Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy claims as inspiration Homer’s Iliad, which recounted some events of the Trojan War and is, in fact, the foundation of Western literature.
Petersen certainly has assembled quite a cast. Brad Pitt is Achilles, the Greek warrior who quarrels with King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) during their expedition to avenge the seduction of Agamemnon’s sister-in-law Helen (Diane Kruger) by Paris, Prince of Troy (Orlando Bloom). Eric Bana is Paris’ brother, noble Hector, and Peter O’Toole is their father Priam, King of Troy. Rounding out the principles are Brendan Gleeson as King Menelaus of Sparta, Agamemnon’s brother and Helen’s cuckolded husband; and Sean Bean as the crafty Odysseus. Throw in Saffron Burrows as Hector’s wife, Andromache, and a cameo by Julie Christie as Achilles’ mother, Thetis, and it’s clear that Petersen has not skimped on talent.
He doesn’t skimp on the spectacle, either. Computer graphics are bringing back the cast-of-thousands spectacles that were so popular and satisfying in the 1950s and ’60s. At its best, Troy shows why movies like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis were so profitable.
Alas, Troy also shows why those movies went out of style. The warning signs begin early, when Paris sneaks into Helen’s bedchamber after making eyes at her over her husband’s banquet table. “Last night was a mistake,” she says—sounding less like the Face That Launched a Thousand Ships than like a suburban housewife telling the hunk from her local gym that they “need to talk.”
Still, if Helen doesn’t run off with Paris, there won’t be any story, so the mistake gets repeated, and Paris smuggles Helen aboard when he sails for home. In the next scene, King Menelaus storms into his wife’s rooms and bellows at her handmaid (“Where is she?!”), and an anonymous guard rushes in and proclaims, “Queen Helen has run off with the Trojans!” It’s rare that something so exquisitely hilarious finds its way into the final cut (I expected Menelaus to say, “Damn! And they were ribbed, too!”), and I’ll cherish that line forever. But considering the giggles I heard in the audience, it seems a bit fishy that someone on the set didn’t think to suggest that Petersen and writer David Benioff might want to do a quick rewrite.
Even so, the Trojan War is such a compelling subject, and Petersen’s visuals are so impressive, that hope dies hard. As late as the first fight between Paris and Menelaus before the gates of Troy, when Paris (played by Bloom as a pretty-boy coward, true to Homer) flees in terror, those of us who know their legends are still thinking, “So far, so good.”
But then Hector kills Menelaus, and the giant Ajax (Tyler Mane) takes an arrow through the heart—all on the first day of the war—and our own hearts begin to sink. We begin to suspect that this famous 10-year war—which, in legend, dragged on until two armies were exhausted, golden Troy was in flames, and the Greeks were blighted by vengeful gods—is about to come in for some drastic time compression.
Sure enough. Three days later, Hector kills Achilles’ pal Patroclus. The next day, Achilles kills Hector. And 12 days after that, the huge wooden horse is rolling into Troy. Petersen and Benioff make mincemeat of the ancient legend, but they do it secure in the knowledge that their target audience, whose mean age is about 22, probably will never know the difference.
Perhaps Petersen and Benioff were worried that their audience, enticed by Pitt and Bloom in armor and tunics, might balk at seeing them grow older. (“Eww! By that time, Brad would have to be, like, 50. How creepy is that?”) But they trivialize their tale by telescoping an epic 10-year war down to a stubby 17 days.
Paradoxically, while shrinking the war to just under three weeks, they drag it out to just under three turgid, sluggish hours. Apropos of which, another unintentional laugh comes when the priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne), taken by Achilles as a prize of war, asks, “When will it end?” as he stalks off for another battle. Buckling on his armor, he growls back: “It’ll never end.”
By all the gods of Olympus, Homer himself couldn’t have said it better.