Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Defending Troy

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

DEFENDING TROY

by Neil Young

(includes some minor spoilers)

“I don’t mind missing the start, as long as I’m here at the end!”

So speaks Odysseus (Sean Bean) about a third of the way through Troy, arriving on the scene just in time to miss the first serious skirmish of the Trojan war. In a film as bereft of humour as it is decent dialogue, this innocuous-sounding quip stands out as something of a zinger. It’ll certainly be appreciated by anyone with the most basic knowledge of Homer, author of The Iliad (which David Benioff’s Troy script is loosely “inspired by”) and its “sequel” The Odyssey, which chronicles the journey of Odysseus (AKA Ulysses) back home. Anyone with more than a basic knowledge of Homer, however, will be in for some unpleasant surprises.

The basic synopsis cleaves quite closely to the source text (or rather texts – Benioff also borrows elements from Virgil’s The Aeneiad). In around 1,200 B.C., a war breaks out between the aggressive Greeks and the more aristocratic Trojans, who occupy an impregnable walled city of Troy in what would now be western Turkey. The conflict is triggered when Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) absconds with Helen (Diane Kruger), wife of King Menelaus of Sparta (Brendan Gleeson).

Helen and Paris are welcomed by Paris’s father, the elderly King Priam (Peter O’Toole) but soon Menelaus’s brother King Agamenon of Mycenea (Brian Cox) leads his armies (including Odysseus) to attack Troy. Their initial efforts are quite easily repelled, but the arrival on the scene of renegade Greek uber-warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt) threatens to swing the momentum against the Trojans. First, however, Achilles must deal with the Trojans’ hero, Hector (Eric Bana)…

In compressing an epic poem into the storytelling confines of modern-day Hollywood-blockbuster cinema, Benioff makes some very significant “amendments.” The Greek Gods (who control and bicker over human affairs in The Iliad) are notable by their absence; a ten-year struggle now occupies a matter of weeks; the fate of several of the principals is radically different from Homer’s version: classical scholars will be as surprised as Menelaus and Agamemnon are when they receive their fatal come-uppance at different stages of the siege.

Menelaus’s sudden departure from the scene will makes it somewhat difficult for the Troy team to turn to The Odyssey if this movie achieves suitably impressive figures at the global box-office (at the time of writing, the opening US weekend takings of $45m bodes well). As if to cover their bases, they do give The Aeneiad‘s hero Aeneas – a last-minute cameo, played by a very forgettable-looking young actor named Frankie Fitzgerald. If Benioff and co do turn to Virgil next, presumably Fitzgerald will be replaced by a more bankable name.

Sean Bean in TroyIf it’s The Odyssey, however, surely nobody would begrudge Sean Bean his chance at leading-man status. Never as big a name as his talent or charisma have deserved, Bean’s profile was boosted by his memorable turn as Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring, and if nothing else Troy allows him a rare opportunity to play a character who’s still breathing by the time the end-credits start to roll. The Odyssey (basis of both James Joyce’s novel Ulysses and the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou) is a much more fantastical tale than The Iliad – for example, the Gods this time play a much more central role – and would seem to require a Peter Jackson or Terry Gilliam, rather than the safe-hands approach of Troy‘s Petersen, whose expertise (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm) lies much more with earthbound (or rather water-bound) tales of blokes united in peril.

But, leaving aside considerations of Sean Bean’s career trajectory, the central question is this: does Troy actually do enough to have audiences actually wanting any sequel at all? Surprisingly, given the very knee-jerk dismissive reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, the answer is pretty much a decisive yes. Of course, this picture stands no chance of resounding down the ages and achieve the greatness which its warrior-heroes so avidly pursue. This is inevitable, as Petersen and company are more pressingly concerned with mundane matters of domestic and global box-office takings than artistic excellence.

The result is a square, old-fashioned sword-and-sandal epic, one blatantly greenlit in the hope of emulating the unexpected financial bonanza – and Oscar success of Ridley Scott’s Best Picture-winning Gladiator. Troy has some serious flaws: the main ‘Achilles heel’ being the incessant, bombastic score from James (Titanic) Horner – his orchestral muzak punctuated by stretches of very Gladiator-ish wailing during the serious/tragic bits, all the way up to the inevitable power-ballad that plays over the end-credits. At only one stage does Horner practice restraint – the big showdown between Hector and Achilles – and even here his work is distractingly derivative, essentially being an ancient-world rehash of the terrific, nerve-jangling bank-heist theme from Michael Mann’s Heat.

Horner may be the chief culprit, but he isn’t the only one: Benioff’s screenplay is OK at best, dotted with substandard dialogue, let down by some nebulous storytelling and moments of unintentional absurdity. Roger Pratt’s widescreen cinematography and Peter Honess’s editing are nothing to write home about either, and while most of the computer-generated effects come off well enough, there are a couple of jarringly careless moments when we spot that corpses on a beach and Hector’s nose-plate are visibly made of rubber.

Despite all of this, Troy works surprisingly better than anyone could reasonably have expected, given the Hollywood-blockbusterishness of the whole enterprise (technically speaking, it’s a UK-Malta co-production, but the money is essentially American). The feel of the film is suitably epic (it could and should perhaps have been even longer), and this is an often-rousing and persuasive retelling of what is, after all, one of the greatest tales.

If nothing else, Troy brings together a set of performances which are likely to stand as definitive for some considerable time: a showstopping Cox is at his roaring, malevolent best as Agamemnon, and it’s hard to imagine any actor, past of present, embodying Menelaus or Priam better than Gleeson and O’Toole. With the likes of John Shrapnel and Nigel Terry popping up in minor supporting roles (and Julie Christie radiant in her one-scene cameo as Achilles’ mother Thetis), this cast that wouldn’t look at all out of place at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Of the younger generation, Bana again shows rare star quality (in only his fifth film) as Hector, while the underrated British actor Vincent Regan makes the most of his (surprisingly ample) screentime as Achilles’s second-in-command Eudorus. And, as has been noted, Bean provides some rather highbrow comic relief as the wily Odysseus.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic, while praising Rose Byrne (as Achilles’ love-interest Briseis), have mostly been very harsh on the “juvenile leads”: Pitt (“obnoxious”), Bloom (“limp”) and Kruger (“vapid”) have taken the brunt of some very harsh comment. But what appear at first glance to be weaknesses are revealed, on closer scrutiny, to be among Troy‘s more unexpected strengths.

Achilles, in Benioff’s version, is not really the hero of the tale. A swaggering, arrogant golden-boy, the showbiz pin-up of his age, a David Beckhamish figure with a hidden fatal flaw masked by almost supernatural belief in his own abilities. Pitt is actually quite smart casting for the role as envisaged by the screenplay, and while his accent does wander the globe from time to time, this is a convincing physical performance in a role which, we soon realise, isn’t intended to be especially sympathetic. And he does hold his own in his scenes with more skilled performers like Cox and O’Toole.

Bloom and Kruger make a convincing, well-matched pair as Paris and Helen – and their vapidity is, like Achilles’s often-insufferable obnoxiousness, quite deliberate. As voiced by the German/French actress Kruger, Helen is just the kind of glossy EuroTrash a fop prince like Paris would fall for. But is she the most beautiful woman ever – “the face that launched a thousand ships”, according to Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus? Well, probably not – but don’t forget that in the play, that line is a question, and not a statement. It doesn’t really matter that Helen arguably isn’t as good-looking as Hector’s wife Andromache (Saffron Burrows) or as desirable as the feisty Briseis: it’s her social position and her historical status which have cemented her immortality.

Because Paris’s “theft” of Helen is clearly only an excuse for Agamemnon to launch his long-gestating plan against Troy (insert glib Bush-Saddam parallel here). The Trojan war, in Benioff’s version, is a complex and quite ambiguous affair, with good and bad on both sides: the barbaric, war-inclined Greeks include the sympathetic Odysseus, while the Trojans, though ostensibly the “good guys”, are quite a snooty, aristocratic bunch, disastrously superstitious in their outmoded religious beliefs. So even though the “baddies” prevail, Benioff “improves” on Homer to ensure that their leaders meet the fate they deserve. Purists will be horrified – but surely Homer would have also adjusted his version of the story (based on oral myths and histories) to suit the mores and conventions of his time.

Benioff and Petersen do likewise – most controversially, by decisively “straightening out” the figure of Achilles, whose sexuality has been the subject of lively debate for many centuries. Here, he’s unambiguously heterosexual – but many readings of The Iliad ascribe a non-Platonic aspect to his relationship with his very dear friend and fellow-warrior Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund), in Benioff’s script upgraded to Achilles’s “cousin”. When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles’s grief does seem somewhat disproportionate to the relationship we’ve seen on screen – the look on Vincent Regan’s face is a picture of terrified trepidation. This section of the film would make much more sense of Patroclus and Achilles had been lovers – Achilles could surely have “swung both ways” without alienating too much of Pitt’s loyal female fan-base around the world, and this would also have fit nicely with Achilles’ oft-stated “I-make-my-own-rules” iconoclastic attitude.

The script’s other major excision – the Gods – is achieved with much less troubling effect. In The Iliad, Thetis is a goddess: here, she’s an ambiguous figure who might just be a very well-preserved, faintly mystical sixtysomething. Nowhere are we told that she bathed the infant Achilles in the River Styx, holding him by the ankle, leaving him invulnerable to attack apart from that one tiny spot. This would, however, have explained Achilles’s eerie self-confidence and his gravity-defying skills in combat – and what are we to make of the moment when he says he’s “seen” the Gods? And Thetis’s prediction – that Achilles would die young but that his name would live on forever – does of course come true, though this could be more of a lucky guess than a case of divine premonition.

Then again, while Thetis has been proved correct – not least by the making of this film – her prophecy hasn’t quite been vindicated in the way she or Achilles would surely have expected. His name does live on – but mainly in connection with weakness, in the phrase “Achilles’ heel”, and in the “Achilles tendon,” which has caused no end of trouble to professional athletes. Then again, he’s fared a little better than the proud but humble Hector, whose name has accidentally become a byword for bullying. And what would Achilles and Hector think if they were told that two rather less high-profile participants in “their” tale would, three thousand years on, have the surest grasp on immortality. Because, whether or not Bean gets his day in the sun, there will surely be many, many more “Odysseys.” And unlike Helen, we’ll always have Paris.

18th May, 2004

Click here for Sheila Seacroft’s ‘Whatever Happened to the Heroes?‘ essay – a classical perspective on Troy.

by Neil Young