Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen
Screenplay by: David Benioff
Produced by: Wolfgang Petersen, Diana Rathbun, Colin Wilson
Studio: Shepperton Studios, Warner Bros. Pictures
Based on: The Iliad by Homer
Release Date: 14th May, 2004
Troy is a film I’ve been aware of for many years, but seldom had enough interest to see for myself, despite my interest in history and Greek mythology. At the time, the removal of the more obvious fantastical elements annoyed me. Having finally seen the version most preferred by director Wolfgang Petersen, I ultimately deem this to be a well-made and fairly entertaining action film suffering from issues of protagonist likability and inconsistent writing.
In the late 12th century BC, Achilles (Brad Pitt) is the greatest champion of King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) of Mycenae during the Trojan War. Meanwhile, Prince Hector (Eric Bana) of Troy and his younger brother Paris (Orlando Bloom) negotiate a peace treaty with Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), King of Sparta and younger brother of Agamemnon. Paris, however, is having a secret love affair with Menelaus’ wife, Queen Helen (Diane Kruger), and smuggles her aboard their homebound vessel, enraging Hector. Upon learning of this, Menelaus meets with Agamemnon and asks his help in taking Troy. Agamemnon agrees, since it will give him control of the Aegean Sea. On Nestor (John Shrapnel), King of Pylos’ advice, Agamemnon has Odysseus (Sean Bean), King of Ithaca, persuade Achilles to join them. In Troy, King Priam (Peter O’Toole) is dismayed when Hector and Paris bring Helen, but welcomes her as a guest and decides against sending her home, since Paris will likely follow her and be killed, choosing instead to meet the Greeks in open battle. Achilles leads his Myrmidons to take the Trojan beach, along with his cousin Patroclus (Garett Hedlund), and seizes the Temple of Apollo and claims Briseis, priestess of Apollo and cousin to Hector.
Like many of the epics I have seen, this has a great cast but the performances vary. Pitt certainly looks the part of Achilles and commits his energy and physical prowess to the many action scenes, overall it’s a good performance but sometimes his accent wanders a bit. Bana is on top form as Hector; his manner and bearing convey a brave, seasoned warrior prince with strong convictions and love for his family and kingdom driving all his actions, and like Pitt he is as much a powerhouse actor in battle. Cox is suitably despicable as the scenery-chewing Agamemnon, and Gleeson brings out a truly savage, leery and unsavoury quality to Menelaus, and both are believable as brothers. The ever-dependable Bean is sublime casting as Odysseus, with his dry wit and down to earth persona. It’s a shame he never got to play the character again in a full adaptation of The Odessey. O’Toole is magnificent as the tragic King Priam, he has all the composure of a mythical king and his emotional expressions speak volumes; any one of his crying scenes is a moving sight to behold. Julie Christie appears in one scene as Thetis, mother of Achilles, and conveys the pain of a mother brave enough to allow her son to choose his fate even if it means ever seeing him again. Byrne has many bittersweet scenes as the world-weary and resilient Briseis, and Saffron Burrows as Andromache; both ladies are wonderful actresses and do their best with what they’re given. On the weaker side of things, Bloom and Kruger are both really bland as Paris and Helen respectively, yes she is very beautiful but lacking in personality or conviction, Bloom’s Paris has similar faults but does resemble Bana enough to pass for his younger brother and is admittedly saddled with a thankless and hated role. Hedlund is passable as Patroclus, but does come off as whiny and ineffectual at times. Other acting veterans such as Julian Glover as King Triopas, James Cosmo as General Glaucus of Troy and Nigel Terry as the Trojan priest Archeptolemus all turn in great supporting performances
The strongest aspect of the film is the action scenes, and to Petersen’s credit they are very well realized. Using real life tactics employed by the Ancient Greeks and framed in a manner that allows the viewer to feel immersed in the thick of battle. In this more violent cut, the stab wounds and bloody slashes hold serious weight to them. Importantly, the gore works because it’s not done out of gratuity but as a demonstration of the price of war. The main fight between Achilles and Hector has some incredible choreography and an element of suspense to it, even when you know what fate awaits Hector. When it comes to the sack of Troy itself, Petersen’s direction brings out the injustice and sheer awfulness of the destruction of this beautiful city and its citizens by the Greeks.
There is a certain visual correspondence in the depiction of the Trojan army in contrast to the various Greek armies. The Trojans are adorned in beautiful silvery armour and blue tunics and uniforms, Achilles is also seen dressed in blue and his armour, as well as that of the other Myrmidons, has more of a shine to it. By contrast, the majority of Greek characters and their armies have more of a muddy brown look to their armour and uniforms, Agamemnon himself looking far more of a barbarian than the ones that the Greeks themselves would have called “barbarian.”
The cinematography by Roger Pratt captures the colour, vibrancy and enormity of the city of Troy, as well as the epic scale and brutality of the battles. Like many modern period epics, CGI is used to help heighten the film’s scale and most of it is well integrated. Sometimes the CGI is sometimes easy to spot, such as the massive Greek fleet sailing towards Troy or the necessary enlarging of the Greek army for various sweeping shots, but it is allowable given the greater emphasis on physical actors and locations for the vast majority of the film.
The score by James Horner is solid doesn’t rank among my favourites of his. While the background music is serviceable, it really flourishes in the battle scenes, particularly the heroic leitmotif which appears when Achilles and the Myrmidons are in the heat of battle. There are some creative flourishes like the celebratory horns of Troy or the playful cellos when Achilles and Patroclus are training. But the score is also littered with “Horner-isms” that have been heard in a lot of his other scores, particularly the ominous trumpet leitmotif for the Greek army. Overall, it’s not a bad score but one that could have been greater, had he more time to work at it. An addition to the music from the Director’s Cut is the use of Danny Elfman’s theme for Planet of the Apes during the pivotal fight between Hector and Achilles. As someone who listens to a lot of film soundtracks, it is an odd decision to hear a familiar piece from a different film with a different composing style.
The script by David Benioff is a broad and loose adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, and sometimes suffers from trying to take on aspects of the poem that wouldn’t work in a film. A lot of the dialogue is littered with straightforward exposition, sometimes repeating familiar themes and titles or stating what the audience can see or deduce for themselves. The attempt to include more Homeric speeches and mannerisms is also a mixed bag. Benioff and Petersen try to integrate the style of Homer into the dialogue but it often sounds a tad off from the weaker members of the cast. However, an elongated insult that worked best in Homer’s medium could be condensed on film to… unintentionally amusing results. Achilles’ angry “You sack of wine!” exclamation is one such example. Despite that, most of the characters get good development and leave an impression across the three hour running time, which fortuitously flows at a good pace despite that length.
The decision to focus on Achilles, as was the case in The Iliad, makes the film come dangerously close to lacking a strongly likable protagonist. For long stretches of time, Achilles is not very likeable at all because of his arrogance and vengeful behaviour, he is basically a mercenary in search of the one battle to make him a legend, only to find peace where he least expects to where he does soften up somewhat. Hector is very likable but is ultimately doomed before the whole story can conclude, Odysseus is off screen for a long time and the eloped couple don’t inspire any love from the audience. The decision to focus on the human element mostly works but there are some vague allusions to the presence of the gods. The scene with Thetis is the only scene that indicates the presence of gods and goddesses; she is presented walking in the shallow pool by the sea as a hint of her identity as a goddess of the sea. Achilles defaces the statue of Apollo and eventually loses his cousin, and ultimately cannot be with the woman he loves. So this leaves the possibility open that the gods are manipulating events unseen. The homosexual love between Achilles and Patroclus is sadly omitted in this film, and regardless on how you feel about such partnerships the relationship between these two men was one of the driving plot points for The Iliad and to water it down and alter their relationship to being cousins takes a lot of the dramatic punch out of the story.
There are noble heroes and incorrigible cowards on both sides, and the underlying tragedy comes from not only the destruction of the magnificent city but the fact that brave men are pitted against each other either in service of tyrants or doomed causes. Agamemnon fully buys into his deluded belief that he is unifying all of Greece underneath one banner, but there’s no doubt in any scene that he is a bloodthirsty warmonger and Troy is hardly a threat to the whole Aegean. Faith is also brought into question, as a reflection of the uncertainty of the early 2000s. The Trojan priests blindly worship the gods, and then thank them for all of their victories despite the efforts of the Trojan soldiers and this reaches a terrible conclusion in with the reveal of the infamous Trojan Horse. Both the priests and the soldiers were driven by abstract ideals into making decisions that cost a great many lives.
The element of fate and human flaws driving life-changing decisions is shown through. Every character ends up getting what they deserve, no more no less. Achilles wanted his name remembered and chased fame in spite of Agamemnon’s lack of honour. He got fame, but not without the price that came with it. Paris gave in to lust and desired a romantic escapade with Helen. He got what he asked for and the catastrophe that come with it. His name is effectively mud forever for inviting doom upon Troy and surviving while his brother fought and died valiantly. Hector, despite his moral character, still inadvertently contributed to the war coming to Troy. If he had done his duty, sailed back and returned Helen to Menelaus, then the war would not have happened. He killed Patroclus, though by accident, and thus faced retribution at the hands of Achilles. Odysseus designed a treacherous move against the Trojans, and paid ultimately for it for the next twenty years away from Ithaca.
Even at its best, Troy does feel like there is potential for a far more poetic and moving film than what we’re presented. Peterson’s direction, the cinematography, the costuming, and the effects are all to the standard that this epic story deserves, and the script itself is not too far from a truly great adaptation. Still, it is a good edition to the period piece epic genre and one I was pleased to enjoy.