Cassandra, my favorite character from Homers Iliad, is missing from TROY, Wolfgang Petersons timely meditation of the futility of war. Its not the only change in this handsomely mounted retelling of the mythic tale of the Trojan War. The others are more in keeping with Petersens theme, though jarring for those familiar with the story as told by Homer. Yet, Cassandra, with her gift of prophecy, would seem to have been the perfect touch, a lone voice crying in the wilderness, as it were, warning her father, King Priam (Peter OToole) that it would all end in ashes. And with her curse that no one would believe her, seeing all that she had predicted come to pass. Still, its the only big quibble I have.
The story is one of forbidden love and unwise choices. Petersen has stripped away the gods and goddesses, making the unfortunate human beings entirely responsible for their own fates. Hector (Eric Bana) and his younger, impulsive brother Paris (Orlando Bloom), princes of Troy, traveled to Sparta in search of peace with its king, Menelaus (Brenden Gleeson). His brother, Agamemnon (Brian Cox), has pretty much conquered the rest of the region, and Troy would prefer to remain independent. Its all going swimmingly until Paris and Helen, Spartas unhappy queen, fall lustfully in love. Paris smuggles her aboard the Trojan ship for the return voyage and the thousand ships are launched in short order.
My little quibble is with Pitt, who plays the vainglorious Achilles, greatest warrior in the world and a guy without a conscience. Pitt nails the arrogance and the vanity of the Greek hero. Hes also very good in the action sequences where Achilles takes opponents out with what seems just enough well-honed effort to get the job done, as though it isnt worth the trouble to give lesser opponents 100% of his efforts. The trouble is, hes a just a bit too shallow for the rousing speeches, the single-mined obsession with glory. Achilles’ wrath as described by Homer in The Illiad’s opening line comes across as Pitt’s petulance. Plus, hes up against some serious thespian heavyweights, Cox dominating the screen with sheer force personality, for example, or Julie Christies all too brief cameo as Achilles mother wiping Pitt all but off the screen.
It is Achilles thirst for glory and for the immorality that it will bring that the script by David Benioff holds in stark contrast to Hectors motives, which involve family honor, and a fine sense of not having any other choice. Bana, who showed such promise in CHOPPER, but was cruelly denied stardom with the disastrous HULK, turns in a mature and moving performance. He exhibits a gravitas in keeping with the characters basic decency and the nobility that has little to do with royal birth. Of many good moments, one of the best is when Hector, knowing as Paris cant the consequences of stealing Helen, reacts as Paris explains that Helen is worth dying for and worth killing for. Hector looks sad and loving and angry all at once, replying with a brutal succinctness that only someone such as Paris, who has neither killed anyone nor seen anyone killed, could say such a thing.
Petersen has here very deliberately made a film about war that is not an action flick. There is spectacle, courtesy of CGI, but its sparing and the emphasis stays squarely with the gruesome business that is organized killing. He also stays squarely with the irrational business of how people get sucked into wars against their better judgment, for reasons with which they dont agree, and for leaders that they dont respect and who deliberately mislead them. There is an ominous resonance to this march of folly as historian Barbara Tuchman termed it in her book of the same name, that echoes to the present day. As a result, this literate, intelligent script rises above the fray of blood and hormones to become a cautionary tale that strikes a chilling contemporary chord. From OTooles indulgent father opining that love is as good a reason as any to go to war, to Blooms embodiment of hopeless naiveté, to the wailing and pain on all sides, not once does TROY veer from his message, that the lowest common denominator is often the one that seals the fate of the guilty and the innocent with equal finality.
TROYs most daring and most intriguing accomplishment is how it has taken what may be the quintessential story about warfare being glorious and turned it neatly on its head. There are no gray areas, and in this it becomes the companion piece not to Homers sequel, The Odyssey, but rather to Euripides play, The Trojan Woman, which picked up just after the fall of Troy, after the men have reaped a variety of heroic rewards and the women and children are left to suffer a variety of degrading and otherwise inglorius fates. TROY may be very much like Cassandra, in that people will see it and leave the theater thinking theyve seen an impressive entertainment, not noticing that what brought down the richest city in Asia Minor 3200 years ago are the same things that are happening today all over the world.