I’ve watched Troy before. Many times. I saw it for the first time through a rather freak invitation to the U.S. premier. To relive my night amongst the stars, I picked up the DVD.
Troy is not a great movie, but it is better than the criticism would imply. The movie takes its story from the Illiad, but fairly loosely. One negative review I read complained about the absence of the gods from the movie which, I suppose, they considered the key element of the story.
Instead, Troy is a particular genre of historical fiction that imagines a fictional story as if it were true. One can’t possibly swallow the narrative of the Illiad whole, but if the epic is based on historical fact, what might those historical facts have looked like?
Given that as a goal, the movie is almost absurdly anachronistic, featuring weapons and armor nearly a thousand years offset from the likely timeframe of the Trojan War. The drawings of the Trojan War, created during the Greek Classical Period, reflect the reality of the time in which the artists lived, not lifetimes of the subjects. The mindset of mankind 3000 years ago did not much consider the advance of technology, and therefore people generally imagined the people of hundreds of years earlier existing much as they, themselves would live. The same can likely be said of 1000 years ago (or less). So using the Greek’s own art to portray “realism” in the illustrated story is, right away, going to cause some problems.
In spite of this, the film offered to me some enlightening images of what might have happened in a real-life Trojan War that could eventually be remembered as the what happens in the Iliad. To put it more accurately, what if modern minds were put into 7th-century BC Greek arms and armor and sent to re-fight a, perhaps mythical, 13th century battle. Even still, film weaves this modernized portrayal of a “realistic” Troy with allusions to the mythological aspects of Homer’s version as well as portions of Homer’s dialog.
I am reminded of Michael Crichton’s book Timeline. In that novel (also a movie, although we don’t like to think about that), modern university students are transported back in time to the Hundred Years War. One of the those students, who is a modern expert in Medieval weaponry, is shocked by the style of fighting he sees. From today’s perspective, we imagine knights in plate armor stumbling around under the weight of all that steel, clumsily bashing at each other with swords. In reality, these combatants must have spent their entire lives perfecting the ability to move and fight. Our fictional observer inherently knew, but was still surprised, to see the speed and skill of the medieval warrior.
This was my first impression when I watched Troy. In the poems, Achilles and Hector and the like are portrayed as magical in their ability to fight and slay their enemies. In reality, they were just people. But to be a person whose fighting abilities would be remembered some 3000 years on, one imagines that such skill would have been honed to the point of artistry. While we imagine someone living 3000 years ago as unsophisticated, they were almost certainly at least as skilled at navigating their world as we are with our own.
It is probably best not to dwell too deeply on the details, but at least at a superficial viewing, the combination of Pitt’s performance and whoever did his stunts for him suggests a level of skill and athleticism that, while hardly other-worldly, certainly might have been perceived as such by those who found themselves at the pointy end of Achilles’ spear.
A contrasting portrayal is found in the fight between Paris and Menelaus. Paris is characterized as a novice to warfare – a lover not a fighter. When he challenges the Greek king to single combat, he is clearly outmatched. This is shown by camera work which depicts Paris’ point of view. He sees the fight through the eye holes of his (anachronistic) helmet, and the viewer is impressed with the lack of awareness that an unskilled soldier might have felt in such armor. Paris sees the confident and capable movements of Menelaus, and we are reminded of the difference in skill levels between one of Homer’s “heroes” and what we ourselves might be capable of under the same conditions.
I read (or maybe watched) somewhere that part of how the director (Wolfgang Petersen) prepared the actors, particularly for their final face-off, was to push the two leads to be competitive in everything. As Pitt and Bana prepared for and rehearsed their roles, they were challenged to outdo one another. The end result was not just to get them looking the part but to intensify the conflict between them because they were genuinely (if only figuratively) at each other’s throats.
While the film did have its pluses, it also had its pitfalls. The acting was one-dimensional, with an always-stoic Brad Pitt clenching his jaw at a perpetually forlorn Eric Bana. The script was a bit flat as well, with an over-emphasis on simple themes – the primary one being the trade-off between a happy life and eternal glory, taken from the Iliad itself. This too may justify some of the awkwardness of the dialog attributable less to the skills of the scriptwriters and more to the difficulty of taking Homer’s almost alien prose and human interaction, and mixing it in with the contemporary language and themes that are also in the film.
While I actually favored the version of the story where the gods are portrayed as a superstitious belief rather than actual, physical representations in the battle, other deviations from the original story make less sense. The entirety of the Iliad takes place at the end of a ten-year siege of Troy. In the movie, starting as it does with the abduction (?) of Helen, needs to smoothly transition between the start of the invasion and the end of the war. It does so by making it all take place within a few days – the Greeks land on the beach on day one and fight the Trojans in open battle before the walls (where the Iliad opens) on the following morning. While a few more days pass before they slip into the city within the Trojan Horse, the entire decade long wars seems to have been condensed into little more than a week.
The time distortion causes other problems. For example, Achilles is shown in the movie ready to fight and die over Briseis after she is taken from him by Agamemnon. We later see that he is considering giving up the war with Troy, and eternal glory, to return to Greece and make Briseis his wife. This is all taken, after being jumbled around a little bit, from the Iliad. But in the Iliad, Achilles has been living with Briseis for years, and the relationship has had time to develop since he killed her husband and made her his captive. In the movie? Achilles goes from oblivious to obsession in a matter of a few hours. Portrayals of love in ancient texts are often quite detached from reality but, at least in this case, the Iliad seems to make a lot more sense than this modern film version.
Petersen’s work runs that gamut of quality from good (The Perfect Storm) to great (Das Boot) to mediocre (Poseidon). But he has a string of box offices successes that entitle him to make big budget movies, but focusing on not-your-typical big-budget subjects. While you and I may have made Troy differently, it took Wolfgang Petersen and his standing within Hollywood to get it made. I also have to thank him for his indirect role in getting me that premier ticket.