Friday, January 9, 2009

Troy (Warner Bros., 2004)

By Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to run the DVD of Troy which we’d just bought because goodness knows when we’ll again have the time to run a 162-minute movie — and it turned out to be surprisingly good, flawed in a few particulars (notably in two key changes screenwriter David Benioff made in the original legend — more on that later) but overall a well-written, well-staged riff on Homer’s Iliad and other mythological sources (though director Wolfgang Petersen decided to eliminate the internal politics of Mount Olympus and how the shifting allegiances of the gods affected the outcome of the human war — mainly because he didn’t think modern audiences would buy this, and he was probably right even though it sacrifices a lot of the nuance in the story).

It’s certainly a far, far better movie than Helen of Troy, the 1956 “take” on the Trojan legends (also from Warner Bros.), even though the filmmakers seemed to be going out of their way to avoid the parallels to modern-day events the 1956 film made inadvertently: the way the Trojan War is depicted, it shows how even armies in this low-tech era anticipated modern advances in the ways of making war: both sides use artillery barrages to accomplish the purpose now served by machine-gun fire (pinning down the enemy and blocking a frontal attack by making the death toll from one unsustainable), and at one point Achilles (Brad Pitt) orders his private army, the Myrmidons (to whom he gives a pep talk which Benioff makes sound like a modern-day Marine commander similarly proclaiming the superiority of his service to the rest of his country’s forces) form their shields around each other and make an impenetrable phalanx with only an eye-slit for Achilles to see through and guide them: the Trojan War version of a tank.

But the parallels between the Trojan war and the U.S. invasion of Iraq — which came through purely by accident in the 1956 film (especially in the characterization of Nestor, the Greeks’ wise old advisor, as a prototype of Colin Powell, reluctantly but loyally going along with a war he personally — and rightly — considered stupid) — were deliberately muted in a film that started shooting about when the actual invasion of Iraq began and was released (to good but not spectacular box office) in the year of Bush’s re-election, 2004. Despite some modern aspects — like the all-too-typical past-is-brown cinematography of Roger Pratt and Paul Bond and the clear use of computer-generated imagery (“Is this the face that launched a thousand digital ships?” Charles inevitably joked at the sight of the CGI Greek armada sailing towards Troy), Troy has the look and feel of a 1950’s big-budget spectacular, including dialogue and situations (like the anachronistic belly dancers that entertain the Greek court) that tread on the thin edge of camp but somehow don’t go over.

It’s also surprisingly well acted and reasonably complex in its dramaturgy; instead of the Greeks-good, Trojans-bad parable I had expected, the script attempts to be fair to both sides. Benioff does particularly well with the character of Achilles, who’s drawn not as an unambiguous hero but as a prancing prima donna and a bit of a psychopath — certainly a reasonable reading from the original legends — and Petersen’s direction manages to suggest the horror of war, especially in an era in which most combat was still being done one-on-one at close range, without drowning the screen in blood and gore.

Where the film was somewhat disappointing was in the two major changes Benioff made from his legendary sources. Early on in the war (though the film claims inspiration from the Iliad, it’s 63 minutes into its 162-minute running time before we get to the situation — Achilles pouting in his tent and refusing to fight because his ego has been bruised — with which Homer opens, and the film still has 39 minutes to go after Achilles kills Hector, the incident that ended the Iliad) Paris challenges Menelaus to a personal duel to settle the affair between them over Helen and her affections. The duel starts, Menelaus wounds Paris and Paris runs away, literally clinging to the leg of his brother Hector, thereby dishonoring not only himself but the entire Trojan side — and Hector approaches Menelaus and stabs him with a dagger, killing him. In the legends, Menelaus survives the war and returns to Sparta with Helen.

And though the film avoids the mistake of Helen of Troy — which conflated Achilles killing Hector and Paris killing Achilles into the same battle — Benioff falls into another mistake when he keeps Achilles alive at the end, actually has him as one of the Greeks inside the Trojan Horse, and Paris shoots him with arrows not only in the heel but in the torso as well during the final confrontation once the Greeks have actually got inside Troy and are torching the city. (I suspect Petersen’s staging here was inspired by the final scene of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.)

I also found myself resentful that virtually all the strong roles for women in the original tale have been eliminated — the only significant female roles are Helen (Diane Kruger — director Petersen had originally not wanted to show Helen on-screen at all, rightly thinking no flesh-and-blood actress could possibly live up to audiences’ expectations for the face that launched a thousand ships, but his producers insisted that he cast the role and show her), Hector’s wife Andromache (Saffron Burrows) and Briseis (Rose Byrne), the virgin in the temple of Apollo who’s kidnapped when the Greeks raid the temple and who ends up as Achilles’ mistress. Troy’s king, Priam (Peter O’Toole, returning to war in the Middle East 42 years after Lawrence of Arabia), is a powerfully etched character, but his queen, Hecuba, is merely a silent extra sitting on the throne next to his; and the Trojan princesses, including Cassandra, aren’t depicted as characters at all: it is Paris who gets to deliver Cassandra’s warning to burn the Trojan Horse rather than to let it inside the city walls. I was also predictably upset that the Greeks were completely de-Gayed; Achilles still has hissy-fits over being torn away from his sexual escapades to go fight, but his sexual escapades here are exclusively with women (in the opening scene he’s pulled out of a tent after a night-long debauchery with two female partners); and while he’s still upset over the death of Patroclus in battle, in this reading Patroclus is his cousin and military protégé and nothing more.

Nonetheless, Troy is superbly staged — the action scenes, though occasionally betraying their computer-generated origins (notably when Achilles throws his spear much faster than anyone could in normal physical reality), are beautifully staged and legitimately exciting, and the acting is mostly first-rate (except for Diane Kruger, who’s nice-looking enough but utterly fails to create any air of mystery or fascination around her character; and Saffron Burrows, who can’t help but whine when Hector warns her that he may die in the war). Brad Pitt gets a few too many movie-star closeups in which he stares straight at the camera and flashes his baby-blue eyes the way Paul Newman used to, but aside from that he’s utterly convincing as the conflicted Achilles.

Eric Bana is properly tough and noble as Hector — who you get the impression would be a far more congenial dinner companion than the roughnecked Achilles — and Orlando Bloom as Paris looks enough like Bana that it’s believable that they are brothers and, without going to the queeny extremes of Jack Sernas in the same role in Helen of Troy, suggests that he’s weaker and softer but not altogether without the macho virtues. (After his humiliation at the hands of Menelaus, Paris practices with a bow and arrow — one commentator on this film noted that in the warfare of this period, archers were considered the weak sisters of the fighting force precisely because they didn’t have to come into direct physical contact with the enemy to kill them — but that isn’t made clear in the script itself and instead it comes across as if Paris is seeking to redeem himself by studying a form of combat in which he can excel.)

Indeed, the casting director, Lucinda Syson, deserves credit not only for Bana and Bloom but also for Brendan Gleeson as Menelaus and Brian Cox as his brother, Agamemnon; finding actors physically believable as siblings is hard enough and for this film Syson had to do it at least twice — and the Greek brothers are suitably tough and hard-bitten to be fully into their roles. There are no outright bad performances here; the actors manage the tough task of actually projecting themselves into a past period, instead of looking like they stopped at the movie location on their way to a costume party the way 1950’s actors like Robert Taylor and Tony Curtis tended to when they made similar films.

If you know the original story, Troy will occasionally frustrate but will mostly move; if you’re a “newbie” to the Trojan war it’ll come across as a tight-knit action film that will hook your attention and possibly lead you to the library to brush up on your Homer — but I still think Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel The Firebrand (a gynocentric, Trojan-“spun” take on the story in which Cassandra is the central character) would have made an even better basis for a Trojan War movie than the one we got here, and peculiarly Troy is weakest precisely where Helen of Troy was strongest: where the earlier film had a sweeping, expansive musical score by Max Steiner that was by far the best thing about this movie, this one has a serviceable but uninspired score by James Horner that replaced one by Gabriel Yared which the “suits” at Warners rejected as too “old-fashioned” (because it sounded too much like Steiner’s? We may never know!). — 1/9/09

And for comparison’s sake, here are my comments on the 1956 film Helen of Troy:

I made the mistake of running Charles the 1956 film Helen of Troy, produced at Warners and directed by Robert Wise — who reportedly tested hundreds of beautiful young actresses in both the U.S. and Europe looking for the one to play the title character, on the theory that this would do for whoever was cast what the similarly competitive search for Scarlett O’Hara had done for Vivien Leigh. It didn’t; the actress they finally cast as Helen, Rossana Podesta (an Italian already under contract to the Lux film studio, whom they had to borrow her from and credit with supplying her), went on to a respectable but undistinguished career; while Brigitte Bardot, whom Wise tested for Helen but ultimately gave the lesser part of Cassandra, would shortly become a major international star. (Not that she’s all that good here; it’s true the writing staff didn’t give her much of a chance but she comes off as shrill and whiny, and she’s so unattractively costumed and made up she really doesn’t look all that beautiful; this film didn’t hurt her career but it probably didn’t help it any either.)

The big problem with Helen of Troy is the utterly silly script by John Twist and Hugh Gray (from an “adaptation” by Gray and N. Richard Nash, the latter a respectable writer with such credits as The Rainmaker and the Goldwyn film of Porgy and Bess), complete with some of the most risible dialogue any cast of actors has ever suffered through. The writers seemed to be motivated by a desire to show that it didn’t take Cecil B. DeMille to make a Cecil B. DeMille movie — just enough historical willfulness, enough of an urge to plunder legendary (and public-domain!) source material, enough utter indifference to the normal laws of human behavior and, of course, the requisite super-scale production with a cast of thousands (back in the days when one literally had to recruit a cast of thousands — you couldn’t do your anonymous hordes of extras digitally the way director Wolfgang Petersen and the others involved in the currently playing remake could) and enormous sets to give moviegoers the sheer visceral pleasure of bigness to take the place of intellectual integrity or emotional identification with the characters.

The actors don’t help; Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays King Priam, and the old British pro simply makes mincemeat out of the competition (the way George Sanders did as the Philistine king in de Mille’s Samson and Delilah and, according to the reviews I’ve seen, Peter O’Toole does as Priam in the current Troy) despite being saddled with a curled beard that makes him look like a lion in all the wrong ways. Podesta is decent-looking enough but she neither has the body, the face, nor the personality to make us believe hers was the face that launched a thousand ships (Marlowe’s famous line is naturally appropriated by Twist and Gray, and not surprisingly it’s by far the best bit of dialogue in the film!).

Her Paris, Jack Sernas, is a pretty-boy type who looks utterly ridiculous pretending to be a warrior — the script and his queeny performance combine to give us the distinct impression that he set out to seduce the Queen of Sparta just to convince his cousin Aeneas that he wasn’t Gay — though his prettiness and the sheer audacity of his miscasting (as well as the fact that he’s bare-chested in virtually all his scenes and I had a lot of fun looking at his smooth, hairless torso and nice nipples) combine to make a far greater impression (at least on this Gay male viewer) than his co-star. In this heavily pro-Trojan-spun version of the old tale (more on that later), Achilles is played by the great British actor Stanley Baker as a pissy prima donna with a thirst for glory and an egomania rivaling Donald Trump’s — nobody watching this film would be able to guess that 48 years later Brad Pitt would play this part in the remake, but on its own terms Baker’s Achilles is just fine except for the unspeakable dialogue he and everybody else in the cast is saddled with.

Indeed, all the Greeks are singularly unattractive — Niall MacGinniss as Menelaus looks like a Goodyear blimp stood on end (making it all too easy to understand why Helen jilts him for pretty little Paris), Robert Douglas as Agamemnon doesn’t look at all like Menelaus’s brother (any more than the fine character actor Harry Andrews as Hector looks like he’s any biological relation at all to Jack Sernas!) and doesn’t get enough help from the script to make much of an impression; likewise Torin Thatcher as Ulysses (the Roman version of Odysseus’s name is used here), though in the scene in which he suggests the Trojan-horse stratagem his years of experience playing oily villains stands him in good stead.

With a surprisingly no-name cast for a film produced with such splendiferous spectacle (Warners shot it at Cinecittá in Rome — also the home of MGM’s 1950’s spectacles Quo Vadis? and Ben-Hur) — and with Warners willing to license the rights to the CinemaScope trademark (though our print was panned-and-scanned except in the opening and closing credits) but not willing to spend the extra bucks for Technicolor (the cinematographer was Harry Stradling, widely acclaimed as a master of color, but not even he could get much out of the refractory “WarnerColor” — actually Eastmancolor — process), the real star of this film was composer Max Steiner. He actually contributed one of his best scores — quite worthy of comparison with the more highly-regarded Miklos Rosza’s scores for the MGM films mentioned above — whose epic sweep and (generally, except for one particularly jarring succession of cues) carefully managed transitions give the film far more dignity than the rancid script deserves. As I joked to Charles — thinking of Il Trovatore as I said it — this wasn’t the first time a great score dressed up a really stupid libretto!

The other noteworthy aspect of the film is the strongly pro-Trojan orientation of the storyline — this is not one of those histories written by the winners — indeed, to some extent the script of Helen of Troy, silly as it is, works surprisingly well as a metaphor for the Bush administration and its antics in Iraq. The Greeks openly and proudly declare their intention to launch a pre-emptive war against Troy; they reject Troy’s peace feelers (which is what Paris is doing in Sparta in the first place) out of hand; the moment they see a bit of the wreckage of Paris’s ship emblazoned with the Trojan royal eagle (which looks more like a Navajo blanket than anything else) they assume it’s the vanguard of a Trojan attack — they’re spooked about Trojan intentions because in this version of the tale they’ve already sacked Troy once before — and Nestor, the old wise man who tries to talk them out of the attack, gets treated like Colin Powell: ignored, shut out of the decision-making loop and ultimately persuaded to be a “good soldier” and sign on to a policy he knows will be disastrous.

That’s about the only good thing about Helen of Troy’s script, however; not only is the dialogue ridiculous but the film is so dramatically imbalanced that it’s almost half over before the Greek armada sets sail, and the action is so compressed that Achilles receives his fatal heel wound in the same battle in which he’s just killed Hector and is driving his chariot with Hector’s body tied to it in a circle in front of the Trojan walls. (Whatever the sequence of events may have been historically, there’s a reason the Greek and Roman chroniclers separated those events into two different battles.) Kudos belong to second-unit director Yakima Canutt and his cinematographers, Sid Hickox and Amerigo Gengarelli (it’s interesting to note the American first, British second and Italian third hierarchy in the way the jobs on this film were assigned), who did a lot of chariot chases that no doubt warmed them up for Ben-Hur (which also used Canutt as second-unit director) — indeed Canutt acquits himself better than the main director, Robert Wise, who does his best with the script he was saddled with and occasionally actually gets a slightly creative visual effect, though for the most part this film is just dully directed and it’s clear Wise was doing it for the paycheck and nothing else. — 6/15/04