If a studio is going to spend close to $200 million on a movie, they could do worse than adapting The Iliad, the epic granddaddy of western literature. Still, on the heels of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, director Wolfgang Petersen has some excessively large footsteps to follow in the epic adaptation genre. The inclusion of Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom (and even having his character specialize in bow-and-arrow fighting) in the cast only makes drawing the comparison more tempting. Yet for all the spectacle of humongous armies clashing, Petersen’s film is ultimately a different beast.
Troy, perhaps controversially, tries to de-mythologize the myth. Manipulation by the gods is out and Achilles is a mere mortal, or as “mere” as a Brad Pitt character is likely to be. Despite the nearly three hour running time, the ten year siege of Troy in The Iliad is reduced to about two weeks here, and there are a few more understandable lapses in historical accuracy in order to enhance the drama.
The story begins when Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) steals the heart of Helen (Diane Kruger), wife of Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson, Cold Mountain). Menelaus of course wants revenge and asks his brother, Agamemnon (Brian Cox, Adaptation), king of Greece, for help. Agamemnon uses this opportunity as an excuse to besiege Troy, his country’s principal rival. However, Agamemnon requires the help of Greece’s greatest warrior, the nigh invincible Achilles (Brad Pitt, Fight Club). The problem is that Achilles despises him. After some convincing from Odysseus (Sean Bean), Achilles decides the Trojan war is the best chance for his memory to live on forever in glory, especially in confronting Paris’s renowned brother, Hector (Eric Bana, Black Hawk Down). Hector, on the other hand, is a family man who finds nothing heroic about killing and only does so when forced to protect his people. Hector distrusts the religious prophecies his father, King Priam (Peter O’Toole, The Last Emperor), uses to endorse the continuing onslaught, but he dutifully obeys.
Despite the spectacle of war with which Warner Brothers hopes to entice audiences, Troy is essentially an anti-war film. Certainly the battle scenes hold the attention, even if Petersen’s direction is only unremarkably competent. Petersen doesn’t cater to audience bloodlust the way Mel Gibson or James Cameron sometimes do in their films; he emphasizes the circle of violence at work in war. Each unprovoked attack brings about an even more vicious retaliation with a beloved character on each side often paying the price until the final result is mass atrocity. The cost of war is horrific, a lesson even Achilles learns.
A muscle-bound Brad Pitt presents a one-dimensional Achilles. Brian Cox doesn’t chew the scenery so much as swallow it whole while O’Toole, as his story counterpart, delivers a more respectable, but safe performance. Kruger doesn’t quite work as Helen. Far from having the face that launched a thousand ships, she has the bland look of a generic supermodel–and no wonder, since that’s what she is. The two actors who hold the movie together are the film’s moral voices – Eric Bana as noble, self-sacrificing Hector (who does not flee from Achilles as he does in Homer’s version) and Rose Byrne as Briseis, the Trojan priestess of Apollo who falls for her enemy, Achilles.