Well, Other Charlotte, I thought there were some fine cinematic things done in Troy myself. Brad Pitt surprised me–he always surprises me–by being not only the most gorgeous, weak knees-making hunk in the known world (except in real life–lose that beard, Brad!)–but by bringing to life a credible Achilles who’s brutish but also superbly intelligent. He can see the end (the teleological end, that is) of war and also his own end. He incorporates a tragic dimension into Achilles which is not in the mealy-mouthed script that director Wolfgang Peterson commissioned but is definitely in the Iliad. Kudos, too, to Peter O’Toole, who steals the movie as old King Priam (O’Toole steals every movie that he’s in). Priam is another tragic figure, for he knows perfectly well that the war will end with the anihilation of his city–and that in the process he will lose his beloved and most heroic son, Hector (Eric Bana).
Furthermore, except for a bunch of idiotic-looking stone deities (check the bulbous bearded creature sitting behind Priam if you can take your eyes off O’Toole) that suggest there’s something to the quip that man made God in his own image, the movie’s settings nicely evoke the pre-classical ancient world, at least as described by Homer. Archaeologists say that the real Troy of 1250 B.C. probably had no walls, but Homer, Virgil, and all the other classical authors say it did, so Peterson has commissioned imposing unbreachable-looking fortifications, along with the high citadel that figures in classical literature and is also archaeologically verifiable. The Greek camp along the Aegean beach outside the city looks exactly the way Virgil, for one, describes it in the Aeneid. The ships look right, and so does Achilles’ properly archaic chariot, which could have come off a piece of ancient Greek pottery. That chariot is crucial, for the most affecting scene in “Troy” is Achilles’ dragging of the dead Hector’s corpse around the walls of the city (three times in the Iliad, but only once in the movie, which is all right). My only cavil: this was the Bronze Age, before the era of iron swords and breastplates, and there wasn’t enough bronze to be seen in “Troy.”
It was the people of “Troy” who generally let me down. My least favorite character was Briseis (Rose Byrne), whom Peterson’s scripwriters have made a priestess of Apollo, which they seem to think was the ancient equivalent of an Earth First! agitator. Briseis in the Iliad was the widow of a Trojan ally-king whose husband and brothers Achilles had slain and so taken Briseis as his war-prize. Achilles loved Briseis dearly, but in the way that he might love his Lamborghini were he alive today. The Greek king Agamemnon in the Iliad took Briseis away from Achilles, not for the macho hell of it as in “Troy,” but because he had to return his own Trojan war-prize, Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, because the god got miffed at the theft of the girl and cast a plague upon the Greeks (Apollo is an Alan Alda-esque nice-guy god in “Troy,” in contrast to the patriarchal Zeus). “Troy”‘s Briseis is a yacky, moralizing proto-feminist who harps endlessly to Pitt’s Achilles on the evils of war. “When will it all end?” she moans. He’s more realistic: “It never ends.”
That encapsulates the problem with “Troy.” Peterson has taken an epic, tragic, timeless story and turned it into a wimpy 21st-century message movie, in which I couldn’t help but detect a certain anti-Iraq War slant. It’s no accident that the Greeks (most noticeably Pitt and Diane Kruger as an affectless Helen of Troy) seem to be blonds and redheads, Nordic caricatures of white America, while the Trojans are dark-haired, presumably Mideastern types (the formerly blond O’Toole doesn’t count as an exception; his hair is snow-white in this movie). This, of course, contradicts everything that ancient literature and art tell us about the way the Greeks regarded themselves and the Trojans, who in classical poetry and drama worshipped the same gods as the Greeks and looked identically raven-locked in vase-paintings. The idea of blond Greeks (sorry, Brad!) comes from 19th-century German Romantics, not archaeologists.
The Trojans in “Troy” are peace-loving Anatolians minding their own business before the Hellenics invade, and Agamemnon (Brendan Gleeson) is a greedy, tyrannical imperialist (modeled after You Know Who, I guess, or maybe Dick Cheney) who invades nice Troy in a power grab on the mere excuse that his equally nasty brother Menelaus’ honor was violated when his wife ran off with the Trojan prince Paris. This, too, is historical nonsense. Agamemnon in classical literature was merely the head king among his royal Greek equals (including Odysseus, whom Sean Bean doesn’t get much of a chance with in this movie), and Agamemnon’s sin wasn’t imperialism but his sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia (left out of the movie) in order to get wind into the Greek sails. In keeping with the patriarchal-Greek theme, as TOC points out, Diane Kruger’s Helen is a housewife/victim who finds women’s liberation in the shape of Paris (Orlando Bloom) a consummate wimp until he realizes late in the movie that he is actually Legolas and starts polishing his killer-archery skills.
Such irritating ideology is so pervasive in this movie that I found myself unable to weep, as I do when I read the “Iliad,” over the most touching scene in all classical literature: Hector’s farewell to his wife, Andromache, just before he goes to fight Achilles. Andromache begs him not to go, for she is an orphan and he is the only family she has. Hector knows perfectly well that he will die, and he knows well enough–or can foresee–that their young son will be hurled from the walls of Troy when the city falls. “Troy” can’t grasp this tragedy, which the Greeks knew all too well, that war is horrifying but it is also a theater of human immortality through the winning of glory.
That’s why, unlike TOC, I sincerely hope that director Peterson doesn’t decide to attack the Aeneid next. I laughed out loud when Paris encounters Virgil’s hero in a secret escape tunnel as Troy burns.
“What is your name, young man?” (as if Paris wouldn’t know–they’re cousins!).
“Take this, the sword of Troy (!), and found a new city, a better place.”
Yes, a gentle, peace-loving, animal-rights kind of place called Rome. Unfortunately, Virgil, like Homer, knew that war is inevitable, but it is often the price to be paid for the forging and the preservation of civilization.