81 – Troy:
Who here knows what a Sword & Sandal movie is? Well even if you don’t know, you can probably guess. Sword & Sandal is a type of movie that first popped up in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was usually set during Biblical times or else in Ancient Rome/Greece/Egypt. They featured a lot of gratuitous swordplay and some rather scantily clad characters. This was actually a good way to get the stars of those days showing some skin on camera – since the Hays Code wouldn’t allow for it in most of their other movies. Sword & Sandal was quite popular in the 1950s until the colossal bomb that was Cleopatra. The Fall of the Roman Empire only confirmed it was dead. Ridley Scott managed to somewhat revive the genre with his Oscar-winning Gladiator – something which the following film on the list has definitely felt the influence of. I can remember personally getting hyped up for this movie when I was twelve; Lord of the Rings was already done and dusted, and Harry Potter was taking its sweet time, so here was a film that looked suitably epic and exciting to keep me occupied in between them.
The Trojan War is something that everyone knows something about. The big parts include Queen Helen’s abduction/elopement, the wooden horse and the war lasting for ten years. That’s where the common knowledge ends however – judging from the amount of complaints about the film not getting the story right. The most famous source of the story is Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. But contrary to popular belief, the poem only covers a few weeks of the war (namely the deaths that inspire Achilles to go on his rampage). The famous parts that everyone knows aren’t even in The Iliad. The film decides to cover the entire general story – Helen’s elopement to the Trojan horse. There are also significant differences in the film to the myth we’re all familiar with. It’s not said how long the war takes, but it’s considerably less than ten years (judging from Hector’s son still being a child by the end). The Greek gods and goddesses also played big roles in the war; Eris started everything by tossing the original Apple of Discord between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite – and the end result was Aphrodite causing Helen to fall in love with Paris and elope to Troy. The film drops this completely from the story, and the supernatural stuff is only implied in a couple of parts. I’ll get into more detail as we go along. For reference, the three-hour extended cut is the one we’ll be sampling today.
This is historical fiction, so of course we open with a map and text giving us the 411. 3200 years ago, King Agamemnon of Mycenae (Brian Cox) has managed to unite most of Greece into “loose alliance”, except for Thessaly. Three guesses where the film takes us next. Brian Cox is probably the most memorable actor in the film – hamming it up just enough to make things fun, while still being just about evil enough to make us hate his guts. The film makes the character a straight-up villain, and notably an armchair conqueror who rarely does any fighting himself. The original mythology has him as a bit greyer in motivations. Agamemnon marches with his soldiers into Thessaly, but has a proposition for the king – a one-on-one between their best fighters. The Thessaly champion is Boagrius, played by Australian wrestler-turned-stunt man Nathan Jones. Well, calling him a wrestler is a bit of a stretch; he got to kick the Big Show at WrestleMania XIX and was already retired by the time this film was made.
Agamemnon’s best fighter is Achilles (Brad Pitt). Yes, the one with the heel. What’s interesting about Achilles is that he was a demigod in the original myths, and this film chose to go down the magic realism road. But I like how they handle it; for example, everyone *says* they’ve heard Achilles is a demigod. But he never says otherwise. He could be a demigod, or he could just be an exceptionally well-trained human. Brad Pitt is sort of the weird one in this film. All of the others you’d totally buy in a Sword & Sandal epic. But Brad Pitt? To his credit, he plays the arrogant jackass well and you’re even able to sympathise with him at times. His accent on the other hand?
Achilles makes short work of the other dude, meaning that Agamemnon now has Thessaly too. But if you think Achilles is a loyal fighter to Agamemnon, you’re quite mistaken. We now move to Sparta, which is ruled by Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). His wife is Queen Helen. It’s interesting to read the behind the scenes notes on the film, because they reveal that Helen almost wasn’t in it. Well she would have been in the story, but you never would have seen her. Director Wolfgang Peterson felt that Helen’s status as ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ would make it impossible for anyone to live up to the viewers’ expectations. An interesting idea, but one that would almost certainly not work in this film. So he compromised by casting an unknown actress. This had exactly the effect he anticipated – with several thousand complaints about Diane Kruger not being pretty enough. I could go into a big long rant about how sleazy and trashy that kind of press is (and I personally think said comments should automatically come with a picture of the writer so readers can compare) – but I’ll just say that Diane Kruger is very beautiful. Part of Helen’s appeal in the mythology was her wit and charisma, but the film chooses to play her as more of a delicate flower.
Menelaus is entertaining the two Princes of Troy – Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom). They toast to peace between Troy and Sparta, which doesn’t look to last when Paris follows Helen upstairs. This is probably where eliminating the Greek gods hurts the story the most. Helen is a complete victim in the myth – as she’s bewitched into falling for Paris by Aphrodite. Here? A war gets started because of her affair. So how does the film deal with this? Well, for starters it shows Menelaus as a womaniser who views his wife as a baby factory and nothing more. And secondly, it seems to show Helen as rather weak-willed up against Paris’s charming ways. At this point in time, after the successes of Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, Orlando Bloom was the latest pretty boy heartthrob amongst tween girls. So it seems that casting him as Paris is an acknowledgement of that; depicting Bloom’s character as a shameless skirt-chaser who starts a war because he couldn’t keep it in his…er…skirt. The extended cut even gives a scene where Hector spots him coming down the stairs from Helen’s room and warns him not to endanger the peace.
The next morning, Hector is none too pleased to find Helen stowed away on the ship to Troy. He initially orders them to go back to Sparta, but quickly realises that the damage has already been done. Back in Greece, Menelaus is enraged that his baby factory is in a different estate now. He goes to his brother for help, and Agamemnon naturally jumps at the chance to control the Aegean Sea. He however is less happy to realise that they’ll need Achilles if they want to win the war. There is luckily one man the loose cannon might listen to.
Meet Odysseus, as in The Odyssey, the dude who killed the cyclops etc. As Odysseus is already spoilered by the sources to survive the conflict, it’s rather amusing that he’s played by Sean Bean. Mr Bean either plays villains, or else heroes who get killed. And he does neither in this film. Sean Bean is actually the main reason I went to see the film; having been my favourite in the Lord of the Rings movies, I couldn’t wait to see him in something else. I hilariously didn’t know that he was normally the bad guy until much later. The extended cut puts in an amusing bit where Agamemnon’s emissaries arrive looking for him, and Odysseus pretends to be a simple peasant. The setting then switches to Achilles’s home, where he’s training with his cousin Patroclus – played by a just-starting-out Garret Hedlund. And given that Hedlund has made a career out of playing cocky lovable assholes like Brad Pitt, this is a very fitting ‘passing the torch’ idea. The movie also ignores the detail that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers in the original myth. Presumably because they were *also* cousins there too.
Odysseus gives Achilles the option to fight in the greatest war known to man – at least until the English and French decided to one-up with them with that Hundred Year War. Achilles goes to consult his mother Thetis, played by Julie Christie. She’s the only one of the Greek gods to make it into the film (Thetis being the daughter of Poseidon, making her a sea goddess). Following the magic realism tone of the story, she’s presented in a slightly ethereal way; she spends the whole scene standing in the water and she talks about Achilles’s future in a way that suggests she has some kind of powers. The movie handles Thetis in a very classy way, dropping the hints that she’s more than just a human – while not contradicting that so the viewers who choose not to believe so don’t feel cheated. Thetis tells her son that if he stays in Greece, he’ll have a nice peaceful life with a wife and children. If he goes to Troy, he will surely die – but his name will go down in history.
Achilles is seen on a ship the next morning, before the scene shifts to the city of Troy. Helen is presented before King Priam (Peter O’Toole) and he welcomes her benevolently. We meet Hector’s wife Andromache, played by Saffron Burrows. There’s also the princes’ cousin Briseis. She appears to fill the roles of multiple characters from the myth; she has her own role as Achilles’s lover, Chryseis’s role as a priestess Agamemnon captures and Clytemnestra’s part as the one who finally finishes him off. She also appears to have one or two small elements from Cassandra – the famous seer who had a vision of Troy being ruined, but no one would believe her. Cassandra’s role is left out of the movie with the gods being dropped (Apollo having cursed her with the prophecies no one would believe) but Briseis has her role as a relation to the princes and a girl who is captured by the Greeks. And it seems she takes Helen’s wit and charisma for herself too. The part was written for Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai. But she was uncomfortable with the risqué nature of the film (Bollywood being very strict on kissing and sexuality in films) and turned it down. The role went to an unknown Australian actress called Rose Byrne, who immediately enjoyed great success.
Once father and son are alone, talk becomes more serious. Hector still wants to put Helen on a ship and send her back to her husband. Priam has guessed that Paris will follow her wherever she goes, and he will surely be killed if he goes back with her. He resolves that they’ll just have to defend the city when the armies inevitably arrive. This is Peter O’Toole we’re talking about, so it sounds considerably more grand the way he said it. That’s just a little talent he always had.
We shift the focus to our two lovers, in the first conversation they have since agreeing to elope. To Paris’s credit, he now seems to be realising the sheer scale of what he’s just done. He proposes leaving the city and running away to keep the people of Troy safe. Helen however knows that her husband will burn every house to the ground just out of spite, and that running would be useless. Both of them have now realised that they’ve done their damage and all they can do is face the consequences. Little bits of character depth like this really add to the story. I was getting ready to say that I wished the film would have had them show remorse, but it’s right there.
In the morning, the gongs sound that ships are on the horizon. The Trojans gather all their people inside the city’s walls and prepare for battle. Achilles sails ahead of the rest of the Greeks because he’s a rebel, see. Thus we get the first big battle sequence in this film – where Achilles actually manages to take the beach of Troy with fifty men. The extended cut makes the sequence longer, adding more gore and a lot more screen time for a warrior called Ajax (Tyler Mane). The battle scenes of this movie seem to be a dial between the gritty ‘realism’ used in Lord of the Rings and the ‘holy hell, ain’t this awesome’ camp used by 300 and Spartacus: Blood & Sand. Achilles is victorious before most of the Greek ships have even docked yet, and gives his boys free reign to plunder Apollo’s temple.
Achilles now comes face to face with Hector for the first time in the film. But he lets him go because “it’s too early in the day for killing princes”. When Achilles goes back to his tent, he finds a captive Briseis there as a ‘gift’ for him. Understandably the princess-turned-priestess is disgusted that Achilles took part in the ransacking of Apollo’s temple. Despite having been a jackass throughout the story so far, Achilles unties her and offers her water – at which she is visibly stunned. He also tells her she needn’t fear him before he goes to see Agamemnon. The king is being congratulated despite the beach being taken while he was still on the water. To assert his dominance, Agamemnon has had his men bring Briseis in – effectively saying she’s his property now. Achilles is prepared to fight Agamemnon over this, but Briseis shouts at both of them to stop. She doesn’t want anyone killing for her. Agamemnon can’t resist gloating again. Achilles’s response?
Well in Greek terms, ‘sack of wine’ would be like calling him an alcoholic, but it’s still a silly line. His follow-up of “before my time is done, I will look upon your corpse and smile” is a step up. The extended cut shows an equally unintentionally hilarious moment of the Trojans mourning their dead before switching to a council. Despite getting curb-stomped today, the Trojans are still confident that they’re going to win the war. Paris says that there won’t be another war – as he will challenge Menelaus tomorrow in a duel. Winner gets Helen. Loser?
Priam gives his son the Sword of Troy to use in battle, saying the spirit of the city rests within it. I’d be more comforted by being told the spirit of a Terminator or Xenomorph rests in it if I was about to fight to the death. Hector is having less luck comforting his wife, as she predictably wants him to quit with the slaying and get with the parenting. He also bumps into Helen, who was planning to go down to the Greeks. Having seen the sight of so many dead Trojans, she wants to give herself up to avoid further bloodshed. Hector points out that it’s unlikely that will actually do anything – and all she can do is comfort his brother tonight. It’s surprising to me but I’m really feeling for Helen in this. Beforehand, I’d had very little sympathy for her and Paris. But the film does actually do a good job of showing her guilt over the whole thing. She was trapped in an unhappy marriage, and eloping with a man she loved has started a war and caused hundreds of deaths. It’s clear she wants to be punished or do some kind of penance for her crime, even if it’s impossible. Although she’s less of a victim without Aphrodite manipulating her, I still sympathise with her. She can’t atone for what she’s done; all she can do is live with the consequences for the rest of her life.
Next morning, Achilles is sulking in his tent, and orders his men not to fight today. But he’s had a moment of realisation, which he relates to Patroclus. He claims that he’s having visions of all the men he’s killed; waiting at the River Styx for him to join them. This puts him in contrast to his innocent cousin, who just wants to get slicing and dicing already. It seems that Achilles might not want to be a warrior anymore, or at least he doesn’t know how to be anything else. Elsewhere, the Trojans assemble their forces in wait for the Greeks. Helen is of course even more anxious than everyone else, begging Priam’s forgiveness for bringing this war on them. He touchingly asks her to call him ‘father’.
Agamemnon offers two terms in exchange for everyone’s safety: give Helen back to Menelaus, and submit to his rule. You can imagine what Hector says to that. Paris then makes his offer, which Menelaus accepts. While fighting for your girl sounds like a good idea on paper, let’s not forget that the King of Sparta is a seasoned battle veteran. The nice way of putting it would say that Paris at least puts up a better fight than Boagrius did. But when Menelaus wounds his leg, he backs out of the deal. Hector finishes off Menelaus and a second battle ensues. This one goes in the Trojans’ favour, notably with some poor tactics displayed by the Greeks. Hector ends up offing the one scene wonder Ajax. Dude is so badass it takes him forever to finally die.
The Greeks retreat for the day, Agamemnon cursing his injured pride. Just in case you think Achilles can go a day without attacking something, he saves Briseis from an attempted gang rape. Despite this, she’s still not keen on him. That is until he rattles off a rather philosophical theory about the gods; that they envy the mortals because any moment could be their last. He wakes up in the middle of the night to a dagger at his throat. But as this is Brad Pitt she’s threatening, naturally this ends in sex and not death. The next day, Achilles announces that he and his men sail home for Greece. Either that’s because the sex was so good it’s put things in perspective, or because it was so bad he wants to flee home. The movie never does say.
Cousin Patroclus is very pissed that they’re to sail home, saying it’s disrespectful to Greece. But really, methinks it’s because he’s annoyed his sword has no blood on it yet. Poor Garret Hedlund however. This film is really not his scene. Friday Night Lights, Four Brothers, Tron Legacy – definitely his scene. This film?
Achilles and Briseis sleep together again the next night, making us think that it was the latter. Achilles even asks if she would consider leaving Troy. Hmm – leave her home, her family, her job as a priestess to be with a guy whose tent she was plonked into as a trophy? Either Achilles is ridiculously optimistic or he thinks his sex alone can convince her. But this is Brad Pitt, as we’ve already covered, so that is a genuine possibility. The lovers have their passion interrupted when the Trojans ambush the camp. When dawn comes, Hector leads the Trojans on an assault. It seems that Achilles has changed his tune – because he arrives to lop off a few heads. He ends up dealing with Hector…and loses! What the H-E-double hockey sticks?
It turns out that it was Patroclus all along. The little idiot decided he’d get a taste of glory. Hector gives him a mercy kill, and they call a halt to the fighting for the day. This is a change from the mythology – where the fighting not only continued, but Hector disrespected the corpse. Hector overall is a bit more heroic and sympathetic than he is in the mythology. As you can expect, Achilles flies into a blind rage when he hears what has happened.
That night, Hector shows Andromache a secret passageway. If Troy is breached, she is to lead everyone through there to safety. He’s pretty confident that things won’t end well after the death of Patroclus. The boy’s funeral is a solemn one, and you can see Achilles placing a seashell necklace on the body – calling back to Thetis’s comment about making them for the children. The next morning, Briseis begs him not to fight Hector, but to no avail. Achilles drives his chariot to the gates of Troy alone and calls out Hector. Literally. He calls the name out repeatedly until the prince comes out. This somewhat mars the emotional scenes of Hector saying goodbye to his father, brother, wife and son. But there is a small but effective scene where Helen is the last person standing at the gates before he leaves. There are no words exchanged between them, but Diane Kruger conveys just how sorry Helen is. And Eric Bana leaves you guessing as to whether or not Hector has really forgiven her.
Thus the duel between Achilles and Hector begins. The movie has been building towards this set piece for two hours now. Hector is clearly no match for Achilles, and each blow is merely delaying the inevitable. But he puts up the best fight he could. This leans more towards a showy gladiator battle rather than a bitter fight to the death – but Rule of Cool is in full swing. Eventually Achilles stabs him with a spear, all the while Helen is comforting a sobbing Andromache. Achilles adds further insult by strapping the body to his chariot and driving off with it. This act of disrespect causes Priam to faint. Briseis is beside herself when Achilles returns, knowing that means Hector has been killed.
That night, a hooded figure sneaks into Achilles’s tent. It’s King Priam! In the mythology, Hermes helped him navigate past the various Greek tents. Here, he just claims to know his country very well. He kindly demands that Achilles do the decent thing and let him have his son’s body back. When Achilles tries to play the ‘he killed my cousin’ card, Priam reminds him that he has a high body count himself. And even though they’re enemies, they can still show respect. Achilles leaves to get the body and actually cries over it. This seems to imply that he viewed Hector as a worthy opponent and is clearly now full of remorse over what he’s done. To make amends, he invokes the Greek tradition that there be twelve days of mourning – and no one will attack Troy during that time. He also tells Briseis she is free to go, apologising for hurting her and giving her a seashell necklace as a parting gift.
Agamemnon is furious that Achilles has made a private pact with Priam. But his mood changes when Odysseus gets some inspiration from a soldier carving a horse out of wood. The movie is combining him with Ulysses there, presumably because their names both have three Ss. Achilles tells his men to go home without him, as he has his own private battle to fight. Twelve days later, the Trojans find many of the Greeks dead from the plague, and the rest sailing home. A gift is left in their place.
The priests believe the horse is an offering to Poseidon, while Paris is sceptical and thinks they should burn it. But the superstitious Trojans remember that Hector dismissed the gods and was soon killed – and take it inside the city. This is again a big change from the original myth. The priests actually guess that the horse will be the doom of Troy – but Poseidon himself shuts him up – and thus they take it inside to avoid pissing him off even further. Cassandra is likewise cursed by Apollo to have no one believe her warnings, so the fall of Troy is really engineered by the gods. Here the priests and Priam are just really superstitious. At least you can blame the King for being rattled by his eldest son’s death.
A Trojan sentry actually finds the Greek ships docked in another part of the beach, but is shot before he can warn anyone. That night, the Greeks escape from inside the wooden horse and open the gates to allow the rest in. What follows is a huge massacre – involving murder, burning, rape and throwing infants into fires. It’s unfortunately how that went in the original mythology too. The expression on Priam’s face as he watches his city burn is heart-breaking.
Andromache luckily has her wits about her and leads people to the secret passageway. We see that Achilles is among the Greeks who invaded, but he’s only come for Briseis. He even spares a man who says he has a son. Paris hands off the Sword of Troy to a young Aeneas – as in the protagonist of The Aeneid – but goes back into the city to help. The sacking of Troy is also the only time we ever see Agamemnon do anything; he stabs Priam to death in Apollo’s temple. Briseis is found praying at a statue by him. He doesn’t kill her, rather he intends to make her his slave. But she’s learned a thing or two about him and stabs the King to death with a dagger.
Achilles saves her from being killed by Agamemnon’s men, but Paris sees this and mistakenly thinks he’s attacking her – and shoots him right through the heel. Yep, the Achilles Heel. But it’s the dozen arrows in the chest that finish him off. As the film’s TV Tropes page suggests, you might say that Briseis herself was his real Achilles Heel.
Paris and Briseis flee the city, as the film ends with Odysseus giving a eulogy for his dead friend. The extended cut shows Briseis with the escaping survivors looking back at the distant smoke from the pyre. The sight of the burnt city and the diminished army seems to say ‘was it all worth it?’ The actual ending differs greatly from the mythology. Achilles died long before the Trojan Horse was used, as did Paris – and Helen had taken a new husband by the time Troy fell. Menelaus survived the war and Helen went back to Sparta with him to become his Queen again, now free from Aphrodite’s manipulations. Hector’s son was thrown from the city walls and Andromache was given as a gift to Achilles’s own son. Agamemnon made it back to Greece, where his wife stabbed him to death. Odysseus of course had his own adventures on the way back from Troy, as detailed in The Odyssey. The survivor Aeneas led the remaining Trojans to places like Crete and Italy. Later Roman propaganda said the city was founded by the survivors.
So Troy was a significant hit when it came out. The general public was still in the mood for an epic film featuring lots of sword fighting and fancy costumes, so the post LOTR crowd flocked to see it. Showing that this type of Sword & Sandal deal could be a viable money-maker, we’ve got various other films like this every few years. They either go for the realism approach – Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, Exodus: Gods & Kings – or play up the fantasy/adventure aspects – Immortals, Gods of Egypt, the Clash of the Titans remake. Having to sit through Exodus: Gods & Kings did make me appreciate this movie a lot more. They’re both three hour epics set in ‘BC’ times. I loved one and hated the other. I realise that the reason I like this movie is because I actually care about the characters involved. There is actual character development going on here, and I feel as if I know why these people are doing what they’re doing. Greek mythology is always very tricky to adapt in modern times – because the stories are full of horrible people doing horrible things to each other. So while this film may take significant liberties with its source material, I feel as if it was all in the name of a good adaptation. I mean, cutting the ten-year war down to a number of weeks was understandable – and I think the story still works. The ‘Demythification’ concept was pulled off quite stylishly here – in contrast to other works like King Arthur and Exodus: Gods & Kings again. Wolfgang Peterson envisioned the film as a complete throwback to the Cecil B DeMille epics of the past – and that’s almost exactly what you get. The story is slightly contrived and the characters have a silliness to them, but the spectacle and pageantry just makes everything work. There were a couple of times where I was watching this again and asking myself ‘do I really want to include this?’ – only for subsequent parts to make up my mind for me. I think it’s entirely possible for a Greek mythology buff to enjoy this – after all I liked Disney’s Hercules too. We would get something far closer to the dark nature of Greek mythology in the TV show Spartacus: Blood & Sand, but I feel as if this film does it well too. Perhaps one day the Trojan War could get that treatment? I know I’d certainly watch it.
Before my time is done, I will look upon these grades and smile.
*Story? Compressing a war that lasts ten years into a number of weeks, while still lasting three hours. But most of the key aspects of the Trojan War are still intact. Dropping the gods does hurt things a bit, but the film still holds together with the ‘Demythification’ approach. B+
*Characters? Opinions are usually split on whether we should consider Hector or Achilles the hero of The Iliad. The film humanises them but still keeps their original traits intact. What I like is that the film doesn’t turn everything black and white, and retains the shades of grey from mythology. For example, the Greeks have sympathetic characters like Odysseus, Patroclus and Eudoras to balance out villains like Agamemnon, Menelaus and Nestor. The Trojans likewise have Paris to prevent them from looking 100% sympathetic. Helen losing some of her wit and charisma hurts her a little, but Briseis makes up for it. B+
*Performances? One of those movies where the leads are fine and it’s the supporting cast that make it. Brad Pitt as Achilles is a questionable choice, while Orlando Bloom is fine as Paris. Eric Bana was meanwhile a pretty good Hector, all things considered. The standouts from the supporting players were Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Peter O’Toole and Rose Byrne. Diane Kruger helped make Helen sympathetic when the story did not. Saffron Burrows could have used more screen time. Garrett Hedlund and Brendan Gleeson? Let’s not go there. B-
*Visuals? This is a Sword & Sandal movie made in the post LOTR era. Of course it looks stunning. The city of Troy is a sight to behold, helped by perfect lighting and cinematography. The fabulous costumes and props are the cherry on the top. A+
*Special Effects? Some wicked battle scenes that reinforce the spectacle required from an epic film. I don’t doubt that some visual effects were required to bring Troy to life as well. A+
*Anything Else? The writing could have used some polish (“you sack of wine”) but the script was fine. Overall, the movie was held together. B-
From the face that launched a thousand ships to the hair that launched a thousand L’Oreal endorsements – it’s Disney’s Tangled up next.