Troy (2004): Wolfgang Petersen’s Sand-and-Sandals Epic, Starring Brad Pitt

Size matters in Troy, Warner’s big-budget (rumored to be close to $200 million!) sand-and-sandals extravaganza, representing an unsuccessful blend of a large-scale historical epic a la David Lean with a more intimate character-driven tragedy. As written by David Benioff and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Troy is extremely old-fashioned, the kind of film Cecil B. De Mille would have made in the 1950s if CGI were available to him.

The film is doubly disappointing because it continues to show the downward spiral of the same German director, who twenty years ago made the WWII masterpiece Das Boot. Since then, his Hollywood track record (Air Force One, The Perfect Storm) leaves much to be desired. In its lack of dramatic focus, broad canvas, and mediocre acting, Troy is exactly the opposite of Das Boot.

For months, we have been hearing that in his mythic role of Achilles, Brad Pitt looks like a God. And indeed, having spent months at the gym, Pitt is pumped-up beyond recognition, flaunting his long, curly blond hair and ultra-tanned muscular body, with his rear end often exposed. The camera caressing Pitt up and down, with the kind of embarrassingly fetishistic treatment that Josef von Sternberg lent Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, and more recently Joel Schumacher gave to Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill.

Though his movies don’t perform particularly well domestically anymore, Pitt is still a major star due to his international success. Pitt doesn’t need such trivial glamorization, certainly not when he’s trying to prove his dramatic chops.

The filmmakers are careful to note that Troy is inspired by, rather than based on, The Iliad. Written by Homer at least three centuries after the Trojan Wars, there have been on-going debates about the story’s accuracy, which is a problem for historians but not the filmmakers, who have opted for easy solutions in their adaptation.

For purposes of compression, Benioff has changed some elements in the story, reducing the complex poetic saga into a morally conventional war movie, one that has clear motivations and universal anti-war messages. Benioff’s dialogue is banal, full of portentous and earnest declamations, such as “War is young men dying and old men talking.” Or “Even enemies can show respect to each other.”

The movie’s tone is solemn and ponderous, befitting more a high-school pageant than a genuine epic. “This is a universal story,” Petersen says in the press notes, “Not everyone is going to be a great hero and go off and slay the dragon, but the emotions that drive them are something that we have all experienced at some point in our lives.” However, in trying to make a more contemporaneous and universal movie, Petersen and his writer have drained the text out of its poetry, and also violated its spirit.

Though Pitt is the nominal hero, Troy suffers from a diffuse and rambling narrative. Major characters like Paris (Orlando Bloom) disappear from the screen for so long a time that we forget they exist.

Some scholars suspect that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, based on Achilles’s unbearable grief and rage when Patroclus is killed. However, playing it safe, in this movie, Patroclus is made to be Achilles’ cousin. This in itself is not the problem but it underlines the filmmakers’ simplistic approach, and their wish not to offend any segment of the potential public.

Since Pitt is an instinctive and physical, not a cerebral actor, his performance here is hollow. His looks are handsome rather than noble, which is what the role calls for. The numerous close-ups he gets from his admiring director don’t do much for him because his face is not expressive enough. Petersen claims that he seldom warned his actor about the mega close-ups, hoping to catch him off guard. This strategy, however, doesn’t yield the expected results with Pitt. Instead, what we get is just a pretty face dominating the screen. Pitt comes across as a sleek, narcissistic, anachronistic warrior, highly aware of his unmatched combat prowess.

Pitt doesn’t have the rich, resonant voice needed to convey tragic heroism. “The gods envy us because we’re mortal,” he declares, a line that even good actors would have had problem with, but Pitt makes it worse. His limitations are particularly noticeable in a very good scene with Peter O’Toole (as Troy’s King Priam). Whereas O’Toole endows every word with singular meaning, Pitt sounds as if he were reciting in a school play.

As Hector, Paris’s quiet and sober older brother, Eric Bana gives the strongest and the only heroic performance in the film. If it were not for Pitt’s bankability and overseas popularity, Bana would have made a more persuasive Achilles.

The saga’s romantic part unfolds as a simple, earnest Romeo and Juliet love story between the young handsome Paris and the tremulous Helen, who’s stolen away from her older, much despised husband, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson).

Lack of chemistry between Orlando Bloom and Diane Krueger (a beautiful German model, selected out of thousands of girls in a well-publicized casting call) makes their scenes together flaccid. Bloom plays Paris as an irresponsible playboy, and Krueger wears the same soulful expression throughout the film. As a result, the audience never believes in the passion of their affair, an affair that had triggered one of history’s most legendary wars.

The tableaux of fighting men, particularly the mano-a-mano between Achilles and Hector, are colorful and watchable. But the technology behind the other special effects (like the boats linings up before the big attack) is too noticeable, failing to match in grandeur and sumptuousness The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy that has set new standards for epic Hollywood movies.

With all the reservations we had about Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, as a new sand-and-sandals epic it’s superior to Troy in every respect. Accessible but shallow, boisterous but not stirring, nice-looking but not gorgeous, this Troy is a disappointment.