By Nick Maylor
In the world of sword and sandal epics, this 2004 film by Wolfgang Petersen isn’t often mentioned among the best of the genre. It’s a reimagining of the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Illiad. The film tells the tale as narrated by Homer through the lens of a “what if?” scenario where it is played out as a pseudo-historical account, without any supernatural elements or gods as characters. The story is condensed in the timeframe it spans; seeming to last from start to finish in mere months as opposed to the decades as described by Homer. It features a brilliant ensemble cast, impressive combat sequences, and picturesque scenery. It holds a mythic quality to it in terms of man’s ambition and rage but stays rooted in the plausible. Later films like Clash of the Titans (2010) would explore the more fantastical elements of mythology and while the Trojan War would have been an ideal candidate for that treatment, Petersen’s movie is a throwback to an older tradition of cinema.
Troy (2004) is largely a film about the egos of men and the insatiable thirst for power. Agamemnon (Brian Cox) and Achilles (Brad Pitt) are both motivated by their desire for glory. In Agamemnon’s case, the desire to conquer and rule the lands around the Aegean Sea by conquering Troy. Agamemnon’s hatred for Achilles is made clear. The king detests man known as the world’s greatest killer and soldier, Achilles, because he fights for no flag, country or kingdom; only for himself. Achilles is already renowned in his time as a demigod; a man who supposedly cannot be killed. While the gods do not appear personally in Petersen’s film, they are mentioned repeatedly and the faith of the Greeks and Trojan’s is an integral part of their lives. Achilles juxtaposes his mythic reputation by lampooning it, pointing out how it would be silly for him to need armor and a shield if he were immortal. After taking the Trojan beach, Achilles encourages his men to plunder the Trojan’s temple dedicated to the sun god Apollo. Achilles responds by taking his sword and decapitating the sculpture of Apollo that stands outside the temple. Much to the horror of the onlooking soldiers. Achilles seems to be apathetic to the gods, if not an outright atheist. While not one of his most memorable performances, Brad Pitt is exemplary in the role of Achilles. His physical conditioning for the role caused him to give up smoking and during the shoot, he ironically injured his Achilles’ tendon. His introduction in the film sums up his character brilliantly. As Agamemnon prepares to meet Thessaly in battle, Achilles is nowhere to be found when called to a duel one-on-one with the Thessalonian Boagrius (Nathon Jones). Summoned by a boy, Achilles is naked in his tent with two beautiful women, defiantly not caring to head the orders of his “King” (although Achilles does not recognize Agamemnon’s authority over him). Achilles takes down Boagrius in one fell swoop, plunging his sword through the collarbone and into the torso. Achilles only chooses to accept the challenge knowing it would spare countless soldier’s lives.
Agamemnon’s desire to conquer Greece is seriously hindered by his brother (and King of Sparta) Menelaus (Brendon Gleeson), who has just signed a peace treaty between the Greek nation and Troy. The emissaries from Troy are the princes Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom). Hector is the first-born son of King Priam (Peter O’Toole) and has come with his brother to Sparta to finalize the treaty between the Spartans and the Trojans. Meanwhile, as Hector and Menelaus are celebrating, Paris is upstairs sharing carnal delights with Menelaus’ wife, Helen (Diane Kruger). During the final night together, Paris emplores her to come with him back to Troy. He fully realizes what the consequences of his actions will be, but he convinces her none the less.
While sailing back to Troy, Paris confesses to his older brother that he has a stowaway, the Queen of Sparta, Helen. Hector is enraged and orders the ship turned around and back to Sparta; before Paris says, if Helen returns, he will go with her. Hector (seemingly being the only person in this movie NOT acting in their own self-interest), resolves himself to protect his brother and not return Helen to Menelaus; knowing this will cause a full-out war with Greece. Did Hector think only of his brother? Perhaps he reasoned that the damage had already been done and returning Helen and Paris was futile. Nevertheless, the consequences are dire.
Menelaus is naturally furious and sails to visit his brother Agamemnon. Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson have a marvelous scene together. Agamemnon has gotten everything he wanted thanks to Helen’s irresponsibility. He revels in his good fortune and plans the attack.
The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) is explained by them being cousins. This is a change from the traditional telling of the story where they are portrayed as very close friends, if not lovers. In Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) the young Macedonian King refers to Achilles and Patroclus and their status as lovers is juxtaposed against the relationship between Alexander (Colin Farrell) and Hephistian (Jared Leto). While the homosexual undertones are ignored in Troy (2004), their relationship is important as Patroclus dies while in disguise as Achilles. He is killed by Hector who must now face Achilles wrath. The lone wolf soldier marches straight to gates of Troy to fight the Trojan prince and the ensuing battle is wonderfully executed.
Following the death of Hector, King Priam (Peter O’Toole) sneaks amongst the Greek camps and finds Achilles, emploring him to relinquish Hector’s body for a proper funeral service. It is a tender and moving scene where Achilles demonstrates genuine respect and admiration for the Trojan king. It’s a beautiful moment showing respect amongst enemies.
While not listed amongst the greatest of the genre, Troy (2004) is a film I find endlessly watchable. It’s filled with great actors and performances, beautifully shot and skillfully executed.
It features a slew of British, Irish and Scottish Shakespearean actors who are familiar faces in the sword-and-sandal genre. Sean Bean appeared in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and Game of Thrones (2011-). Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox, and James Cosmo all appeared in Braveheart (1995) while Orlando Bloom appeared in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005).
It’s easily more watchable than the several versions of Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) released the same year and far less befuddling. Do yourself a favour, go watch it.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor