Like Gladiator four summers ago, Troy starts the warm-weather season off with a manly, retro, sword-clanging bang. But that’s where the similarity ends. Gladiator, which unaccountably won a Best Picture Oscar, was a numbing and derivative revenge fantasy recast for swords and sandals. Troy takes off from sturdier origins — Homer’s great war poem The Iliad, which seems constructed to show war in all its aspects, its exultant splendor and its terrible cruelty. David Denby, in his appraisal of classic literature Great Books, cites an Iliad passage describing a spear striking a soldier “beside the nipple of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder.” Homer’s treatment of violence is both near-pornographic and exhilarating in its attention to the physical.
Director Wolfgang Petersen is aboard Troy, and after a few hit-and-miss blockbusters (his last movie was the waterlogged The Perfect Storm), he has made his most robust yet complex film since Das Boot, the U-boat drama that launched him internationally. There are many, many grand-scale battle scenes in Troy, and Petersen stages them cleanly yet with an emphasis on the chaos of the moment. We see individual mano-a-mano conflicts within the larger fracas, mini-battles in which we can see that this man triumphs because of speed over strength, while that man wins due to sheer dumb luck. Other fights, such as the one between the Trojan warrior hero Hector (Eric Bana) and a massive Greek adversary, are skillfully choreographed dances of rage and honor.
Brad Pitt may take a few critical slings and arrows just for having been cast as Achilles, the arrogant warrior and great hope of Greece, but he’s got the moves. Pitt has perfected a highly photogenic maneuver: he runs past an enemy, hops up with his heavy legs swinging, and jabs his opponent fatally above the shoulderblade — whap! Pitt brings more to it, though; his Achilles is a great warrior who feels used by the greedy king Agamemnon (Brian Cox, having a grand old time) and has grown contemptuous of the very forces that set him in motion towards glory in battle — which means contempt of glory itself. (In Homer, Achilles renounces the heroic code, saying, “We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.”) By contrast, Hector, as underplayed effectively by Eric Bana, is a strong warrior who would rather not fight — he’s seen enough fighting to appreciate any other sensible but honorable alternative.
This great war poem, amusingly, has a soap-opera impetus: Hector’s brother Paris (Orlando Bloom) runs off with Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). In the movie, Agamemnon uses his brother’s rage as an excuse to start a war with Troy but really couldn’t care less about Menelaus’ pride. The weak link of The Iliad turns out to be the weak link of Troy, especially since Orlando Bloom and Diane Kruger, twin pretty flowers, barely suggest the transgressive passion that incinerated a great city. Nevertheless, the story was always meant to focus on the men pitted against each other over such a trifling matter. The face-off between Achilles and Hector is beautifully realized, all the more wounding because we can precisely read each man’s emotions going into the fight (even though Achilles’ rage is muted in the movie because he is now avenging his cousin, not his, ahem, “friend”).
If mesmerizing panoramas of mass carnage don’t pull you in, Troy has a major old warhorse in its ranks: Peter O’Toole, seldom seen onscreen lately, enters the movie humbly as King Priam, father of Hector and Paris, and commands the screen effortlessly. When Priam meets Helen, O’Toole compliments her beauty, then delivers a single word, “Welcome,” and invests those two syllables with an entire movie’s worth of meaning; you can hear the subtext of Priam’s exasperation with his son, understanding of why Paris fell so hard for Helen, and acceptance of whatever this illicit love might bring to his nation. “He was born to end lives,” someone says of Achilles, and O’Toole was born to kick movies up another notch.