So is Wolfgang Petersen's Troy--inspired by Homer's 15,000-line epic poem The Iliad--true to its tony literary source, or just a post-Gladiator sword-and-sandal movie "epic"? Surprisingly, Troy is more the former than the latter, and its fidelity to the spirit (if not always the letter) of The Iliad makes it a minor miracle. Though the authorship of the 2,800-year-old story remains clouded, the concerns of "Homer" pulse through our modern translations of The Iliad: politics, fate, personal character, and the guiding values of glory, family, and honor. Troy, as scripted by 25th Hour author David Benioff, embraces all of these themes.
Above all, The Iliad is a gory, kick-ass war story, but a hugely ambivalent one: though Homer was Greek, his mature, moral tale asks audiences to sympathize equally with both Greeks and Trojans and plumb the fog of war ("There's nothing glorious about it—nothing poetic," says one of Benioff's warriors). Both sides have fools and wise men, understandable cowards and great warriors, and both armies fight for the same values. Likewise, Troy aches for both sides of the conflict, though Benioff tips the scales of sympathy to the Trojans. If there's an "evil empire" in Troy, it's the martial, power-hungry Greek kingdom, sending its men in the trenches to slaughter for a "greater good."
Of course, that "greater good" is saving face (the face the launched a thousand ships, you know), and Benioff makes this pivotal detail both romantic and horrifying, in turns. Helen of Sparta (newcomer Diane Kruger) becomes the ultimate war prize when she cuckolds brawny Greek hubby Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) by bedding with one of his Trojan guests: a young prince named Paris (Orlando Bloom). As in Romeo and Juliet, one might well wonder if the young twosome's passionately professed love is merely horniness, but the point becomes largely moot when Paris spirits Helen away with the Trojan fleet.
Menelaus's brother, King Agamemnon (Brian Cox), relishes the opportunity to go after those damn Trojans, launching a costly war (one which lasted, according to Homer, nine years). Sean Bean's Odysseus ruefully notes, "Women have a way of complicating things," at least where the men are concerned. Benioff takes a Lord of the Rings tack by emphasizing the female roles. Take the pivotal character of Briseis (Rose Byrne), a Trojan acolyte of Apollo captured by Achilles; as scripted by Homer, she drives a wedge between Achilles and Agamemnon (and never speaks), but Benioff also allows her to penetrate Achilles's emotional armor. The idea is at first compelling, but ultimately leads to the film's falsest moments in the climactic siege on Troy.
Benioff's other liberties prove mostly sensible, if brusque: making the story smaller by ruthlessly compressing time, linking characters with invented familial ties, eliminating Hector's late-blooming loss of courage. Though he rightly simplifies Homer's epic sprawl of action, Benioff also appends bits of Virgil's The Aeneid and other sources to put Homer's in medias res episodes into a fuller context for a wider audience.
The resulting 163-minute movie is remarkably engrossing and fleet-footed, with more indelibly etched moments than Cecil B. De Mille-style corn (embodied by James Horner's disappointing score). Petersen, who as a student studied The Iliad in the original Greek, pays striking pictorial homage to Homeric imagery, with an awe-inspiring effect of Greece's thousand ships, spectacular hails of arrows, sandy duels, close-up inserts of death's "loosed knees," and the most emotionally impactful variation on modern action cinema's archetypal "suiting up" scene (behind the camera: frequent Gilliam DP Roger Pratt).
Primarily, Benioff eliminates the gods, who shadow and weave through the mortal action of The Iliad with pettiness and grace equal to their human counterparts. In this way, Troy stays gritty and relatable, rather than unwieldy and fantastical. Mocking the bird-sign omens of The Iliad, the screen Hector scoffs, "The gods won't fight this war for us." Later, in a surprisingly tender scene, Achilles explains, "The gods envy us—they envy us because we're mortal...everything's more beautiful because we're doomed."
Brad Pitt's Achilles may have the imposing reputation of a god (and the luminous appearance of Julie Christie as his mother Thetis adds to his mystique), but Benioff and Petersen make him unmistakably human: fiercely proud, antiauthoritarian, and possessed of a weakness for glory and nihilistic appetites for sex and death. Pitt does fine work here, though he must ignominiously suffer the film's cheesiest indulgences, including a scene of Achilles training his "cousin" Patroclus and a final act abruptly marred by convention.
The casting is strong all around, with Bloom a suitably callow Paris and Peter O'Toole an alternately wistful and piercing King Priam of Troy, well aware his days are numbered regardless of the war's outcome. The film, like Homer's poem, paces itself around duels of words and limbs: Paris and Menelaus's famous duel employs P.O.V. shots for a "you are there" vitality. Petersen does his job with faithfully brutal violence which makes the audience squirm in unison; the director goes above and beyond the call of duty to make the audience likewise squirm with all the fleshy bits. Copious nudity sexes up unsexy Homer, and provides some compensation for female viewers skeptical about the macho (over)killing.
As Prince Hector of Troy, Eric Bana (The Hulk) fares the best. The older, wiser brother of Paris, Hector is a dutiful son and husband drawn inexorably away from family in order to defend them; Hector's story resonates with the capricious whims which too often ensnare common men and women into war. Homer's point--played out on front pages daily--is that war can make common men uncommon and great men eternal, and Bana gracefully portrays Hector's rise to the occasion in the noble service of love. Bana also stands at the center of the film's finest sequence, beginning with Achilles calling for Hector outside the Trojan gates. As Hector strides purposefully toward the story's ultimate duel, he exchanges a pregnant look with Helen, the inadvertant cause of his fate.
Troy is at its best embracing such enormously powerful character arcs, the stuff that makes Homer classic. When O'Toole comes face to face with Pitt's Achilles, the film again becomes pin-drop riveting. As if speaking to today's American military leaders, Priam gravely points out, "Even enemies can show respect." The scene, in Homer and on screen, is life-changing for Achilles in its soulful undercurrent. In scenes like this one, Troy is an enormous, humbling achievement of adaptation.