Early in the spectacle that is Wolfgang Peterson's Troy, lackeys rush up to King Menelaus to inform him that his bride, Helen, has been kidnapped. Seems the king's pretty trophy wife has fallen for a guy named Paris (Orlando Bloom) -- and we all know how much women love Paris. "Your wife has left with the Trojans!" Menelaus is told with straight-faced sincerity. No, the king still has his condoms; it's his girl who's gone missing. It is a tribute to the serious intent of this film that the line got nary a laugh. Not a peep. And so we are off and running in a re-tell of Homer's The Iliad, one of great war epics of all time. And not a yuk in it.
So much for the face that launched a thousand quips.
The sign from the gods that launched Troy is of course the success of Gladiator. Movie trends go in cycles and we are in the midst of a sword-and-sandal revival that would make Steve Reeves reach for his loincloth. Troy is the first one out of the box after Gladiator, with seventeen variations of Alexander The Great rowing our way over the next months. Guys in leather skirts are back! But how do you make it new?
Gladiator was daring in its use of CGI to recreate both the ancient coliseum and the crowd that filled it. It was a breakthrough, too, for Russell Crowe. And armed with that map, well, why not The Iliad? It and its companion piece The Odyssey (the first sequel?) were my favorite stories as a child. I don't know if kids are exposed to this anymore, probably not, but the sprawling saga and its trailer moments have stuck in my mind ever since. This is the tale of Helen, kidnapped by Paris and hustled back to Troy, King Agamemnon who brings the might of the new Greek nation to bear on behalf of his cuckolded brother Menelaus, crafty Ulysses and, of course, Achilles who is struck down on the plains of Asia Minor by an arrow that catches him in the ankle -- this being where Achilles' mother held him when she dipped her baby in the River Styx to make him immortal - except for that one little touchy spot. And of course, it is the story of the Trojan Horse, the first political maneuver thought up by Karl Rove before he discovered the Internet. Part myth, part historical document, and perhaps the very first mini-series.
And mostly it is a story about character and the perils of greed, vanity, arrogance and bloodlust. You remember character? Well, if all you see are movies -- maybe not.
The Iliad is great because of those characters and a lesson for screenwriters out there that stories about people and their fatal flaws can hold our interest when millions of dollars of special effects, however loud, cannot. And as a take on this tale, Troy manages to stick to the original.
Brad Pitt is Achilles and though the story of The Iliad is only partly about him, Pitt's star power has torqued it into a movie that is mostly about him. What a shock! They've even re-written Achilles' arc to include a love story -- one of the early warning signs that some studio Zeus in a Zegna sports coat has put his mitts on this thing. No matter. Pitt has a romance with a local girl (Rose Byrne) he finds at Troy who will tame this mortal who dares to be immortal, temper his bloodlust with real lust, and make Achilles not such a heel. And all in all, it may be Pitt's best role yet. As a metaphor for where he is in life, Pitt is a modern Achilles. You get the sense as he stares off at the blue Aegean, wondering about the value of immortality and the intersection of fate and deed required to achieve it, that this isn't something Pitt thinks about sometimes at Starbucks, too. His Achilles is a take no prisoners/ancient Jim Morrison kind of guy and he does some nice Marlon Brando-ish eyebrow furrowing that puts him in league with the Hollywood immortals. Quite a part for a guy from Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, back in Troy, Orlando Bloom is the weak but handsome Prince Paris and as Helen, Diane Kruger is ideal. She has one beat: I'm really, really sorry about all this fuss. But she plays it well and is beautiful -- we get it. I'd send the Army after her myself. As Hector, Aussie Eric Bana is studied and wiser that his impetuous brother, Paris. And Peter O'Toole, this movie's version of Richard Harris in Gladiator, plays his father, King Priam. O'Toole brings the needed English gravitas to his role as the proud but foolish Priam. Heavy is the burden that rests on his shoulders and you can see it in his tired eyes. And in a mano-a-mano worthy of The Actor's Studio interview, O'Toole and Pitt share a scene late in the film. They are great together.
But we know what's coming.
What's new in this version is Wolfgang Peterson's insistence on realism. There are no gods in this version, just people. And there is only one goddess -- Julie Christie as Achilles' mother, who shares a touching moment with her son as she sends him off to find his fame and his certain death. But for the most part this is a war story and one that remains as relevant as ever. It is Peterson's and screenwriter David Benioff's contention, for instance, that King Agamemnon was driven by the quest for power more than the fabled revenge for his brother's stolen wife. And it is a point that hits home these days. There are all kinds of explanations for war, all of them valid and all of them as good as any other. But when the beaches are littered with bodies, and the fire of revenge is tempered with its aftermath, we have to wonder what it was that started it. Reason number four hundred why this story remains with us.
Troy takes place in a time when the world was much smaller place, when skirmishes like this, historic or imagined, became legend. One gets the sense of what this new world was like watching Troy, a time when the ships were smaller, the lifespans were shorter and the deeds greater. And now with the world a bigger place, the reasons for our actions are the same, so why do our deeds seem small? But that's Greek tragedy for you. And that is why Troy plays now as The Iliad played back then, passed on as a story template from generation to generation. Nope. Not a laugh in it. None needed.