According to Troy, war is all about reputation. Though kings and soldiers say they fight for property or power, nation, family or morality, at bottom, the cost and the payoff are the same: a place in history, preferably a vaunted one.
Some 3200 years ago, when Wolfgang Petersen’s movie begins, the great and cocky warrior Achilles (very buff, very brown Brad Pitt) is worrying over just that. An exceptionally skilled and agile fighter, Achilles annoys ambitious King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) precisely because he’s more concerned with his own name than the king’s. He first appears supine and naked in his tent, sleeping off an evening spent with two mega-tressed, anonymous lovelies.
Summoned to beat down a particularly tall representative of yet another Greek kingdom Agamemnon seeks to claim, Achilles takes his time donning his armor and riding off to perform magnificent one-on-one battle. Agamemnon is petulant as he waits on his best and most unruly combatant: “Of all the warlords loved by the gods,” he mutters, “I hate him the most!” And with that, Achilles demonstrates what makes him so irritating and indispensable, dispatching his mighty-seeming opponent with athletic, slow-motioned ease.
The son of a goddess, Thetis (Julie Christie), who appears very briefly, and lusted after by Athena (who doesn’t show up here, as the film omits all of Homer’s bickering gods), Achilles is gifted with one sort of immortality, which helps to make him a sensational, unkillable warrior. This status is qualified, of course, by the famous heel (referenced in Troy only in a brief close-up when he dies, some 160 minutes after his introduction). But Achilles is more interested in another sort of immortality. Indeed, he pep-talks the Myrmidons, his ultraloyal men (call them prototypical “civilian contractors”) by pointing his sword at them and declaring that immortality awaits them on the battlefield: “Take it! It’s yours!”
The battlefield that takes up most of the film is, of course, Troy, where the stunning Greek queen Helen (dull Diane Kruger) has arrived with her lover, craven but pretty Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom). The problem is that she’s left behind her churlish husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). While he wants to get her back so he can kill her himself (“with my bare hands!”), his brother Agamemnon wants to settle a 10-years long beef with the Troy’s King Priam (Peter O’Toole, in the same part played by Richard Harris in Gladiator, the weary elder who embodies the pain of forever-war). And so the brothers sail forth with their 1000 ships, each sustained by his own obviously fictional rationale for war.
Achilles has his own reasons to go along. Essentially a leader of mercenaries (his Myrmidons might also be termed “private contractors”; they fight and loot, with no particular allegiance to Greece or a king), he’s not interested in Helen or Troy per se. Cajoled by Agamemnon’s boy Odysseus (Sean Bean), he’s convinced by his own sees-all mom Thetis. When she says he can stay home and father a lineage to remember him, or go to Troy and achieve eternal and universal fame, he looks offscreen, his eyes narrowing as the camera closes on his fine face. Achilles’ vision, the film proposes, is at once expansive and limited: he’ll forgo the loving wife and kids and cut straight to the lasting celebrity.
His vision is also, apparently, fated. “Born to end lives,” he admits no responsibility for his actions or the awful pain he causes victims or their survivors, until Troy. Here, he meets sad and weary Priam (who argues that mutual respect between enemies is a worthy end) and Trojan priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne), a Greek hostage he decides to champion, if only to aggravate Agamemnon, who in turn wants to ravage her himself. Intrigued by Briseis’ huffy resistance to his charms, Achilles soon turns enthralled, and the film frames her as something like his “one true love” (this for heroic narrative purposes, as it’s also plain enough that Achilles’ self-love remains overwhelming). After one night in bed with this beauty, he emerges from his tent all smiley and sweet, imagining that the happy-family version of his future isn’t so bad after all.
Such a dream of “peace in a life of war” is fleeting, of course, for Achilles just can’t keep his blue eyes averted from the prize of stardom. He’s goaded to behave badly when Paris’ brother Hector (Eric Bana), the film’s most undeniably noble hero (with tremulous wife Andromache [Saffron Burroughs] and baby boy), accidentally kills Achilles’ blandly desirous cousin Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund, whose vague resemblance to Pitt allows the character’s doom). The showdown between Achilles and Hector is the film’s liveliest. This in part because, although the spectacle of battles involving thousands of bodies in stunt-and-CGI-ed motion (regular and slow) is enhanced by long shots displaying sheer numbers (the two armies crashing into one another in a sort of “wave” effect is quite beautiful) and visceral close-ups of thrusts, penetrations, and whomps, it remains a spectacle.
For the mano a mano, however, the show is a means to choreograph emotions. Hector’s already upset because his brother’s been proved a coward in a contest with Menelaus (literally crawling on the ground to reach the shelter of Hector’s sturdy-tree-trunkish legs) and he anticipates that his death will bring chaos to Troy (not to mention grief to Andromache). Achilles has his own agenda, dealing with his version of grief by hurling himself headlong into combat (he’s like the Kobe Bryant of warfare, geared up by tension and trauma, to deliver his greatest performances). He dons his armor and drives his chariot to the gates of Troy, where he proceeds to invite his opponent to step outside the city’s legendary walls by yelling his name again and again (a little like Stanley yelling for Stella).
The ensuing fight is gorgeously choreographed. Though they have very different styles — Hector the splendid and stoic, Achilles nimble and speedy — they agree on some basic points of the challenge. They toss off their helmets and throw themselves at one another with urgent passion, the camera creeps and swoops around them, as if they’re Kirk and Spock in some kind of hyper-realized “Amok Time.”
While this scene recalls the visual pleasures of Gladiator (the movie that might be blamed for the spate of mytho-historical “epics”), it also reveals what’s disquieting about current efforts to update the genre. The shock-and-aweish spectacle becomes its own end. Even as the Trojans launching giant fireballs at the Greek encampment or the Greek soldiers sliding out of the Trojan Horse at night make for impressive effects, Troy, written for the most part by David Benioff, repeatedly lapses into episodic, uncompelling storytelling and relegates characters to broad archetypes.
Certainly, such results might be understood as derived from the source; Homer’s Iliad is comprised of episodes conveying human melodrama and action, as well sparring, selfish gods, manipulating their humans to achieve their own goddy glory, and all characters might be considered archetypes, as they do set the types for centuries to come. But Homer’s tales are also notoriously grand in theme and instruction. However the translation has been envisioned here, the film brings to bear identifiable movie stars, whose own renown grants the characters’ exploits a resonant fiction, encompassing honor, conventions, and pride. War, the film contends, is mythology in the making, or, as Odysseus puts it, “Young men dying and old men talking.”
This isn’t to say the film is anti-war, exactly, as it celebrates the very idea of legend. Still, it allows that Achilles’ choice, in the end, emerges from his weakness, selfishness, and self-knowing brilliance, as well as from his general situation as a human caught between gods (as they personify, even invisibly, directives, traditions, delusions). As Troy writes his story, Achilles will be remembered as much for his perfect naked ass and righteous exploits to save feisty Briseis, as for his earnest, if apparently wrong-headed, yearning for fame.