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Big-screen 'Troy' sacks
Homer's classic war epic

May 20, 2004
By Franklin Harris

If he were alive today, the Greek poet Homer might wish he were deaf as well as blind. In the hands of director Wolfgang Petersen and screenwriter David Benioff, Homer's "Iliad" has become just another loud action movie.

To say "Troy" is dumbed down doesn't go far enough. "Troy" is "The Iliad" without a soul. It follows the same outline but omits the details that make Homer's epic required reading. Worse, it transforms Homer's flawed heroes into mere caricatures.

The Trojans learn the hard way to beware Greeks bearing gifts.
Copyright © Warner Bros.
The Trojans learn the hard way to beware Greeks bearing gifts.
The king of Troy, Priam (Peter O'Toole), sends his two sons, Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom), to Sparta to sign a peace treaty with the Spartan king, Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). Instead, Paris seduces Menelaus' wife, Helen (Diane Kruger), and the two young lovers flee to Troy, despite Hector's misgivings.

An enraged Menelaus demands revenge and goes to his brother, the Greek High King Agamemnon (Brian Cox), for help. Agamemnon has little interest in his brother's marital difficulties, but he knows an opportunity when he sees it, and Troy is a city rich in opportunities.

So, Agamemnon assembles the largest fleet the world has ever seen — a fleet of 1,000 ships — and the Greeks sail to Troy for the greatest war in history.

We know this is the greatest war in history not because we've read Homer, but because the movie never tires of telling us. For most of the film, history is all anyone talks about. Characters are obsessed with their names being remembered through the ages. It's as if the movie must justify its existence and is embarrassed to be based on some dusty old poem that schoolchildren try not to read. "Troy" screams, "I am important!"

But mostly "Troy" is agonizing, not the least because of its miscast lead. In a movie full of actors who look like grizzled war veterans, Brad Pitt's Achilles stands out because he looks like, well, Brad Pitt. If this were a faithful retelling of "The Iliad," complete with gods and goddesses, Pitt might be more at home. But this is a "realistic" version of the story, and Pitt is too much of a pretty boy to be the world's greatest warrior. You can't put battle scars on that face.

Benioff's screenplay is full of clunky dialogue, and Pitt gets the worst of it, especially when he gives a supposedly rousing speech to his men just before storming Troy's beaches. The speech is awful as is, but then Petersen underlines it with gratuitous slow motion. He must have taken lessons in cheesy filmmaking from Mel Gibson.

The last straw is Achilles' romantic subplot with a Trojan priestess, Briseis (Rose Byrne). Her role is expanded from the myth, probably to make up for the absence of most of the other female characters, including Agamemnon's vengeful wife and the unheeded prophetess, Cassandra.

The closest thing Homer's Achilles has to a romantic subplot is with his friend Patroclus, and Briseis is just the spoils of war. But in the movie, Patroclus is Achilles' cousin, just so nobody gets the wrong idea.

As bad as Achilles has it, Agamemnon has it worse. Homer's Agamemnon is flawed, certainly, but he isn't the two-dimensional villain portrayed here. In Greek myth, Menelaus extracts a promise from the other Greek kings, requiring that they come to his aid should Helen ever be stolen from him. In "Troy," Agamemnon bullies the other kings into going along. It's all Agamemnon's fault, and poor Brian Cox has nothing to do but shake his fists and twirl his mustache.

If "Troy" is what it means to be remembered, maybe it would be better to be forgotten.

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