sacking of Troy, both on Briseis’ behalf and on the side of mercy for many of the Trojans. (And if devoted readers of Homer are surprised to hear that Achilles is alive for the sack of Troy, I must warn them that they are in for several more surprises vis-à-vis who is and isn’t alive at the end of this movie.)

Judging by the results, Benioff and Petersen worked best whenever they had to work most strenuously to stretch their imaginations. Aspiring to Homeric sweep, Petersen has produced awe-inspiring views of fleets and charging phalanxes and those topless towers. Occasionally seeking to undermine Homeric glory (as Shakespeare did in his scathing Troilus and Cressida), Benioff gets some juice out of Agamemnon’s cynical plotting, Odysseus’ realpolitik, and Achilles’ tough-guy nihilism. But, whenever the screenwriter falls back, flops back on Hollywood clichés of how legendary lovers spoke, wooed, and wheedled, we get such pearls as “I don’t want a hero, I want a man I can grow old with.” We might be watching As the World Turns.

The same salad of imagination and cliché can be found in Troy’s physical design. The cinematographer Roger Pratt convincingly turns the landscapes of Malta and Mexico into an Asia Minor sufficiently real yet capable of inspiring myth. The very sand between the confronting armies looks thirsty for blood. On the other hand, though Troy’s battlements are impressive, its interiors don’t seem truly inhabited. The actors who move through them could be just so many tourists checking out a theme park.

The designers of the costumes and hairstyles have dared to give the male actors a wilder, more “Asiatic” look than is customary in Hollywood spectacles. The females, many of whom act impressively, have been costumed and coifed as much for fashion-magazine layouts as for drama. (Surely Helen’s beauty must have been wild rather than pristine.)

Wolfgang Petersen is a first-rate action director, as In the Line of Fire and Das Boot proved long ago, so it’s no surprise that Troy’s battles surge and batter. These were bound to be the most Homeric moments in the movie becausse the combats in The Iliad are the most movielike passages in the poem, Homer alternating between verbal “long shots” of masses of troops and “close-ups” of individual champions going mano a mano. There are moments in the movie when the common soldiers stagger away from a melee to become spectators at their generals’ single combats: homicidal mechanics temporarily turned into bloodsport fans.

If the climactic combat between Hector and Achilles should be the clash of the titans, the movie can give us only the showdown of the middleweights. Both Eric Bana and Brad Pitt have bulked up for their roles, but neither has bulked up his screen presence. Pitt, though almost forty at the time of filming, presents an Achilles who’s no more than a sullen adolescent. He looks good in the fight scenes, giving the Greek champion a Zen-like concentration on his targets, but his love for Patroclus and Briseis doesn’t convince and, when he must rally the troops with oratory, he can yell, but he can’t resound. Bana does better, achieving about 50 percent of Hector: the nice, domestic side. Reluctant as he is about going to war, Hector is also a thoroughgoing killer when bloodshed proves unavoidable, and it’s this steely side of “the tamer of horses” that the actor doesn’t capture.

The supporting cast has nary a weak link, but I will name only my favorites: Brian Cox, the most underrated actor in the world, probably won the role of Agamemnon because of his genius-level performance as Goering in the TNT miniseries about the Nuremberg trials; here he achieves the same flavorsome villainy. As his brother Menelaus, Brendon Gleeson gives us a convincingly perplexed brute, capable of large decency and larger violence. In playing Odysseus, Sean Bean must cope with an embarrassing lightbulb-goes-off-over-his-head moment when the very smart Greek conceives the Trojan Horse ploy, but Bean copes well, having already established the hero’s humane slyness. As Paris and Helen, Orlando Bloom and Diane Kruger are not only beautiful but so vulnerable in their selfish love that you might regard them as children who burn down a house to see the pretty flames. I kept wondering who the marvelous American actress playing Andromache was, until I realized with a start that she was the marvelous British actress, Saffron Burrows, so great in Mike Figgis’s Miss Julie adaptation. I guess Burrows wanted a transatlantic sound for an archetypal character. Her talent, in any event, remains intact and expanding.

In the role of Priam, Peter O’Toole is both the crest of this movie and a reproach to it. The man has become translucent; the voice sounds as I imagine one of Rilke’s angels would, and he does angelic things with it. When Hector and Paris return to Troy from the diplomatic mission that Paris has destroyed, O’Toole greets the elder brother with condign pride. Then he turns to Paris and, dropping his voice an octave, simply says that son’s name. Into those two syllables, O’Toole injects disappointment, total acceptance of that disappointment, and a world of love. What sets O’Toole apart from the rest of the movie, or even in opposition to it, isn’t just his acting but the fact that the Irish actor seems to be operating on a different wavelength than anybody else on screen (or off screen, for that matter). O’Toole puts his audiences in touch with the irrational.

Though Troy banishes the gods from its universe, the irrational, or at least the otherness of a vanished world, is what this movie keenly needs. After seeing it, I thought of Fellini’s Satyricon. Flawed, self-indulgent as some of it is, the Italian film is the work of one unusual mind daring to imagine a society that has virtually nothing in common with our democratic, media-connected world. Troy has been intelligently guided by Wolfgang Petersen and has many strengths but, compared to Satyricon or even Derek Jarman’s warped but fascinating Sebastian, it testifies to committee work rather than a unique vision. It never transcends the vaguely liberal populism through which Hollywood views all humanity in all periods.

Homer always refers to Achilles as “swift Achilles” or “matchless runner.” Brad Pitt looks pretty light on his feet, but Troy is pedestrian. 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2004-06-04 issue: View Contents
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