Troy: spectacle and stereotyping instead of character study and emotional drama drawn from myth

Wolfgang Petersen, “Troy” (2004)

Loosely based on Homer’s epic poem “Iliad”, this blockbuster spectacle of the Trojan War plays hard and fast with the details of the original story to create a story appealing to modern if historically and culturally illiterate Western audiences. The film revolves around the rivalry of mighty heroic warriors Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Hector (Eric Bana) and the nations they fight for, respectively, the Greeks and Trojans. Led by brother kings Agamemnon (Brian Cox) and Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), the Greeks are portrayed in the film as barbarous, amoral, cunning and cynical: though they claim to be fighting for the return of Menelaus’s queen Helen (Diane Kruger), allegedly abducted by Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom), they are in fact more interested in stealing valuable real estate in the Trojan kingdom. The Trojans themselves, as represented by King Priam (Peter O’Toole) and his elder son Hector, are civilised and cultured, and apart from Hector’s kid brother Paris value love and loyalty to their people and country, and their culture and traditions. The war then between the Greeks and Trojans represents a clash of civilisations, values and ideologies, and no matter who wins, the world of the eastern Mediterranean will never be the same as it was before the war.

At the start of the film, Agamemnon has just united the various Greek city states under his rule after decades of war but his most valuable soldier, Achilles, deeply despises him. In the meantime, Trojan princes Hector and Paris are negotiating a peace treaty with King Menelaus of Sparta and during their trip, Paris and Helen fall for each other. Paris smuggles Helen aboard the ship taking him and Hector back home. Despite the obvious danger and consequences, when the ship arrives home, King Priam welcomes Helen into his household and the Trojans start preparing for the inevitable war. On discovering Helen’s disappearance, Menelaus appeals to Agamemnon to form a joint force to fight and conquer Troy.

After persuading Achilles to join them, the Greeks sail to Troy and set up camp on a beach. Achilles and his Myrmidon allies desecrate a temple dedicated to Apollo and take Briseis (Rose Byrne), a member of the royal family, prisoner. Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel over who has the right to claim Briseis as a slave, and when Agamemnon takes Briseis, Achilles downs tools and walks back to his tent in a sulk. Meanwhile Paris challenges Menelaus to a duel in exchange for Troy’s safety, the duel is held and when Menelaus is about to kill the younger and less experienced Paris, Hector intervenes by killing Menelaus. With the final chance of diplomacy and peace snuffed out, the two sides resume their ten years of fighting condensed into the space of two weeks (this is Hollywood after all).

With Achilles out of the picture (not literally of course), the Trojans try to evict the Greeks from their beach. Hector kills a man whom he believes is Achilles, but the man turns out to be the Greek hero’s cousin Patroclus, wearing Achilles’s armour. When Achilles is informed of Patroclus’s death, he vows vengeance against Hector. Realising the trouble that he is in, Hector informs his wife of a secret tunnel network under Troy that she and their baby son can escape into, if and when the Greeks finally take Troy. After this, Achilles challenges Hector to a duel and the two heroes fight each other for all they are worth.

The film hews to a tried-n-true Hollywood stereotype of pitting baddies against goodies, though the conclusion of course is a foregone one: the bad guys, in terms of their motivations, win though (spoiler alert) not without losing their leaders in ways that restore some semblance of moral justice for those affected by those leaders’ actions. After all, Helen went with Paris of her own accord, for reasons we can only guess at, and the film suggests she is treated fairly decently by the Trojans. The good guys lose but the film’s ending gives them an escape route so they haven’t lost everything entirely, and perhaps one day they will have their revenge on the Greeks. While all of this means that the original story ends up being rubbished – we know that Agamemnon and Menelaus survived the war, Menelaus got his wife back, and the three sailed back home, thinking that they’ll live happily ever after – at least “Troy” ends with the possibility that good has not been entirely vanquished and that Trojan civilisation and notions such as respect for and love of family, country, tradition and historical memory will be revived.

The film’s focus is on spectacle and entertainment rather than on character development, and as a result is not entirely credible even though it is based on mythology. Characters’ motivations become a problem for audiences to believe in, because critical characters such as Paris and Helen are treated in a shallow way and people will find it hard to believe that an entire war resulting in the destruction of a civilisation can come about because of a spoilt prince’s love for a floozy (though running away from a boorish husband king is understandable). At least the decision to leave out the Olympian gods – even if this upset a number of British actors hoping to get well-paid gigs on the film doing very little – gives the film a touch of realism. The decisions that various characters make are then the result of poor judgement and impulsive behaviour inspired in part by the very beliefs and values that are part and parcel of their culture: Hector’s decision to rescue Paris, born out of loyalty to his brother and family, ultimately throws away any chance that Troy had of making peace with the Greeks; and Achilles’s decision to travel to Troy, even though he knows this will result in his death, comes from his belief in Fate and its deterministic workings that decree that those who go down fighting will be remembered. At the same this belief engenders a cynicism towards religion and the gods themselves, highlighted in Achilles’s sacking of the temple of Apollo. For all his belief in Fate and that it’s best to live and die hard rather than live a normal life and die unremembered, Achilles comes across as an unpleasant and rather narcissistic character who never examines what he believes in and never realises that there may be other, more personally fulfilling ways in which to be remembered a hero without having to be a relentless and unfeeling killing machine.

Despite the poor scripting and bad character sketching, most actors acquit themselves capably with Eric Bana putting in a heartfelt performance as Hector, who only wants to be home with his family, and Brad Pitt giving his nihilistic bad-boy character a gravitas Achilles does not deserve. That’s as much as I can say in the film’s favour. Too bad a budget of some US$200 million was wasted on making a spectacle trying to please everyone instead of a film that draws real emotional drama from its source material.