Troy (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and JK
I've read several reviews of this film, and many of
really miss the point.
"Hey, where are the Gods?", they say. "This isn't Homer".
Yes, lads and lasses, that is why they didn't call it The Iliad. That is the very point of the film. It is not the ancient legend, but is an intellectual exercise - an attempt to ask "What story would Homer and the other ancients have told, if they had to tell the truth instead of spinning some complete bullshit?" We all know the preposterous legendary explanations for things, but those explanations are based (or so we assume) on real events that happened to real people. This film tries to tell the story as it really might have happened to real human beings with genuine, plausible human motivations. It tries to recreate the real events which could have inspired the legendary story we are all familiar with.
It is also important to recall that Homer's Iliad dealt with only a small portion of the story, starting with the feud between the mighty Achilles and King Agamemnon, and ending with Hector's funeral. It took place over something like 50 days, and does not even include the fall of Troy, which we have learned of mainly from the Aeneid, which was written many centuries later in a different language. The wooden horse is absent from the Iliad, and is mentioned only in a casual reference in Homer's Odyssey, the epic equivalent of "Oh, yeah, Odysseus. He's the wooden horse guy ... ". The rest of the familiar legend of Troy comes from other ancient poems and plays, and includes many other details not covered in The Iliad - the conception of Helen, the childhood of Paris as a shepherd, the kidnapping of Helen, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the death of Achilles, the murder of Agamemnon, the Trojan horse - all necessary to tell the full story. Director Wolfgang Peterson's version expanded a bit beyond the narrow borders of the Iliad, but did not spin the entire yarn. He added a little back-story about Helen's flight from Sparta, and instead of ending the saga with the funeral of Hector, he ended it with the funeral of Achilles. This was an artistic decision which enabled the film to end with less unresolved than the Iliad, while still retaining the essential structure of the literature and ending on a similar note.
Let me tell you how I think this all went down a few thousand years ago.
Around 1200 B.C., the Trojan War was fought, and the basic facts are probably about as recorded in The Iliad, The Aeneid, and The Cypria (another ancient document now lost, but summarized in other documents).
Between 1200 and 700, a bunch of people told and re-told these stories. Now you know how we embellish our stories in barrooms, so you can assume that these people did the same - except far worse, because they were ignorant people who genuinely believed one could get pregnant from goose-fucking, if the goose was Zeus in disguise.
It went something like this:
Story teller: And then Hector and Paris visited Menelaus, and while they were there on a peace mission, Paris seduced Menelaus's wife and took her back to Troy ...
Skeptical listener: Wait a minute. How could Helen and Paris get enough free time to conduct an affair under the eye of her husband the king. How could the queen be doing that without anyone noticing it? That means they must have spent a lot of time alone together while she was being attended to as a queen, and he was an honored foreign emissary. That doesn't make sense.
Story teller: Um ... well ... um ... Oh, yeah, it was the gods. That's the ticket. Aphrodite brought them together, and she watched over them to assure that Menelaus would not notice them. The whole war was part of her master plan from the beginning.
Skeptical listener: Hold on. How did Helen fall in love so fast, and to such an extent that she was willing to abandon her entire life to be with Paris?
Story teller: Um ... well ... um ... Oh, yeah, it was the "apple of discord" thing. Aphrodite had promised Helen to Paris some time earlier, so Aphrodite cast a spell on Helen so that she fell in love.
That was the great thing about being a story teller in ancient times. You could just make up whatever crap you needed in order to get people to believe your story. It was a lot like being a modern day politician. Yes, we still do that today, but the ancients had different approaches. Unlike a modern day work of literature, or a modern thriller movie, ancient stories were not bound by a need for the plot or the characters' motivations to be believable. In case anything didn't make sense, they just blamed it all on the intercession of the gods.
The ancients even had a term for this clumsy way to explain inexplicable plot points: Deus Ex Machina. In some ancient Greek plays, a crisis with no possible solution was resolved by the intervention of a god, who would be dropped from the rafters by wires and pulleys and machinery. (Our modern word for machine comes from the device by which gods were suspended above the stage in the Greek theatre - machina.) In those days, a deus ex machina was literally a "god from the machine". In modern literary criticism, the term is still used, albeit no longer literally. It now describes cases where an author uses some improbable or clumsy plot device which suddenly intercedes to extricate our hero from an impossible predicament.
Of course, the story would be repeated many more times after that time I re-created above, and when the ancient story-teller told the story the next time, he would have covered his tracks by closing the loopholes with the new details, thus silencing future hecklers. When his listeners repeated the story, they added the new elements as well. As more and more generations passed, people came to believe that the story really happened that way. The improbability of quasi-divine intervention was no problem for the listeners in ancient times, because they actually believed in those gods and goddesses, as deeply as we believe in ours.
About 700 BC, "Homer" (if a single such
person existed) took the most important portion of the story, the
internecine Greek feud between Agamemnon and Achilles, as the basis for an epic poem
using a complex
meter which acted as a mnenomic device, so that the tale could be
told precisely the same way in each subsequent re-telling for another two hundred
years, until somebody finally wrote it down around 500 BC, or
thereabouts. The first written version was created at the command of
the Athenian ruler Pisastratus, who decreed that any singer or bard
who came to Athens had to recite all he knew of Homeric poetry for
the Athenian scholars, who diligently recorded each version and eventually
collated them into what we now call the Iliad and Odyssey. We do not know how much inconsistency,
if any, was resolved by the Athenian editors.
Now what do we know about the underlying truth of
the legendary epics, or the identity of their author(s)? Very little. Scholars have an ongoing debate about whether an
actual person named Homer even existed; some contend that the name
Homer is actually a collective name for a group of poets (the
Homeridae) who simply edited an existing cycle of oral epics.
Others believe, based on textual evidence, that one person, or
possibly two, did create or edit the two major Homeric
compositions. In order to avoid using constant disclaimers, I will
refer to Homer hereinafter as a single person entitled to a singular
pronoun, having acknowledged that "he" may be two separate authors
(one for the Iliad, one for the Odyssey), or "he" may be a society
Now what do we know about the underlying truth of the legendary epics, or the identity of their author(s)?
Scholars have an ongoing debate about whether an actual person named Homer even existed; some contend that the name Homer is actually a collective name for a group of poets (the Homeridae) who simply edited an existing cycle of oral epics. Others believe, based on textual evidence, that one person, or possibly two, did create or edit the two major Homeric compositions. In order to avoid using constant disclaimers, I will refer to Homer hereinafter as a single person entitled to a singular pronoun, having acknowledged that "he" may be two separate authors (one for the Iliad, one for the Odyssey), or "he" may be a society of poets.Assuming Homer did exist, we are not sure whether he merely formalized existing versions of the tale, or whether he added his own literary embellishments. We don't know whether Homer believed in his version and his gods, or whether he simply used those characters to paint himself out of corners. Although archeologists now think that there was a Troy as described in the tale, and that it fell around 1200 BC, we are not sure if any of Homer's version is true. Perhaps Achilles is as fictional as Apollo. For all we know, every single character could be fictional. On the other hand - and this is finally my point after all these words - we do know for sure that a lot of Homer's story is false. Maybe he knew that Apollo and Mercury didn't exist. Maybe not. But we know. Therefore, we know that some of the legend - in fact a big chunk of it - is utter bullshit.
But to the best of our knowledge and guesswork, it appears to be bullshit not in the sense of complete fabrication, but in the sense that it is a mythical retelling of presumed real events.
Well ... maybe.
Part of the credibility problem of The Iliad is that The Odyssey, which is said to have been written by the same man, is obviously complete bullshit - a fantasy/science-fiction work, leading us to suspect that the entire Homeric cycle is a similarly contrived work of fiction. If the Iliad is as true as The Odyssey - well, to be charitable in wording if not in sentiment, it may include no truth at all.
The Troy movie is a hypothetical recreation of some actual events that might have inspired the famous myth, including some portions of that myth not taken directly from the Iliad. Given that premise, therefore, the film is bound to portray everything happening according to natural law and human psychology. The prophets make their predictions, and people believe them, because that's what happened. But the actual predictions prove to be no more accurate than the predictions of modern day psychics. The characters worship the gods, because that's what they really did. But the gods did not actually exist, and therefore all events transpire without divine intercession.
And so forth.
Think for a minute about what all that means to this film. Except for the whole dactyllic hexameter thing, the authors of this script have taken on a more difficult job than Homer himself. Whenever Homer got caught in an improbable or fanciful point of incredible plotting or unrealistic character motivation, he would just attribute it all to a god, and he would escape scot-free from his predicament. The authors of Troy did not retain that option when they decided to have the story take place between psychologically realistic humans.
That is a great burden.
As I mentioned, many critics objected to the script's having demythologized the epic. Frankly, that is a foolish critique. That demythologizing - that humanizing, if you will - was the whole point of making the movie in the first place. But I didn't like the film much more than some of those misguided reviewers. I just had different reasons. I applaud the idea of demythologizing the story in search of human truth, but I don't applaud the execution of that conceit throughout this film. I made the point in reviewing Shakespeare in Love that if you are going to place your words alongside Shakespeare's, you better be pretty damned confident you know what you are doing, because you're going to look like a complete dickhead if you fail. A similar point holds the floor here. If you are going to re-write the oldest, most important, and most treasured story in the history of Western civilization, you need to do a damned good job at it, or seem an arrogant fool. There was some foolish arrogance on display in this script. The scriptwriters needed to go after that quintessential truth more diligently, to dig deeper into human behavior in order to replace the myth with credible human actions and dialogue. That did happen occasionally, but I did not see it happening consistently throughout the film.
Oh, yeah, the look is impressive, the fights are great, but those things do not a fine cake create. They merely ice it. It is intrinsic humanity or its lack that determines whether a story is resonant.
While most of the cast couldn't seem to define that simple humanity, let me give a special nod to Peter O'Toole, a true screen giant who brought every plausible nuance and emotion to the role of King Priam. Of course, that realism may have been generated by the fact that the ancient O'Toole probably knew the original Priam.
The one scene between O'Toole and Pitt (despite its implausible set-up, as described above) makes the movie worth seeing. While the screenwriters couldn't come up with a credible explanation for Priam's appearance in the tent of Achilles, they did manage to make the emotions of the scene seem real once the dialogue began, with a big assist from the incandescent talent of Mr. O'Toole. Maybe the Academy will notice and will finally give the old guy the Oscar he deserves, instead of one of those honorary awards.
He has been nominated for seven Oscars, but has never won. (Update. Make it eight losses in eight tries after his 2007 nomination for Venus.)
He could have won for Lawrence of Arabia, and would have won in almost any year, but he went butt-up against one of the most beloved performances, if not THE most beloved, in film history - Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. At the time, people probably thought little of his loss, because it was obvious that the 30ish O'Toole would win many future Oscars.
He did not.
His last good chance was in 1983 when he delivered a brilliant, comical, emotional, highly theatrical performance in My Favorite Year, which can best be compared to Depp's performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. That time he had to go one-on-one against Ben Kingsley's truly remarkable evocation of Gandhi and, as inevitably happens, comedy sat at the kid's table while epic drama feasted with the adults.
So, you lords and ladies of the academy, you princes of Main Street, you kings of New York and Rodeo Drive, if you want to right an ancient wrong, you might think about handing the old geezer some hardware this year.
With the exception of O'Toole, however, this movie comes off as an old-fashioned sword-and-sandals epic.
There were about five minutes of the film that really generated some oohs-and-aahs from the audience (including me, in one battle scene involving giant fireballs rolled downhill), but most of it was just the same old familiar stuff, and I think some of the older people in the audience must have been thinking what I was thinking: "Didn't I already see this with Kirk Douglas or Victor Mature or somebody like that?"
One additional comment: if you need an actor of astounding physicality, Brad Pitt is your guy. He is not only buff, but his movements are so fast, so athletic, and so graceful, that it is actually possible to believe the battle scenes in which he defeated men twice his size. Pitt couldn't have done much with the dialogue, unless they let him re-write it, but he was mighty impressive when he wasn't speaking.
The DIRECTOR'S CUT
The new director's cut of Troy is a two-disc set with all the usual "making of" features and a version of the film which is some 30 minutes longer than the theatrical release. I believe the film is now better for several reasons:
I must also add that this film looks marvelous on DVD. I never saw the theatrical cut on DVD (since I saw the film in a theater, I passed on the DVD), so I can't specifically address the first DVD issued for this film, but this expanded version looks so much better than a projected rendering. I'm really starting to believe that the theatrical experience has no advantage except timeliness. In fact, to hell with theaters! If you want to see a film in its optimal rendering, you need a high definition DVD and a large high definition screen to play it on! I was so impressed by the look of this film, that I finally decided to break down and get a HDTV and a high-def DVD player, so I can watch it again in 1080p.
JK's comments in yellow:
Bow down all you reviewers, from sea to shining sea, to Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski). We have just witnessed what is easily the best review of Troy that has been written. Read them all, faithful readers, and you won’t find one review as comprehensive and as entertaining as Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)’s. Granted, the other reviewers have limited space and more reviews to write. But, if they could write reviews in more depth, would they? Listen to me. Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) could be writing for the L.A. Times, N.Y. Times or maybe the Austin – American Statesman if he pursued it. But I think he would rather write what he likes, in his own forum, and I think he has already told the others to go to hell.
Having said that, the following is incidental, but I have a few axes to grind.
Continuity. 1) As Scoop pointed out the duel between Achilles and Hector was well filmed and very physical. The two start out with spears and shields. Neither combatant shows a sign of other weapons. When the spears are broken, suddenly, magically, swords are drawn. The fighting continues without sign of the scabbards, which held the swords. I know the duel scene took days to film, but this detail is pretty obvious. 2) Achilles’ hair is shorter in one scene, longer in another, then shorter again. There are ways to prevent this error. For one, still pictures are taken so the look can be continued when the shooting begins once again. “Troy” was allotted enough money to afford this procedure.
Foley. It’s really hard to make a marching sound in sand. But Foley did it. I was in the Foley room at Warner Brothers a few years ago watching them make automobile tires screech on dirt. I asked them why they were making such a ridiculous sound and they replied, “Because that’s the way it’s done”. Similarly, in “Troy” we have the hard sounds of soft sandals in deep sand.
Arrows. This one deserves a category of its own. Any archer knows that an arrow is effective for only a few yards. A twenty pound bow is good for only a few feet, a thirty pound bow farther and so forth. Even the block and tackle bows of today have some limitation. Archers of yore were deployed at much closer range than shown in the movies. Yet the skinny little bows of “Troy” were deadly for a hundred yards or more. Further, if an archer were to lean back and let an arrow fly, its velocity would end at the apex of the arch of the arrow. It would then float to earth as gravity would dictate and its velocity would be far too weak to penetrate body armor or shield or slam three inches into anyone’s neck. We were presented with this same floating arrow phenomenon in the wonderful movies, “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” among many others. It’s a director’s ploy that probably will never fade. It is even doubtful that a gravity floating arrow would stick upright into the sand. Although, to preserve the impressive scene of the rolling fire balls in “Troy”, the flaming arrows could lie upon the sand and still ignite the rolling balls.
Pronunciation. All names in “Troy” were carefully pronounced the Greek way – except Perseus. Perseus was pronounced the Latin way. That’s annoying.
Some of the lines will be remembered. Helen says, “I’m not afraid of death. I fear tomorrow”. Or how about, “We fight bravely and we love fiercely.” The characters were human and they were intensely introspective, as they should be.
The movie is good. I enjoyed it. I didn’t mind the two and a half hours. Maybe because I hadn’t seen Achilles, Hector and the others party before. If you like the genre, you’ll like it too.
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