Time Out: Troy


Having seen my first movie in six months, I have to celebrate by–how else?–writing a review of it and you lucky people get to read it. But it’s kind of long, so you might want to take it in small doses. Really small doses. I sorta got carried away….

MOVIETIME

Troy

Alright, so Troy isn’t exactly Homer, so what’d you expect, Brad Pitt struggling with poetry, then? Gimme a break. Anybody who thinks Hollywood adaptations are faithful to the originals should be locked up and watched carefully by trained psychologists. What was done to Homer has been done to classics since Georges Melies eviscerated Jules Verne in 1902, and let’s face it–it could have been a lot worse. Anybody remember what Steve Reeves did to the legends of Hercules? or Ray Harryhausen to Ulysses?

OK, so Briseis gets a little confused with Cassandra and turns into Priam’s daughter, later committing an act that makes the rest of Homer’s saga physiologically impossible, so what? It’s not like anybody’s going to make a sequel. And if Achilles hates Agamemnon long before he takes Briseis away, turning the abduction from a major plot point to a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back kind of minor incident; if Achilles is less a demi-god than a highly-trained fighter at a time when military training was primitive; if Hector gets turned into a brooding, Hamlet-style Prince seeing destruction when no one else can, is that anything to lose sleep over? Hell, no. This is spectacle with a capital ‘S’. Forget about your college course on Homer and put your feet up. Because the truth is, it ain’t all that far off.

As a matter of fact, what amateur historian and Troy screenwriter David Benioff has managed to accomplish is an imagining of what the truth behind Homer’s tricked-out story might have been. The discovery of the real Troy twenty years ago proved that the legend was based on fact–the Greeks did indeed attack and sack Troy, burning it to the ground. Homer’s audience believed in gods and goddesses and magic and heroic deeds, so Homer, just like Hollywood, gave them what they wanted. But the historical truth would have to be considerably different; Achilles was a man, not half a god, so what made him stand out to such a degree that Homer would have to postulate his semi-divinity to explain it? The abduction of Briseis has always seemed a little thin to us moderns as an explanation for Achilles’ rebellion; after all, it wasn’t terribly unusual for commanders to take women for themselves, or to take them from their own warriors. In Homer, it’s a matter of Achilles’ pride–he takes it as a personal insult. But if Achilles recognized Agamamnon as his King, and he was–as Homer hints–a bit of a rake, bedding women wherever and whenever it pleased him and then dumping them just as quick, why would he have even bothered to get upset?

Benioff has taken a fable and tried to work out a version of what the real personalities may have been like and how the whole thing really went down, and I think he’s succeeded. If Achilles is already po’d about Agamemnon’s on-going power-grab and sees him as a greedy would-be emperor, then his reaction to the abduction starts to make sense. If Priam is of the old-school, ‘The gods will protect us’ religion, hauling the horse into the city because it’s a religious offering is inescapable; he would have to or risk offending the gods in which he believes so fervently. Benioff’s version is at least grounded in psychology, history, and Homer’s poetry if not entirely faithful to any of them, and that’s a pretty neat trick for a writer. From what I hear, the Alamo scriptwriters could have used some of that.

But let’s not miss the bigger issue here–this is a damn good movie. As historical dramas go, it’s not in the top rank with films like Lawrence of Arabia or Khartoum–for reasons I’ll go into in a bit–but it’s a solid piece of work and passes the Butt Test with flying colors–and at my age I get antsy in 15 mins usually no matter what’s going on up on the screen. At almost three hours, it could have been deadly. It isn’t. It flies by and it’s time to talk about why.

Brad Pitt is not, by any rational stretch, a great actor, and he proves it again in this movie, but he is one of the few American actors who could hold the center of a movie like this for three hours. He is a presence even when he isn’t doing anything, and I couldn’t have said that four or five years ago. Something has happened, whether it’s a new teacher or a deeper commitment or something personal, I don’t know, but it has and he can now occupy the center of a sprawling mega-spectacular by himself if he has to. I know because in this movie, he has to and he does it almost effortlessly. That ain’t hay. Only a handful of actors in cinema history could do it–Cagney, Grant, Peck, Newman, Poitier, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood–and of the actors working today, only Denzel Washington and Harrison Ford come to mind. George Clooney couldn’t, much as I like his work, neither could Matt Damon, Wesley Snipes, or Russell Crowe (I saw Gladiator and was severely underwhelmed; an empty film and Crowe was utterly unable to fill it), and Tom Cruise would barely survive (which I read was pretty much proved by The Last Samurai). Pitt, from his first scene, owns Troy. He dominates it, as he must if it’s to work, and even when he’s off-screen, you know everybody on screen is thinking about him. That’s partly because he’s surrounded by brilliant character actors but the fact is that if Pitt didn’t make the audience feel his command, the other actors miming it would have looked and felt like actors miming it.

There are two key elements to his ownership: an awesome physicality and a sense of pent-up, barely-controlled rage that simmers close to the surface even when he appears to be calm. This is a dangerous man on a leash stretched so tight it could snap at any moment, and everybody knows it. When Brian Cox as Agamemnon refuses to speak to him, sending emissaries instead, there’s no mystery about why–he’s scared to death. It’s the same quality Al Pacino had in the first Godfather; not as complex, perhaps, but then Achilles isn’t as complex a character as Michael Corleone.

What gives Pitt’s rage shape and form is the way he uses his body. Pitt’s Achilles is, in the fight scenes at least, Homer’s Achilles–a man who was a warrior and nothing else. The first time I ever saw a real warrior on the screen was a couple of summers ago when Nicholas Cage took out a machine gun nest with a knife in Windtalkers. Now I’ve seen a second. Pitt must have trained his ass off for this movie, and it shows. He moves like a warrior, kills like a warrior; he is a killing machine. Trained for nothing else, he’s at home nowhere else, and Pitt shows us finally what Achilles must have been if he truly lived: a highly-skilled warrior in a time when most soldiers, even the best of them, had barely mastered the bish-bash-bosh school of fighting. He is precise in the midst of chaos, deliberate when others are mad with blood-lust, inexorable as a thresher mowing down corn. He is totally believable, and he gets very little help from the camera. Apart from speeding up a selected movement briefly on three separate occasions (Director Wolfgang’s Petersen’s bow to Achilles’ supposed demi-divinity), Pitt does his own fighting–no stunt double, no CGI–and it makes an enormous difference. It makes Achilles real, startlingly, frighteningly. absurdly real. It’s actually possible to forget during those sequences that this is just a movie.

You would think, maybe, from the amount of weight I just hung around their necks, that Troy must be all battle scenes with Pitt slaughtering everything in sight, but in fact Pitt and Petersen manage to accomplish the construction of Achilles’ military superiority with only two short fight scenes–three if you count his introduction, and you should.

The only real battle scene in which Achilles figures is on the Trojan beach when he lands ahead of Agamemnon’s fleet and decides to take it with his Myrmidons rather than wait for the army to catch up. During this sequence–which lasted maybe a minute or so–Pitt’s killing machine is running on all ten cylinders, but not with the manic, unleashed rage of insanity that we expect or that Cage gave us. In war there are two kinds of warriors (as distinct from soldiers–see Windtalkers; it’s hard to take but it’s one of the best films of the past ten years). The first is Cage’s more-than-a-little-mad Berserker, the warrior worked up to a fever-pitch who kills in a frenzy of unfocused rage. The second is Pitt’s laser-focused assassin, a man who kills because he knows how and he’s good at it. He doesn’t hate his enemy as the Berserker does; he doesn’t appear to feel anything. He is doing what he was hired to do, what he’s comfortable doing, that’s all.

Pitt runs uphill in the sand to where the Trojan army is waiting, fights his way through them, and takes the Temple of Apollo at the top of the dunes (I don’t think the Greeks built on sand, but hey, it’s a great visual). It is here that Pitt has his best moment, a sort of ‘little boy lost’ moment: the battle is over and, once again, Achilles doesn’t know what to do with himself. He had his brief time at home and now he is cast into the unknown without a clue as to how to handle it.

The second scene is the climactic fight with Hector, and it’s one of the best–if not the best–mano-a-mano combat sequences ever put on film. It crackles, and both Pitt and Eric Bana, who plays Hector, are superb. Hector is a great warrior himself–and we can see why–but as he fights Achilles you can see in his eyes, in his whole body, the dawning realization that he is over-matched. He is well-trained and has a natural ability that has stood him well, but Achilles is a different animal altogether–where Hector’s technique is polished, Achilles’ is flawless; where Hector intuits, Achilles controls. Bana’s Hector looks at Achilles as I must have looked at Cage: ‘Here is the first real warrior I have ever seen. If he wants to kill me, I’m already dead.’

There is more emotional and story content in that 2 or 3 minute fight scene than in a dozen hours of Schwartzenegger blood-fests. I don’t know who choreographed it–I suspect it was probably Swordmaster Richard Ryan and Stunt Co-Ordinator Simon Crane working together; there was no ‘fight co-ordinator’ credit–but whoever it was did far more than stage an electrifying swordfight; they staged an electrifying swordfight that was the personification of the characters having it–fought as they would have fought it, with moves and combinations peculiar to them. It’s an astounding achievement, extremely hard to pull off–which is why you see it so rarely–and it makes the bish-bash-bosh in The Gladiator look exactly as childish and unrealistic and divorced from character as it was, a comic book add-on that had little to do with the plot and nothing whatever to say about the people doing it.

Troy is everything The Gladiator only pretended to be, so it’s a damn shame the dialogue is as bad as the action sequences are good. Because it is. Horrible. Embarrassing horrible in spots. The best dialogue–no surprise: Benioff cribbed it straight from The Poet for the only time in the film–is in the sequence when Priam (Peter O’Toole at his world-weary best) sneaks into Achilles’ tent after the fight to ask for the return of his son’s body, which Achilles had tied to the back of his chariot and dragged away–the ultimate insult. Priam is devastated as only a man can be who has seen wars and death all his life and in the last few hours has seen both claim his eldest son. O’Toole makes poetry of the poetry; sorrow and fallen pride deepen every word, but in undertones: the King is still a King, and there are ways to do such things.

Unfortunately, Pitt’s weaknesses mean that he can’t keep up his end of his only scene alone with O’Toole. Achilles simply disappears and is replaced by an actor named Pitt who doesn’t know what to do with his face. In what could have and should have been a crowning cinema moment, Pitt–who stole scenes from Brian Cox (Agamemnon), Sean Bean (a nice Odysseus; there’s your sequel, if you like), and Brendan Gleeson (Menelaus)–crumbles into uncertainty and doesn’t recover. Neither does the movie, really.

What marks the difference between a good spectacle-film like Troy and a great one like Lawrence of Arabia or Khartoum? Usually it’s the presence of two critical ingredients: intelligent, multi-layered dialogue that you can return to again and again, each time catching nuances and shades of meaning you missed before; and a brilliant central performance like O’Toole’s in Lawrence or Heston’s in Khartoum (he was never better, not even in The Agony and the Ecstasy). Unfortunately, Troy has neither. The dialogue is usually little more than serviceable–it gets you from one scene to the next but it doesn’t have anything extra to say. It tends to veer from the hopelessly mundane to the anachronistically trivial (when Paris comes to Helen to renew their passion of the night before, Helen says, ‘Last night was a mistake.’ Yeah, right. Did Helen of Troy graduate from Wesleyan?), falling flat right when and where you need it to reach for the moon. Benioff’s conception for Troy is brilliant but he should have let somebody who could write put words in the mouths of his concept. (David. Call me next time.)

With hoary, stumbling, 2nd-grade dialogue and a presence at the center who blows the crucial scene–and gets blown off the screen in the process–Troy will never make The Pantheon (unless everything that comes after it is even worse–not impossible), and it’s too bad because everything else is there.

But don’t worry about it. Really. Go. It’s a gorgeous film to watch. Even if the CGI-created ‘thousand ships’ are nothing to brag about technically and there’s only 50 of them or so anyway, you still get a sense of what a huge force it must have been for the time. And even if the Greek buildings, especially Troy, are more Egyptian-slash-Sumerian-slash-Morroccan-with-a-hint-of-Thailand than specifically Greek, they’re put together so well and photographed so beautifully that only a Grinch would pout. Go for Brad’s astounding physicality and Peter’s heart-rending emotional center and Brian’s savage arrogance.

But most of all, go because it will bring Homer to life for you again. Benioff and Petersen have done something extraordinary–they’ve fleshed out mythological fantasies and found the human beings who could have inspired them. In Hollywood, it’s usually the other way around.

A final word–about the horse, of course. The Trojan Horse has always been the hardest part of The Iliad for me to swallow since I was a kid. Even then it sounded like something a writer made up. But after seeing the Horse in the film, I’m not so damn sure any more….

Keeping the Record Straight Dept

For the record: ‘The face that launched a thousand ships’ doesn’t come from Homer. It’s Christopher Marlowe. Now you can win that bar bet.

Addendum: A Final final word–about fame. Achilles, says the movie–and Homer–is a warrior because it’s the only thing he can do that will make him famous. His mother (the still lovely, still talented Julie Christie in a cameo) tells him that if he stays home he will have a wonderful life but if he goes to Troy he will die and his name will be remembered for a thousand years. He chooses fame.

It would behoove us in this anti-intellectual time when NASCAR passes for art (no kidding–a MidWest dance company commissioned a ballet based on NASCAR racing just to get asses in the seats) and arts classes are being eliminated all over the country and Paul Wolfowitz wants to be remembered as the 21st century’s Lawrence, that nobody would have remembered Achilles or any of the other Kings and players 20 years after they died were it not for a damn longhair, left-wing, egghead Poet.

Food for thought.

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