Defending Troy is enough to get you excommunicated from the Classics community – for there is a lot wrong with the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster, adapted from Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. There is, however, still a fair amount right with it when viewed as a simple, fun movie rather than a film with any particular artistic merit.
It is rather surprising to see that it’s fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with 54%, and a downright cushy 73% of audiences liked it when it seems so common to trash it in conversation. We’re not aiming to convince anyone that it deserves to be remembered as a classic film; but simply to present its better, and most often overlooked, aspects so that you may consider giving Troy another try.
Troy is clearly an attempt to resurrect the sword-and-sandal pictures beloved of Hollywood in the fifties and sixties – think Ben-Hur, Spartacus, The Ten Commandments – which are all certainly of a higher overall quality. Troy is, however, a reasonably equal spectacle in terms of action and scale – OK, there may not be anything as iconic or daring as a chariot race around the Circus Maximus, but Troy wields the tools of the twenty-first century and we see some pretty decent CGI when it comes to the multitude of boats sailing in the Aegean, the swarm of soldiers involved in the battle set-pieces and the final sack and burning of the city. It does also deserve credit for not solely relying on post-production effects either, as all battle scenes involve good old-fashioned one-on-one parrying and thrusting (Hector vs. Patroclus, Achilles vs. Hector, Paris vs. Menelaus, Achilles vs. the entire Trojan army) – and Achilles’ Myrmidons display some pretty impressive moves.
The production design is one of the movie’s real strengths – we’re not saying everyone should get behind the Trojans’ love of tie-dye but some serious thought has gone into it, so props to Nigel Phelps and his team. There is a clear definition between the Trojans and the rest of the Greeks in terms of dress and architecture (as well as amongst the Greeks), which aptly highlights the fact that Greece was not actually “a thing” in the early 12th century BC: it was merely a collection of independently-run kingdoms. The generally-held view of Troy’s location being in modern-day northern Turkey is reflected in the more Eastern vibe of Troy compared with the traditionally Greek patterns and armour displayed by the opposing army (Bob Ringwood received Troy’s single Oscar nomination, for Costume Design). The small details are spot-on as well; when Menelaus stomps off to see his brother Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, to ask for his help in claiming back Helen, there are two lions carved into the wall behind Agamemnon – these two lions can be seen today above the gates into the ancient site of Mycenae. It’s details like that which show the production designers did their research.
Now we examine the part of Troy that has given experts, critics and fans alike the biggest of headaches – the script. You’d think it would be hard to balls it up with such fine source material recorded by Homer, revolving around the universally-known myth of pretty-boy Trojan Paris nicking another bloke’s wife, who just happens to be King of Sparta, and thus bringing around a massive war that ultimately results in the fall of Troy and doomed fates for all royal Trojans (yup, they whitewashed that a little). There are also the famous details of crafty Odysseus’ Trojan horse and Paris’ killing of Achilles with an arrow to the heel (the only part of him that wasn’t immortal). It sadly does appear, however, that you can dredge up rather a clunky script from this, even if you include references to “the wine dark sea” (10 Homer points!) and even if you happen to be David “Game of Thrones” Benioff. Yes, really! The thing that really got the collective Classics world’s goat, however, was the multitude of changes made to the story – some that we will defend, and some that we just, well, can’t…
Firstly, it is totally acceptable that there was a large amount of timeline-condensing in the script, seeing as the Trojan War lasted for a decade. As with the written version of the Iliad focusing on a few weeks during the final year of the war, the only way a film was going to work was by pulling together and focusing on the juiciest bits. Speaking of juicy bits, it is also unsurprising that they wanted to match the lead (Achilles) with a love interest – apparently the whole Paris-Helen-Agamemnon triangle simply did not deliver enough sexual intrigue on its own. Step forward Briseis, who does actually feature in the original telling but is neither such a large/romantic part nor a Trojan princess. Briseis is essentially just a pretty window-dressing disguising the truly important relationship in Achilles’ life – his relationship with Patroclus. As an entirely separate discussion best saved for another day, it is a shame that Hollywood weren’t prepared to be “radical” enough to even hint at the original sexual nature of their companionship.
We now move onto further devastations regarding the plot, and this time it’s even more personal. If the Classicists haven’t been lost before this point, this is where they all jump ship. Essentially, all the wrong people die (or don’t) in all the wrong circumstances – Paris kills Menelaus (nope, Menelaus lives and Paris is killed by Philoctetes), Briseis kills Agamemnon (nope, Agamemnon lives to make lots of people’s lives hell, including Trojan princess Cassandra, and Briseis is passed on to another Myrmidon after Achilles’ death), and Helen flees the burning Troy with Paris and other Trojan royals (nope, Helen goes back to Menelaus, shows him her fabulous breasts and all is forgiven. Barely any Trojans flee either – they mostly die or are captured and taken into slavery, including Hector’s wife Andromache. You don’t want to know what happened to their baby son, Astyanax). There is a nice little nod towards the Aeneid though, with Aeneas (accompanied by his elderly father Anchises: bonus points) being given the Sword of Troy to go off and found a ‘new’ Troy (Rome).
Despite the quantity of mostly hideous scribbling all over mythology, Troy still has a lot to offer. Eric Bana makes a brilliant Hector as he both physically looks the part, matching Brad Pitt’s Achilles muscle for muscle, and also acts it well as a frustrated older brother and son, well aware of his likely fate – and thus evoking a nice bit of pathos. His father also happens to be Peter frickin’ O’Toole, who acts as a grand old king terribly well and thus throws in some excellent hubris. Sean Bean, perhaps inexplicably, seems to embody the perfect Odysseus too – you wouldn’t imagine him as a bouffanted Yorkshireman, but it just works.
Honourable mention should also go to ‘evil’ brothers Brendan Gleeson as Menelaus and Brian Cox, in particular, as Agamemnon, who manages to wring out some magnificent scenery chewing. Yes, David Benioff’s script gives the material the Hollywood treatment and very simplistically paints the Greeks as the ‘baddies’ and the Trojans as the doomed ‘goodies’, but Cox is happy to go along with that decision. We can’t entirely defend Brad Pitt’s acting choices (and certainly not his weirdly unflattering haircut) but we can appreciate that he’s attempting to show the arrogance, entitlement and sense of destiny that such a man would have had, as a much-lauded warrior and demigod. Indeed, the decision to cut the gods from proceedings was a sensible one; this added element would have been incredibly tricky to make plausible, although it does leave the lovely Julie Christie somewhat unaccountably wading around in the water as Thetis, Achilles’ mother.
Finally everyone: the music. It is the epitome of stirring, with brash percussion, overblown brass and soaring strings – and as epic as one could hope for, coming from the pen of the late, great James Horner. Somehow, running the credits to the delightfully naff nineties-style power ballad ‘Remember Me’ (very much in the tradition of The Mask of Zorro’s ‘I Want to Spend My Lifetime Loving You’, also written by Horner) also fits perfectly.
So there you have it, a by-no-means perfect defence of Troy. If, however, you can forgive the script some of its many transgressions and allow yourself to be swept along on the sea of pure spectacle, enjoying all of the effects, backgrounds, fight choreography, costume, music and (some) actors that Troy has to offer, you could certainly do worse for a fluffy piece of Saturday night viewing.