War Is Hellenic

The blood and eroticism of Troy.

Pitt’s most convincing role: warrior rock star

Brad Pitt, Robert Redford’s golden Mini-Me, is not the first actor to leap to mind for the godlike, muscle-bound Greek killing machine, Achilles, who’s torn between his lust for eternal glory and the more human desire to perpetuate his bloodline. But give an actor an excuse to hit the gym for four or five hours a day, pumping iron and staring in the mirror, and watch those biceps bloom. In Troy (Warner Bros.), Pitt shows off arms like mighty tree trunks, along with deep, oaken vocal tones to match. In an industry full of mythic preeners, Pitt wins the blue ribbon: He looks as if he could spend the whole movie plunging those gargantuan arms into big basins of water and splashing them virilely onto his naked, swollen torso. When he fights, Pitt’s Achilles has a killer move: He leaps into the air with his sword and then slashes from on high—a lightning scorpion strike, straight through the shoulder blade to the heart. I normally find this surfer-dude’s attempts to signal capacious soulfulness a source of mirth, but in Troy, Pitt has finally shut me up. If he can’t convince me he’s an actor, he can certainly get away with impersonating a god.

As directed by Wolfgang Petersen from a script by David Benioff, Troy often plays like what it is: a clunky toga-and-sandals picture, with Hollywood compromises abounding. (The fate of King Agamemnon will make those who know TheOresteia—merely the cornerstone of Western drama—scratch their heads.) And at a leisurely paced two hours and 40-odd minutes, it does go on. But given its obscene cost—upward of $175 million—the picture stays surprisingly true to its grim inspiration. The little stuff is often haywire, but the big themes are on the money.

The story, of course, comes to us largely from Homer’s TheIliad, and while artists over the centuries have added their own gloss, the thrust remained unchanged: For all the heroics of these legendary warriors, the Trojan War was a grotesque and needless waste of lives. It inspired the greatest of all antiwar laments, Euripides’ Trojan Women, as well as Jean Giraudoux’s haunting, hopefully titled play, The Trojan War Will Not Take Place. Even Homer’s martial epic would best be subtitled, The Gods Must Be Crazy.

In Troy, the war is ostensibly fought for love: The juvenile Prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) steals off with the beauteous Helen (German model Diane Kruger), to the understandable fury of her husband, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). But Petersen and Benioff take pains to spell out that, for Agamemnon (Brian Cox), the flight of Helen is just an excuse to whip up his armies to invade Troy, the last independent kingdom on the Aegean Sea. Cox’s Agamemnon sniggers that the foolish Helen has “proved to be very useful”—and the actor must have fought the urge to stroke his beard like Ming the Merciless.

In truth, this Helen has a face that would launch maybe a hundred ships—although if you throw in that lithe body and a favorable wind, you could bump the number up to 250. The movie’s real erotic object is Pitt’s Achilles, the Greek army’s rock star. He’s at his most glorious in battle—he turns killing into an art form—yet he’d rather loll about his tent with some comely wench (or two) than fight alongside his Myrmidons for Agamemnon, whom he loathes. The film ups the stakes by giving him a hotcha Trojan captive, Briseis (Rose Byrne, of I Capture the Castle), who gets snatched by Agamemnon, then traded back and forth between the two antagonists. Pitt needs a babe to balance out all the homoerotic overtones with his buddy Patroclus. Not to mention the magnetic pull of his Trojan counterpart, Hector …

Eric Bana’s Hector is in a different key than Pitt’s Achilles—heroically understated, the family man who labors to keep his country at peace, but who can’t win out over so much greed and stupidity. I’m still trying to get a fix on Bana, whose peculiar detachment from his characters’ viciousness worked like gangbusters in the Australian film Chopper but came a cropper in Hulk (2003). The tendency to avoid preening makes him a great foil for Pitt, though, and he’s superb in the difficult scenes with Orlando Bloom’s Paris—who seems blessed, like all these characters, with 20/20 foresight yet dumbly goes ahead and opens the portal of hell anyway.

The characters with the most stature—Achilles and Hector—are on opposite sides, and that infuses the spectacle and changes its meaning. Those sweeping shots of thousands of soldiers hitting the beach—they inspire both awe and a sort of melancholy dread, the exaltation of victory mingling with revulsion, the emotions canceling each other out. This might turn off audiences used to having good guys to root for: You can’t really root for anyone. No, you root for the Greeks to sail home. You watch Petersen’s visual coup—flaming boulders of straw set alight and rolled into the Greeks’ camps—with horror, because you know that a fight on the verge of petering out is being fatally reignited. The fights—especially the mano-a-mano fights, the camera in so close that the blows make you flinch—are brilliantly staged and shot, yet your sympathies are never undivided. Like a lot of the warriors, the audience is cleaved in twain.

The dialogue restores your equilibrium, putting you back in the land of Melrose Place. “You must be Hector,” says Achilles, on their first meeting. Ouch. Then there’s Agamemnon’s rueful, “He’s as likely to spear me as speak to me.” But the truth is that unless it’s Shakespeare, dialogue usually deflates this sort of movie. The actors, at least, are good enough for Shakespeare—Cox and Gleeson, Sean Bean as Odysseus, and the King Priam of Peter O’Toole, who in his dotage has the cadences of his Lion in Winter co-star, Katharine Hepburn.

In Homer, the gods are a constant presence, bickering and fighting. Here the gods are constantly invoked by O’Toole’s Priam, but the old man is clearly delusional, and his counterpart, Agamemnon, sends men off to kill and be killed to serve a grotesquely private, power-mad agenda—something to do with making a show of his might to scare the whole world into submission. Truly, a Troy for our time.