Finally, an Iliad Movie!
I'm a Greek myth geek, so I was surprised when I realized no big Hollywood attempt had been made at dramatizing Homer's epic poem, The Iliad (I'm not sure if the 1956 movie Helen of Troy counts). Hercules movies, sure; Jason and the Argonauts, yeah; Medea, Orpheus, and some other tragedies also got adapted. And of course, we had the greatest of the cheesy Greek myth movies and my own favorite, Clash of the Titans. Now that I think about it, Greek mythology in general has been given the fringe treatment in the movie world. I wonder why. Those myths were great stories then, and they're still good now. They were the entertainment of their day, providing stories of drama, romance, and adventure. Homer himself may be considered the Western world's first known entertainer of large audiences -- I can imagine the excitement in gathering to hear him recite his epic poems.
Because they're epic, I understand they're also difficult to adapt to the movie format. Homer's The Odyssey, one of the greatest stories in the world, would be a major pain to make into a movie just because of its sheer scope -- it's been given a TV-miniseries treatment, and, I believe, not much else. The Iliad would be much less complicated, since most of its length is padded by endless descriptions of this person (son of that person) slaying that person (son of this other person). The major events, however, are distinct, and to screenwriter David Benioff's credit, he was able to take those parts and thread them together to form a well-paced, sensible narrative. Director Wolfgang Petersen then brought in blustery acting, big battle sequences, and lots of "sweeping epic" shots, and there you have it -- Troy, a mainstream film depiction of The Iliad, at last.
Well, maybe not quite. Troy depicts a tale about the whole Trojan War, but events of Homer's classic are only a subset of that war. The film condenses the war to a period of what seems like less than a month (as opposed to years in the original tale), and moves past the ending of the poem to the well-known trick involving the Trojan Horse, a natural move considering it concludes the war. The movie also leaves out a major part of Homer's story -- the gods. They interfere quite a bit with this war among the humans in the poem, but are only referred to as unseen deities in the movie. This gives it a more historic, perhaps realistic, feel, which is perfectly understandable but also, for a mythology fan like me, lamentable. Yes, it does make the movie more serious, but probably also less fun, and definitely less like The Iliad.
Just the same, and despite my concern over a couple of liberties included that I didn't particularly care for, this version of the story is pretty good, so I'll take it. Troy heartily embraces its aesthetic, which is highly reminiscent of Gladiator. It happily splits the time between the story's two tragic heroes, the Greek Achilles (Brad Pitt) and the Trojan Hector (Eric Bana). Achilles is portrayed as a weary soul trapped inside the body of a great warrior, driven to continue fighting because it's what he's so good at doing. Hector is shown as upstanding and humane, a man whose incredible skills emerge when he needs to defend his country.
Achilles and Hector are surrounded by kings, captains, soldiers, and wives; and all of them get to chew on portentous dialogue that seems par for the course in a big, ancient war movie such as this. For the men in the audience, chaotic battle scenes and one-on-one combat is offered; for the women, hunks Pitt, Bana, and Orlando Bloom (as the naive Trojan Paris) walk around without shirts, and sometimes less. There's something for everybody.
Most worthy of note, though, is how this enactment of a war fought over thousands of years ago draws parallels to modern-day conflicts. Almost everyone knows the story of why the Greeks waged war on the Trojans -- Paris stole away the beautiful Helen (played here by Diane Kruger), wife of the Spartan King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), thus setting off an angry crusade. But Troy makes it very clear that this war was to happen no matter what, for the Greek king of kings, Agamemnon (Brian Cox), sought to conquer all of the land in the name of his own power. His brother, Menelaus, only provided him the handy excuse. No one in the film seems unaware of the fact that wars are often waged on some kind of pretext that masks less reputable intentions, but they fight on anyway, resigned to the belief that such matters are out of the hands of all but a few who hold power. Odysseus (Sean Bean) utters a line akin to, "War is when young men die while old men talk," and the movie carries that attitude throughout.
Small wonder, then, that the gods don't come down to shield their heroes or fight alongside the soldiers. Troy seems to have a lot to say about war itself, along with the motivations for it -- glory, greed, patriotism, love (or maybe "lust" is a better word), and, yes, religion, which needs to be seen as a human concept in order to share the blame for sending men to slaughter. Along the way, the film pays less attention to its overall dramatic arc -- Hector starts off as a fully-developed character and, thus, doesn't change, while Achilles' development feels uneven, his moments of maturation given forth in isolated spurts. The narrative itself lives from moment to moment, almost forsaking a unified picture; perhaps, with so much to cover, this couldn't be helped. In a way, I can't help admiring this attempt at turning the Trojan War behemoth into a movie that can hold itself together with confidence. It wouldn't have been easy no matter how it was tackled.
Still, though, I would've liked a little touch of Zeus, complete with Lawrence Olivier theatricality. Maybe next time?
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for graphic violence and some sexuality/nudity.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.