(director: Wolgang Petersen; screenwriters: story from The Iliad by Homer/David Benioff; cinematographer: Roger Pratt; editor: Peter Honess; music: James Horner; cast: Brad Pitt (Achilles), Orlando Bloom (Paris), Brendan Gleeson (King Menelaus), Diane Kruger (Helen), Eric Bana (Hector), Brian Cox (King Agamemnon), Peter O’Toole (Priam), Sean Bean (Odysseus), Garrett Hedlund (Patroclus), Rose Byrne (Briseis), Saffron Burrows (Andromache, Hector’s Wife), Julie Christie (Thetis), Garrett Hedlund (Patroclus); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Diana Rathbun/Colin Wilson/Wolfgang Petersen; Warner Bros.; 2004)
“Won’t disappoint fans of such splashy Hollywood spectacles.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Trojan War from 3,200 years ago is simplified in the old-fashioned 1950s epic Hollywood style through German action director Wolgang Petersen (“Das Boot,” but since then a Hollywood action film director with films such as “The Perfect Storm”), and the screenplay is written by David Benioff (“25th Hour”) as inspired by Homer’s The Iliad. It’s a sword-and-sandal epic with soap-opera emotions, whose appeal is as a schoolboy’s shortcut to literature type of classic comic book telling of the story that has discarded any lyrical passages that might make it seem more difficult in a literary way. But whether it suits the taste of the more scholarly demanding is not the point, because at least there’s something to chew on for the masses in a modern world of strife, warfare and beheadings. This Greek gift to the world has in its screen adaptation all the usual vices of such big-budget Hollywood epics, including lack of character development, heroes as action movie clichés, a bowdlerized plot line that at times is more interested in the posings of the beautiful Helen (German model, Diane Kruger) and the even more stunning and muscular blond in the buff Achilles (Brad Pitt) than in the poetics of Homer’s tale, and the results hardly inspire one to think of this work as one of the great literary achievements in Western society.

Yet it’s gorgeously lush as filmed by Roger Pratt, all the warriors on both sides are dressed with matching leisure armor suits (which made for a pretty Calvin Klein-like sight on the battlefield), and the characters never resort to camp to spit out some of the more risible dialogue they were saddled with about romance and war; though Cox’s scenery-chewing as King Agamemnon comes close to camp. It even had one masterful scene that packed some real emotion; that marvelous scene had the elderly King Of Troy, Priam (Peter O’Toole), sneaking into the enemy’s camp at night to meet with Achilles in his tent after the great warrior killed Priam’s own warrior son Hector (Eric Bana) in a duel. Here the regal Priam exposes his fatherly pains and humbles himself to beg for Hector’s body so it could be given a proper burial to the gods. The script makes much of Priam being deceived about the powers of his Greek sun god, Apollo, and how this pious man looks to the gods for the signs that determine his ordinary life and war strategy (Priam was about as charming and wise as President Bush 11 when telling reporter Bob Woodward he sought advice about the Iraqi invasion from a higher authority). The battle scenes with the athletic Achilles leaping around to kill his opponents and the launching of a thousand Greek ships to set sail in the Aegean Sea and attack Troy, fit the conventional needs of such an epic and won’t disappoint fans of such splashy Hollywood spectacles. The hand-to-hand combat between the sensitive Hector and the edgy Achilles is an excellently choreographed fight sequence that does itself proud in the name of the action genre. Petersen does a fine job with the CGI effects (a recreation of the 1,000-ship fleet and a duplication of Troy’s magnificent architecture) and with the film’s quieter moments, where even the great veteran actress Julie Christie has a sweet cameo as Achilles’ mother Thetis — giving her son some unheeded advice and forecasting his doom if he were to go to war.

The plot elements remain basically the same as the long poem, as the rash but delicate Paris (Orlando Bloom), Hector’s younger playboy brother, abducts Helen (Diane Kruger), Queen of Sparta, from her jealous warrior Spartan husband, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), while invited into the king’s palace to secure the peace between Troy and the Greeks. This abduction sets off the Trojan War between the Greeks – Menelaus and Agamemnon, his power-hungry brother and Mycenaean king – and the people of Troy who have never suffered defeat because their city is surrounded by an impregnable high wall

Menelaus goes to war for his honor, the craven Agamemnon uses Helen as an excuse to conquer Troy and unify his vast empire, egotistical Paris tries to redeem his irresponsible act himself by fighting a duel with the battle-hardened Menelaus to prevent the war (but embarrassingly in defeat crawls to his brother Hector’s feet, cowering from certain death at the hands of his Spartan foe), Hector fights because he’s bound by duty to protect his familiy’s interest, while the greatest warrior in Greece, Achilles, fights for glory so his name will be remembered eternally by history. Later he will fight for his love of the beautiful Princess Briseis (Rose Byrne), a cousin of Hector’s who was captured by Agamemnon, and to avenge the killing of his beloved cousin Patroclus (Hedlund) by Hector.

The vain and cynical Achilles is viewed as a mercenary who fights on Agamemnon’s side despite hating the king. But he’s not appreciated by the king, even though his warrior skills can’t be disputed, because he’s a free-spirit who can’t be controlled. He fights because of loyalty to individuals or circumstances rather than for causes. Always brooding, Pitt tries to give his character a Sean Penn type of angst, as his vulnerability becomes both the source of his greatest strength and eventual downfall. Pitt’s characterization is pivotal to the pic, and though he has difficulty enunciating he gives the film a matinee idol presence and a star quality that is appealing while not compromising the film with his lack of charismatic acting skills.

As a spectacle it always looked good, but its story telling was clunky, its romantic moments look posed and lacked passion, and its political asides seemed too glib. Sean Bean as Odysseus, the one who thought up the Trojan Horse ruse, is a politically savvy Greek king who has the ear of both Greek warriors – Achilles and Agamemnon. He counsels both sides to be patriots and fight for the Greek country right or wrong. His scenes seem as if put in as window dressing to try and cover up some of the beefcake with political intrigues. But, overall, Petersen does get to what Homer was aiming at–the folly of war, and how wasteful in human lives and unnecessary was the Trojan War. Despite its many drawbacks, Petersen’s mainstream telling of Troy still leaves just enough Homer in it to count for something.