May 16, 2004

Thoughts on Troy

Posted by Ed

Over the weekend, Susan and I saw Wolfgang Petersen's Troy--as did a big chunk of the University of Chicago quizbowl team and most of the rest of the city of Chicago. There's a lot to say about the movie, but I'm too lazy to write an organized and coherent review of it; instead, this entry will consist of some overall thoughts on Troy, followed by a series of comments on specific parts of the production. Some random overall reflections:

  • I was very disappointed in Troy. Don't get me wrong: I didn't expect the movie to be good. Instead, I was hoping for a movie as spectactularly and entertainingly bad as Van Helsing. What we got, instead, was one of the most thoroughly and blandly mediocre movies I've ever seen.
  • When you think about it, that's really quite an accomplishment: the mythology of the Trojan War is so rich, so fascinating, so entertaining, and so intriguing that any bland movie about Troy is--by definition--a virtuoso display of incompetence. Some of the best scenes from the mythology of the war were cut out. We never got to see Telamonian Ajax getting so mad that Odysseus had beaten him out for the armor of Achilles that he decided to murder the leaders of the Achaeans, only to slaughter a flock of sheep in his anger instead; we never got to witness Helen walking around the Trojan Horse, imitating the voices of the Greek leaders' wives to see if anyone was hiding inside. (The latter scene would have required a Helen who could act, however...) A good director would have recognized each of these scenes as a comedy goldmine!
  • As much as I wanted the movie to be spectacularly horrible, part of me hoped that it would be good, so that there'd be some hope for the upcoming film adaptation of Ender's Game. (Petersen has signed on to direct an Ender's Game movie based on two Orson Scott Card novels.) Now, however, my hopes have been completely dashed. Troy itself was rather dull, but Card himself seems to think that it was a cinematic masterpiece of the first order. ("I will be back to see it again," he writes. "It is a great film, one that haunts me still, hours after watching it the first time; few indeed are the years in which it would not have deserved to be named the best picture.") Is there any hope left?
  • I'll describe my specific beefs with Troy below, but I have two over-arching criticisms of the movie. First, Petersen seems to believe that if the characters tell us something about what's going on, we'll believe it without question: we're informed, for example, that Priam was a great king, that Hector was one of the greatest warriors in the world, that Helen was amazingly gorgeous, and that the war was about something important. We're never really given reason to believe any of these things, however--Priam, for instance, makes stupid decision after stupid decision, but we're expected to believe on faith that he's a wise ruler. (In this case, it helps that Peter O'Toole is a great actor with a cool voice.) Far more importantly, we're never given reason to care about what's going on. The acting and effects were often competent, and I was never especially bored, but it was impossible to feel emotionally involved with what was happening onscreen.
  • Second, the scope of the Trojan War was dramatically scaled back. A lot of The Iliad's epic power comes from the fact that the Trojan War lasted years, wasting lives in a seemingly endless struggle that pitted some of the most outsized personalities of the day against each other, but in Troy, the whole struggle takes less than three weeks. In The Iliad, the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon seems petty, but there's more than pettiness involved; there's a palpable sense of tension, and you really get the sense that the two men are larger-than-life figures involved in a bitter personal dispute. Moreover, the mere fact that the war has been going on for ages gives every conflict a greater sense of importance, and really makes you feel that the fight against Troy is the major event of each man's life. In the movie Troy, the stakes are infinitely smaller, and the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon feels like a squabble between an arrogant bastard and a spoiled brat.

A lot of the problem with Troy, then, had to do with the way the project was conceived. I also had some issues with the movie's execution, however, and the casting in particular struck me as very uneven:

  • Diane Kruger struck me as a weak choice for Helen, though I approved of Petersen's plan to cast an unknown in the part. (Most any well-known actress would have failed to meet people's expectations, so why not give the part to a complete unknown?) Unfortunately, though, she just didn't seem all that attractive: as David Edelstein points out, "In truth, this Helen has a face that would launch maybe a hundred ships--although if you throw in that lithe body and a favorable wind, you could bump the number up to 250." Kruger's accent seemed to alternate between German, American, English, and semi-Greek, and she couldn't act; any of the other women in the movie would have been a better Helen, I thought.
  • Orlando Bloom was perfectly cast as Paris. For that matter, he also would have been an inspired Helen, given his girlish good looks.
  • Whoever first proposed casting Brad Pitt as Achilles deserves to be shot: he was far too pretty and too pouty to portray Greece's greatest warrior, and was notably lacking in the charisma department. (He also looked too much like Diane Kruger.) You might be able to cast him as the sort of action hero who runs around a lot getting shot at, but he just wasn't convincing as an ancient warrior.
  • Eric Bana was much more likable as Hector: I thought he was easily the best of the actors with significant screen time. Bana was sympathetic as a Trojan prince, as a sensible adviser to the king, and as a loving husband and family man, but he didn't pull off the role of warrior and military leader quite as well. (If the movie hadn't constantly told us that he was one of the greatest heroes in the world, I never would have guessed...) Still, though, I blame the script and the directing as much as the acting for the weaknesses in Bana's performance.
  • Is it just me, or did Brian Cox's Agamemnon look suspiciously like Dom DeLuise? I liked Cox in the second X-Men movie, and I thought he did well considering the role he was given in Troy; there was no nuance in Agamemnon's character, however, and he never came across as an interesting or charismatic leader. He was delightfully nasty at his best, but that never quite seemed like enough...
  • I like Sean Bean a lot, and I was glad to see that an actor I admire had been chosen to fill the role of Odysseus, one of my favorite characters. But I felt like he was wasted in the role and didn't get much screen time; Odysseus, moreover, seemed sympathetic and charismatic, but wasn't especially wily or wise. He did, of course, come up with the idea for the Trojan Horse, but otherwise, you could have changed his name and no one could have told the difference... Bean would have been a better choice to play Agamemnon or Menelaus, I think, if the roles had been rewritten with more nuance.
  • It was wonderful to see Peter O'Toole on screen again, this time as Priam. (Has he appeared in a high-profile role in 20 years? Alcohol has taken quite a toll on his career, it seems, since the glory days of Lawrence of Arabia and A Lion in Winter...) His performance was easily the best in the movie, but O'Toole didn't have a lot to do; moreover, I was irritated that the script constantly told us that he was a wise and just king, only to portray him as a foolish ruler who kept making mistakes... Watching him act, I wished that Peter Jackson had cast him (instead of John Noble) as Denethor in The Return of the King.

Other random thoughts:

  • The script for Troy reminded me, once again, that there's a hierarchy of mediocrity in life: it brought to mind just how horrible the dialogue was in the Star Wars prequels, while raising my opinion of the scripts for The Lord of the Rings. Epic movies like Troy and LOTR don't need brilliant scripts, I think--the dialogue doesn't have to be memorable or interesting, as long as the actors are able to read their lines convincingly. Until this weekend, I'd have said that LOTR's scripts were kind of bland and wooden (and sometimes kind of lame), especially the parts that were were written by Jackson and company (instead of Tolkien).

    Troy's script was even less inspired than LOTR's. There were no memorable lines and a lot of the dialogue sounded stilted and unconvincing; in that sense, it reminded me that the Lord of the Rings scripts were--despite their flaws--more than good enough. (They weren't Shakespeare, of course, but they conveyed a sense of passion and intensity that was completely missing from Troy.) On the other hand, Troy's script was infinitely better than the script for either Star Wars prequel: there were no lines as awful as Annakin Skywalker's moving denunciation of sand in Attack of the Clones. (Then again, I guess Achilles's line "In a time of war, you gave me peace" does come close...) In that sense, Troy drives home just how hard George Lucas must have worked to come up with scripts as awful as he gave us in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, and reminded us that LOTR's scripts, while far from perfect, really weren't so bad after all.

    Even so, I have to admit that a more dreadful script would have made the movie more entertaining. Then again, I also thought that the movie would be more fun if a giant cartoon lightbulb had appeared just above Sean Bean's head when he saw a man carving a little horse figurine and suddenly had an idea for how to get into Troy...

  • It was really cute that everyone referred to Patroclus as the "cousin" of Achilles. But couldn't they at least have added some humor to the script? Couldn't Odysseus have jabbed Achilles with his elbow and said "Oh, so you like spending time with your cousin, huh?"

    The frequent references to Patroclus as Achilles's "cousin" do help explain the dramatic (and otherwise unconvincing) change in Achilles's character late in the movie, however. [ineffective sarcasm ahead] After Priam shows up in Achilles's tent and begs him for the body of Hector, Achilles suddenly has a massive change of heart and becomes a straightforward good guy (rather than a spoiled brat) for the rest of the movie. Here's my theory: Achilles was jealous of Hector because Briseis said he was her "cousin," and in Achilles-speak, "cousin" means "man with whom I'm having passionate sex." Achilles therefore became even more determined to kill Hector. But when Priam showed up, Achilles found out that Hector and Briseis were related after all, and so he feels bad and undergoes an inexplicable personality transplant. [/ineffective sarcasm] (Hey, it makes as much sense as what actually happened!)

  • Was Petersen right to cut the gods from this movie? I think so: the fashion in big movies like this is to aim for some degree of realism in the battle scenes, and adding the Olympians would have made that far too difficult. Moreover, casting the movie would have been even more of a disaster if the film-makers had needed to add a believable Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, and Apollo to the mix. (How could you make the gods suitably god-like without making the mortals seem underwhelming?) Even so: cutting the Olympians made this an oddly atheist movie: there were no gods taking part in the struggle, and the side that appealed to the heavens was completely annihilated!

  • Is it just me, or did Troy look suspiciously Egyptian? It's one thing if the film-makers wanted to make the Trojans' clothing look more eastern and less Greek, but it was kind of odd to see Egyptian-style statuary and architecture that would have shown up in archaeological digs.

  • The pronunciation of Greek names seemed weird and inconsistent. Why did they pronounce Menelaus [men-uh-LOUSE, or maybe men-uh-LAO-us] and Odysseus [oh-DISS-ee-us]? Why not pronounce every name either the Greek way or the English way? I think this was a sign of a deeper problem: the movie couldn't decide whether it was a serious and realistic movie about ancient Greece or a fun popcorn movie.

  • Finally, was Troy supposed to be this pro-Trojan? I always kind of liked the Trojans when I was a kid (though my favorite characters in The Iliad included Odysseus and Ajax), but the movie seemed a little one-sided even to me. Agamemnon and Menelaus were both unsympathetic villains. Achilles was a selfish jerk willing to defile the temples of the gods and unwilling to honor and respect his opponents, and Odysseus was the only sympathetic Greek leader who was capable of seeing the world in shades of grey. There was no redeeming quality to the Greek war effort, as far as I can remember--but among the Trojans, even Paris came across as semi-sympathetic. (Sure, he was an immature, shallow, coward--but he realized his mistakes and felt bad for all the problems he caused. And he grew over the course of the movie, at least to the extent that any character in Troy did.) Homer's Achaeans often came across as petty and vindictive, of course--Agamemnon is hardly a paragon of virtue in The Iliad--but the Trojan War in this movie came across as an imperialistic war of naked aggression.

    I think Petersen and company realized that there was an issue here, which was why they killed off Agamemnon and Menelaus. But they still treated the Trojan War as a grand and exciting expedition, and acted as if the quest for fame and glory was a worthy aim in itself. It would have been fantastic if Troy had been even more blatantly pro-Trojan, and the war had been treated as a silly, pointless, and tragic waste of lives--The Iliad, after all, can be read as an anti-war polemic. As it was, the message of Troy was a garbled mess. Its message seems to be that it's good to join a war to become famous, even if the leaders of that war are jerks who deserve to die and the other side is far more virtuous and decent.

The biggest problem with the movie, then, wasn't the acting, the directing, or the decision to deviate from The Iliad and from Greek mythology. A lot of the movie was actually handled competently: the fight scenes were decent and the acting was often okay (if uninspired), for example. (The biggest technical problem with the movie was the casting of certain key parts.) The script, moreover, was good enough for viewers to keep paying attention, but not good enough for them to care.

What was most problematic about Troy, I'd argue, was that it seemed completely uninspired and uninspiring. It's almost as if a bunch of movie executives had gotten together, wracked their brains to come up with another epic so they could build on the success of The Lord of the Rings, and randomly come up with an idea of a Trojan War movie--without understanding what made LOTR successful and what makes The Iliad a brilliant work. They assumed that if they included "stirring" (make that, trite) speeches about fame and glory, audiences would feel inspired and invigorated, and forgot that we won't necessarily care about Achilles and Agamemnon, even if they are really famous. (Troy took it for granted that there Achilles and company were great heroes, and assumed that if the theme of the film was the quest for fame, viewers would enjoy watching.) The movie really had no reason for existing, and without a real sense of engagement and passion, it seems like a monumental waste of time, effort, and money.

[Hmmm... In retrospect, it wasn't especially effective to write this entry using bullet points. That method enabled me to get it written quickly and efficiently without expending much time or thought, however, so I guess it was good enough...]

Posted by Ed at May 16, 2004 05:45 PM

Wow. I had no plans to see this film, and I'm certainly going to avoid it now.

I had heard about the elimination of the Gods--a mistake, I think--but I hadn't heard about the death of Menelaus. I guess there was never any plan for a sequel, since he appears in the Odyssey.

And did they kill off Agamemnon in Troy instead of letting Clytemnestra do it when he got home? Good Lord.

Posted by: Incertus at May 17, 2004 11:18 PM

I'm not as strongly opposed to the unexpected deaths of major characters as other people are. To name one example, it doesn't bother me at all that Hector kills Ajax the Greater--except, as I mentioned above, that it would have been nice to see the scene (hinted at in The Odyssey and mentioned in a bunch of myths) where Ajax gets mad at Odysseus for winning the armor of Achilles. The death of Menelaus is more problematic: I definitely wouldn't have made it part of the movie, and I think it was a mistake, but I can't say the later mythology surrounding Menelaus was terribly significant. (IIRC, there are a bunch of myths about his journey home with Helen, including one in which he captures the shape-shifting Proteus to learn how he can appease the gods and get home to Sparta. Then, in The Odyssey, Telemachus visits Menelaus and Helen to look for word of his father.) The death of Agamemnon (at the hands of Briseis, no less) was the most irritating, since Greek literature and mythology are very clear on his ultimate fate: he was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus when he returned home to Mycenae, though Homer, Aeschylus, and a bunch of anonymous myths differ in how the murder took place. Briseis's murder of Agamemnon was totally unnecessary, and seems ridiculous to anyone who knows about Greek culture.

Had the movie been much better, I'd have been willing to overlook the deaths of Menelaus and Agamemnon. (I'd consider these events to be somewhat less egregious than the way that Peter Jackson changed the character of Faramir in The Two Towers--a change that I really hated, but that didn't keep me from loving the movie.) These deaths just seemed pointless, however. The only explanation I can think of is that Petersen et al thought that a "realistic" portrayal of the war would include a very dark portrait of each man; then, they didn't want the war to be an unequivocal victory for the less appealing side, so they killed off the winners' two least appealing leaders. I think this was a really questionable decision, but I'd rank it fairly low on my list of criticisms of the movie.

Posted by: Ed at May 18, 2004 12:23 AM

Wonderful review - dead on. This movie was entertaining enough to keep me from feeling as if I had wasted my money (I mean, it was better than Star Wars Eps 1 & 2), but barely so. All it really did was make me want to go grab a copy of the Iliad and read a story that was genuinely compelling, heh.

Posted by: Nick Blesch at May 18, 2004 10:19 AM

i did't read the whole review,but i think that movie is worth seeing. i'll do it 2nd time.there's no need to talk about missed scenes, coz movie is long enough. i agree that some actors did not their best,especially Kruger. She was just a pretty face, but not reason of war. to get all things together, troy isn't that film, nothing to get excited about. think everyone should see it even u think its not special. of course ed did his job, but in that point he should see more repectable points ;D

Posted by: Sympho at June 14, 2004 09:11 AM
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