"Sing, O goddess, of the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles, the deadly wrath that brought upon the Achaeans countless woes and sent many mighty souls of heroes down to the house of Death...."
--Homer, The "Iliad," Book I
Clearly, 2004 was a banner year for historical epics. We had "King Arthur," "Alexander," and "Troy" appearing within months of one another. Well, at least "Troy" didn't claim to be based on any single "true" account of characters and events, which allowed it some greater latitude in its storytelling than the others. But it still had those pesky poets Homer and Virgil to consider.
The trouble with any movie based on literature or history is that filmmakers invariably want to make their own changes to it. When a movie is based on both literature and history, the problems only intensify. So it is with the film version of the Trojan Wars in this deluxe, two-disc, widescreen set from Warner Brothers.
Director Wolfgang Petersen's production of "Troy" is based in large part on the writings of the early Greek poet Homer in his "Iliad," in smaller part on Homer's "Odyssey," and for the ending on a portion of the Roman poet Virgil's "Aeneid." These literary elements are further combined with some of the historical record and with the pure imagination of screenwriter David Benioff. The result is not at all unsatisfactory, but it may frustrate anyone hoping to find in it either the beauty of the ancient literature or the revelations of modern archeological evidence.
According to the "Encyclopedia Britannica," the ancient city-state of Troy "commanded a strategic point at the southern entrance to the Dardanelles (Hellespont), a narrow strait linking the Black Sea with the Aegean Sea. Troy probably used its site astride these two lines of communication to exact tolls from trading vessels and other travelers using them. This practice probably accounted for the wealth of ancient Troy; it may also have been the Greeks' actual motive in waging war against the city, which chronically interfered with their trade through the Dardanelles."
"Britannica" goes on to say that "the location of Troy was well known from references in works by ancient Greek and Latin authors. But the exact site of the city remained unidentified until modern times. In 1822 Charles McLaren suggested the site of Homeric Troy, but for the next fifty years his suggestion received little attention from classical scholars, most of whom regarded the Trojan legend as a mere fictional creation based on myth, not history. The German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann deserves full credit for adopting McLaren's identification and demonstrating to the world that it was correct."
As I've said, most of "Troy" is based on the work of Homer, mainly in the "Iliad" and parts of the "Odyssey," with a good part of the movie's ending based on the work of Virgil in the "Aeneid." In these books we learn that the Trojan War, fought between the Greeks and Troy, began in a rather convoluted way. Paris, the son of the wealthy and powerful King Priam of Troy, was asked to judge a kind of heavenly beauty contest among the goddesses Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena. Each of the goddesses tried to bribe Paris to win the prize, but Aphrodite's gift was the most tempting; she promised to give Paris the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris went for it, but unfortunately the prize woman, Helen, was already married to another guy, who just happened to be a King, Menelaus of Sparta. So Paris wins Helen's love, as promised, but to keep her the young couple have to sneak back to Troy, where Helen is welcomed as a queen (a princess, actually).
King Menelaus is incensed and gets his brother, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, to mount an expedition of a 1,000 ships and 50,000 men to bring her back. The Trojans, however, refuse to give her up. The Greeks lay siege to Troy in a war that would last for ten years. The "Iliad" takes up the story in the tenth and final year of the war but provides details about previous events in flashback. The gods take sides in the war, too, with Hera, Athena, and Poseidon rallying for the Greeks and Aphrodite, Apollo, and Ares for the Trojans. Homer then tells us of a quarrel between Agamemnon and the Greeks' finest warrior, Achilles, favored of the gods; of the death of Achilles' good friend (or cousin in the movie) Patroclus; of the death of the Trojan's finest warrior, Hector; and finally of Achilles' own demise at the hands of Paris, who hits him with an arrow in his only vulnerable spot, his heel.
The war ends when as a parting gift the Greeks build a huge wooden horse concealing several Greek warriors, while the remainder of the Greek army pretends to sail away. At night, the Greeks hidden in the horse sneak out and open up the city's gates to the Greek army, who pour in and sack the place. According to legend, Priam and his remaining sons were killed and the Trojan women sold into slavery.
I'm surprised I liked "Troy" as much as I did, considering there is not much more to it than flashing swords, glistening bodies, and CGI effects galore. I mean, it isn't the filmmakers fault that Homer chose as petulant, arrogant, and generally unlikable a figure as Achilles for his central character, even if it is the filmmakers' fault for casting Brad Pitt in the role.
"Troy" sticks mainly with the poets' stories, but it leaves out one key ingredient that has always fascinated readers for 2,500 years; namely, the gods. They are often spoken of in the movie, but they are never seen. The movie tries hard to combine literature and history into a believable reality that would explain the influence of the gods without showing their actual presence; but in the process the movie loses some of its mystery and adventure. Alas....
So, instead of the gods, we get Brad Pitt. You're right; it isn't a fair exchange. Pitt is youthful, handsome, muscular, and athletic looking, but with his long blond locks and Southern California tan he looks more ready to jump on the back of a surfboard than the back of a chariot. And why do actors in historical epics always want to speak in posh British accents, whether or not they're British? Pitt's voice inflection varies between what is presumably his own and a sort of British Shakespearean. Frankly, the less he says, the better.
So, the movie "Troy" basically reduces the poets' grand epics to the stuff of Saturday-afternoon matinees for which Ray Harryhausen used to provide the stop-motion animation. But you know what? I loved those old Harryhausen special-effects movies, and maybe it's why I'm still attracted to today's similar tradition of big, historical, CGI-filled blockbusters. Either that or I was so relieved to see a few rays of sunshine in "Troy" after the gloom and doom of "King Arthur" that I was making a relative judgment in "Troy's" favor. I dunno.
Anyway, story line begins with Paris and Helen running away to Troy, spends the bulk of its time on the siege, and ends with the big wooden horse, the sacking of the city, and most everyone dying. Interestingly, the ten-year war appears compressed to a couple of weeks max, but we get the idea.
The serious dramatic moments are, not unexpectedly, provided by the movie's most-veteran actors, Brian Cox and Peter O'Toole. Cox plays the bullying, selfish, power-hungry King Agamemnon, who is frustrated by being able to push around everybody except his own best warrior, Achilles. He feels that Achilles would just as soon put an arrow in his back than in the enemy. And he'd be right. Homer made the Agamemnon-Achilles rancor the centerpiece of the "Iliad," and at least Cox makes it an important element in the movie.
O'Toole plays the aged King Priam of Troy, and just listening to this actor's voice is enough to warrant the price of a movie ticket. As the old saying goes, he could make the phone book sound interesting. Priam's conversations with his sons and later with Achilles are some of the most affecting parts of the story.
Pitt is appropriately peevish and temperamental as Achilles, but he never seems particularly heroic, just foolhardy. In Greek myths, Achilles was the son of a mortal, King Peleus, and the sea nymph Thetis. One story about him is that as a baby his mother dipped into the waters of the River Styx, making him almost totally immune to wounds except for the tiny portion of his heel she held him by. Thus, we get our expression about an "Achilles heel" being a vulnerable spot. Well, here we have no such sea-nymph mother (except that during one of the few times we see her, she is collecting shells by the seashore), and Achilles' courage in battle seems primarily to come from some innate brashness on his part. Besides being a sulker and a slacker, he's something of a reckless show-off, too. He simply says he doesn't fear death. We never know why.
Hector (Eric Bana) is the story's most noble hero, but he doesn't get enough screen time for the notion to sink in. Besides, for over two-and-a-half millennia people have known he was going to be killed by Achilles and dragged around the city walls. It doesn't lessen our respect for him, but it doesn't invest any confidence in him as a main character, either. As for Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Helen (Diane Kruger), they are typically naive young people, more infatuated with one another than in love. Bloom is a bit wimpy, and while Ms. Kruger is beautiful, I'm not sure she has a face that would have launched a thousand ships.
Of all the actors in the picture, I enjoyed Sean Bean best as Odysseus, the warrior who would get his own story in Homer's sequel, the "Odyssey." Odysseus was supposed to be the wiliest, most clever, most cunning of the Greek soldiers, and Bean has both the experience and the gravitas to play him that way. He is at once heroic and capable and admirable. Now, if Petersen wanted to remake the "Odyssey" (Kirk Douglas already undertook the part of Odysseus in 1955's "Ulysses") and keep Bean in the starring role, I should think it would make a much better picture than the present one. Especially if Petersen chose to keep the mythological fantasy intact.
Still and all, there was much I liked about "Troy," enough to keep me occupied for the better part of the film. Foremost, I liked the spectacle. I don't know how the special effects showed up in a big movie theater, but they look quite realistic on the home screen. The armies, the fleets of ships, the huge walled city of Troy are all quite impressive. In fact, Troy is a lot bigger and more glamorous in the movie than the real-life city's ruins would indicate, but that's part of the exaggerated fun and spectacle of the show. I liked the battle scenes, which director Petersen handles with sweep and grandeur. They may lack the overall impact of the battles in "The Lord of the Rings," but they are exhilarating, nonetheless. I liked the fight between Hector and Achilles; even though we know full well how it's going to end, the combat is intense. And I appreciated that the scenes of war themselves were brutal enough to warrant an R rating without resorting to grossness or sensationalism for their own sake.
OK, so I didn't particularly care for Brad Pitt in the pivotal role, and I missed the gods, and I thought the film was overly long at 162 minutes. But Petersen's adroit direction of the warfare, the general pomp and splendor of the imagery, and the acting of Cox, O'Toole, and Bean won me over. "Troy" is not a great film, not even an especially good film, but it is an engrossing film, sometimes for the wrong reasons but close enough for Hollywood.
Here's a good case for issuing two-disc sets. The movie is fairly long, so it is only the movie that is placed on the first disc, ensuring room enough for a high bit rate. There are no audio commentaries, no additional DTS soundtrack, no extras beyond the scene selections. The tactic pays off, as the picture quality is excellent, displayed in a screen size that stretches an anamorphic ratio approximately 2.26:1 across my standard-screen HD television.
Almost everything about the image spells excellence. The low-compression picture, enhanced for widescreen TVs, displays bright, deep colors and solid black levels. The blue of the sea is especially rich, as are the sands of the plains and other earth tones. There is good detail throughout the movie, fairly good object delineation, little or no grain, and very few rippling lines. Pitt shows some rippling muscles, true, but there's hardly a transfer distortion in sight.
As good as the picture is, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does it one better. It is, in short, magnificent. The frequency response is extremely wide, from the highest treble to the deepest bass; the dynamics are strong and forceful; and the overall impression one gets is of clean, clear sonics. The front-channel stereo spread is broad, and the surrounds are filled with the exercise of war, the clash of armies, and the activity of men and equipment.
Disc one contains only the feature film; a generous forty-four scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. That leaves plenty of room for a healthy bit rate transfer.
Disc two contains only a few brief featurettes, but they are worthwhile. The first is a seventeen-minute, behind-the-scenes item, "In The Thick of the Battle," that shows us how some of the action sequences were created. Next is a fourteen-minute item, "From Ruins to Reality," that explains how the ruins of ancient Troy were found and excavated and how the moviemakers fashioned their own design for the city. After that is a ten-minute item, "Troy: An Effects Odyssey," that reveals how some of the film's visual effects were created. Finally, there is a widescreen theatrical trailer, plus an interactive photo section, "Gallery of the Gods," which takes the viewer on a 3-D tour of Mount Olympus and twelve of its mythological gods. The two discs and an informational insert come housed in a slim-line keep case.
I'm not sure what I expected from "Troy," having been mightily disappointed with "King Arthur" shortly before. While "Troy" turned out to be a better picture than I thought it was going to be and infinitely better than "Arthur," it was neither the rousing swashbuckler I was hoping for nor the thrilling romance. Yet despite these disappointments and the question of so characteristically a Tinseltown star in the lead, I was moved by the spectacle, moved by director Petersen's forward pace, moved by the big battle scenes, and moved by several of the supporting performances.
"Troy" may not be the biggest or the most exciting sword-and-sandals epic ever made, but enough of it worked to keep me interested for the movie's duration. Sometimes, you take what you can get.