When it’s on: Sunday, 4 January (9.00 pm)
First there was Gladiator, then came The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and suddenly it was fashionable to make big budget epic films once again. Not an unhappy development for this writer, who grew up loving the likes of El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, with their lengthy running times, lavish sets, gorgeous locations and casts of thousands. There had always been ‘epic’ films that drew on stories from the past for their inspiration, though their heyday was in the 1950s, when the impact of the HUAC blacklistings and the attempt to drag viewers from their TV screens and back into theatres led to movies built on spectacle and featuring strong, moral heroes. When these films started to fail at the box office, though, so their demise hastened, the massive investment in them becoming a considerable risk as their budgets had the potential to ruin entire studios. It was only with Gladiator that the possibilities CGI of replacing the millions spent on extras, set designs and costumes were realised. Instead of building large-scale recreations of the Roman forum, you now had the capacity to generate them from a computer. Vast numbers of extras, which found their ultimate expression in the employment of the Soviet Union army dressed in Napoleonic era uniforms for the ruinous Waterloo, could now be rendered digitally.
The success of Ridley Scott’s Roman flick, both critically and in ticket sales, ensured further forays into the past, and Troy, made for a considerable $175 million by Wolfgang Petersen. In the grand epic tradition, Troy assembled a cast of big names, followed a sweeping narrative based on the events of the Trojan War (and is very loosely derived from Homer’s The Iliad) and put thousands of computer generated combatants in the field against each other. The film did well enough at the box office to be considered a sound commercial success, despite its violent content ensuring a ’15’ rating in the UK; critically it faced something of a battering. Naysayers highlighted its lack of faith to Homer, the excising of the impact of the Greek Gods on what happens, its dodgy acting, its absence of dramatic weight, the suggestion that it was, in reality, a showcase for stars like Brad Pitt.
The story opens with the Trojan princes, Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom), in Sparta to negotiate a peace treaty with King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). Returning home, Hector discovers that his younger brother has spirited away Menelaus’s young wife, Helen (Diane Kruger), which is the lever for full-scale war between Troy and the Greek city states, united under Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Of course, Menelaus’s anger is just the trigger as far as the power mad Agamemnon is concerned; he just wants an excuse, any excuse, to invade, and sure enough the thousand ships are soon launched across the Aegean. The wildcard for Greece is Achilles (Pitt), its greatest warrior but a brooding and insolent presence, wanting little to do with his leader’s megalomania but unable to resist the chance for glory in battle. Also in the Greek ranks is Odysseus (Sean Bean), Achilles’s sole ally amongst the leadership and carrying a reputation for coming up with cunning plans. The Trojans, in the meantime, prepare for a war they know is surely coming. Their king, Priam (Peter O’Toole), balances the grounded advice offered by Hector against the more bombastic predictions of the Gods, as mouthed by his priests. Soon after, the Greeks are at the walls, but the superior Trojan defences and Achilles’s unwillingness to be drawn into battle and possibly turn the tide in Agamemnon’s favour ensures the struggle will become a long, bloody and drawn out affair…
Though the film features many figures from history, and gives most just enough screen time to lend them the sort of one-dimensional characterisation that makes them unmemorable and lacking in any depth (Agamemnon is GREEDY, Paris is VAIN, etc), there’s sufficient exploration of Achilles to hint at someone with divided loyalties and gaps in his search for happiness. Pitt does all right with the material. A handsome man with enough charisma to head the cast, Pitt suggests a tormented Achilles, long since tired of his killing machine abilities and capable of finding peace when he falls in love with priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne). That said, the film is unable to convince us that Pitt is anything other than Brad Pitt playing a part. It does better with Eric Bana, who brings real presence to the screen as the noble Hector and whose tortured countenance gives the impression that he knows Troy’s number is most likely up, especially when arguing for a moderate approach to the Greek attacks that are met with resistance by a divinity-obsessed Priam.
Troy marked the beginning of Orlando Bloom’s decline as a potential leading man. I’ve always thought the accusations that he can’t act to be unfair, though it’s certain he lacks the sort of command needed to breathe life into such a pivotal character as Paris. Diane Kruger was better known as a model before appearing in this film and is obviously ravishing, though it’s hard to imagine her looks alone being sufficient to elicit one of the most heralded conflicts in history. As for Peter O’Toole, he gets one of the best scenes in the film when he appears in Achilles’s tent to beg for the return of his son’s body. Suddenly, the one-note characterisation falls away and Priam is exposed as a desolate and imploring father. A shame there isn’t more room for this kind of human drama.
But there isn’t, and that’s the overall problem with Troy. There’s a sense that the characters are pieces on a chessboard; in The Iliad that’s pretty much what they were, moved at the whims of the Gods, but here they serve the needs of the plot and you’re never sure who to cheer for, or indeed for whom you should care. Both sides have their heroes and villains. Pitt turns Achilles into such an anti-hero that it’s difficult to be fully engaged in either his struggle or romantic sub-plot. Bloom fails completely to fill the vacuum left by Bana’s Hector. Titanic armies clash, but often the results are inconclusive enough to remove any heft; all those people who die for nothing, though obviously they aren’t really people at all, just sprites created in some CGI laboratory. One tussle ends abruptly with the unfortunate death of a minor character; really, that would happen? Besides which, I’ve always struggled with battles that open with two enormous massed armies charging at each other from the off, when even a tiny knowledge of military tactics would lead to awareness that they didn’t happen like this at all.
Overall, Troy is a film that just happens, simply retreading the plot with obvious characters who perform exactly as you’d expect. There’s a director’s cut available that I haven’t seen, which apparently adds enough to flesh out the characters and bring the film to life, and this is something I witnessed for myself in the extended version of Kingdom of Heaven. Theatrically it was all a bit thin, curious for a film that told such a dramatically weighty story and contained so many important characters. It’s entirely meaningless, and it should have been anything but that.