They Build Horses, Don't They?

Could be verse: Brad Pitt's beefcake Achilles is a heel in a streamlined, digitized Iliad

How did we get here? An Oscar for Gladiator, a few Brad ab crunches, and suddenly it's 1957 again, when the classics (or, at least, early-civ pulp like The Robe) filled the mega-wide screens with Mediterranean beaches and muscle-bound movie stars. Troy is everything old made new again: matte-image palaces (digitized, of course), hordes of shield-holding extras (also CGI), dialogue that may as well have been burped out by a Hercules-movie-digesting mainframe ("Beloved cousin, your beauty grows with each new moon!"), and risible "ancient" loungewear. (Everybody, Trojan and Greek both, seems to own matching aqua tunic-pajamas.) Hardly gay camp for nothing, sword-and-sandal epics cannot help but teeter on the brink of self-mockery, and Troy, for all its grim seriousness, embraces both the clichés and the beefcake. The fetishistic regard for armor dressing may have come straight from the original text, but the treatment we get of Brad Pitt's sweaty torso and blithely undraped ass is pure Marlene Dietrich–via–von Sternberg.

Visually, Wolfgang Petersen's new committee work could have been birthed out of a pod—it trudges along in a de-individualized daze with repetitive helicopter shots of milling byte-crowds and battle scenes that are little more than a confetti toss of cutaways and blurry close-ups. Homer wasn't invited to the story meetings, of course. If you remember The Iliad well, it's easy to understand why—trying to paste story arcs onto Homer's chaos of godly motivations, subplots, chance meetings, and grudges could melt your brain.

To its credit, the screenplay (signed by David Benioff) is a wonder of streamlining—which is another way of saying that it manages to suggest that Homer stole from a century of Hollywood rather than the other way around. (Lazy schoolkids looking to get out of actually reading The Iliad will get what they deserve at grade time.) Here, Agamemnon (Brian Cox) is now your typical power-mad chieftain happily letting others fight for his gain, Paris (a nauseatingly fey Orlando Bloom) is a love-struck pussy, Hector (a tame Eric Bana) is a sensitive noble, Patroclus (a snit-throwing Garrett Hedlund) is the youngster who wants to fight, etc. The characters are so un-Homerically pragmatic that the gods are routinely dissed.

Homer erotic: Byrne and Pitt
photo: Frank Masi
Homer erotic: Byrne and Pitt

Most interestingly, the high-flying, tae-kwon-do-si-do Achilles (Pitt), for all of his vanity, is boiled down to human history's first embittered, cynical man of action. Ambiguity is swapped for a pleasant sense of mythic angst: Homerians will remember it was Hector, not Paris, who ran from his duel, but Achilles' Bogartian self-interest is impressively monolithic until Briseis (Rose Byrne) dents it, the two of them barely amounting to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

As testy mogul Harry Cohn reportedly said, reading an Iliad treatment, "There are an awful lot of Greeks in it!" Kvetch about narrative liberties if you like, but Troy's multiple points of view—eight or more, including the drearily sallow Helen (Diane Kruger) and Sean Bean's Odysseus, who's amiable enough to warrant a sequel—give it a certain textual width. The siege of Troy by the Greeks is still a hot yarn, and if half the cast is as convincing as a Gimbel's window display advertising Demetrius and the Gladiators, Troy's overall gloss makes an effort to tell the unsimple tale instead of settling for gotcha effects alone.

Pitt, it should be said, is invested as a blood-soaked misanthrope. But as a war movie, Troy is strangely noncommittal—the slaughter has a numb, ineffective, over-processed tone to it. Although the Greeks are clearly the bastard plague, both sides of the conflict possess a variety of sensible rationales. The story's one unmitigated monster, Agamemnon, makes the case for nation building; if you sought out a political agenda within this exceedingly quixotic studio epic, he's your Bush II, and Troy is Baghdad. Talk about unnecessary killing is thick, but when the siege is finally successful (spoiler?), and the Trojans are butchered, Petersen's film worries only about royalty and Achilles himself, looking for love in all the wrong places. "Young men dying, old men talking" is how Odysseus defines war, but Troy itself is as interested in the ethical reality of armed battle as a game of Stratego.

 
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