Re-watching Troy

by | Aug 29, 2022

The 2004 movie “Troy” is currently on Netflix, and I started re-watching it three or four nights ago, just a bit at a time. I remembered enjoying it when it came out, but my impressions of movies often change. How would it hold up?

Remarkably well.

But this as much a comment on the criticism “Troy” received as it is about the film. Because thanks to the magic of Rotten Tomatoes and the Internet, you can go back and read what people have had to say about it.

Suffice it to say, lots of critics disliked it. And that’s fine. We’re free to like and dislike things.

But two things stood out as I read those reviews after re-watching the movie. No. 1: A lot of movie criticism is a lazy, facile and pointlessly bitchy; and No. 2, if you’re criticizing a film for lacking fidelity to “The Iliad,” you and I need to have a long talk about why you’re reviewing movies for a living in the first place.

At some point in my undergraduate career, I took a class where we read and studied The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid, too. And I also have the benefit of Wikipedia for quick reference — back in 2004, it was mostly just a good idea, and not yet the world’s greatest encyclopedia.

But I digress. There is no written history of the Trojan War. We can’t be entirely certain that it even took place, much less where it took place (theories have changed over time). If it took place where we think it took place, the current thinking is that the conflict would have taken place at least 300 years before “Homer” wrote about it.

And who was Homer? We’re really not sure about that, either. The “Homeric Question” was a big deal among scholars when I was in college, and apparently it’s progressed since then. The consensus now appears to be that The Iliad and The Odyssey are not the work of the same poet. And so on.

But shouldn’t we respect the source material? Well… maybe? But if you’ve taken a class on this stuff, you’re probably aware of just how confusing Classical Lit can be. Again, I don’t want to beat this death: Figures like Helen of Troy and Achilles and Agamemnon and Hector may be based on actual historical figures, but they come to us via writers working with centuries of oral tradition, and even those ancient Greeks don’t agree on the particulars.

And the story of the Trojan Horse? Not actually written by Homer.

Anyway: The reviews.

“The battle of Troy takes the jump from history books to film with little consideration, disregarding the story’s historical accuracy and failing to entertain audiences with the kind of flashy battle sequences the summer season demands.”

“Wooden horse, wooden acting, wouldn’t bother if I were you.”

“A numbingly reliable tick-tock of expository set pieces alternating with vast CGI-aided battle scenes.”

“Troy condenses Homer’s ten-year war into a couple of months.”

“Troy is an empty and dispiriting game, a contest of steroid-ingesting brutes who have made themselves gods in their own minds.”

And so on.

I don’t think it’s worth reviewing most books and films and TV series. But I love to talk about work that get me thinking about something. I love stories — in any medium — that seem to be interested in ideas.

When I first saw it, “Troy” struck me as being interested in the gap between the way we think in the 21st century and the way Bronze Age Greeks saw themselves in the world they inhabited. And I still think that holds up. They don’t act the way we would, because they don’t think the way we do.

What struck me on this re-watch was that long before the term “toxic masculinity” entered our phrase book, “Troy” was basically a two-hour meditation on the topic, particularly when Brad Pitt is on screen. The Greeks believed in fate in the capricious/tragic sense, and in immortality in the Heroic sense — that the one who gets talked about the longest wins. And Pitt’s job is to explore the emotional consequences of living within those constraints.

By our modern sensibilities, Achilles is a monster. Which is why I think Pitt’s Achilles is kind of astounding: He’s every bit the asshole portrayed by Homer, but he plays him both ferocious and inward, as if something about the disconnect between what he’s learned and what he wants is making him just a bit … twitchy.

Which is why the scene where King Priam (Peter O’Toole) confronts Achilles is so uncomfortably, awkwardly emotional. It’s why Pitt’s Achilles private emotional breakdown over Hector’s corpse feels so visceral.

And as to the claim that the movie suffers from “wooden acting?” In addition to Pitt’s layered and arresting take on Achilles, “Troy” features an ensemble cast with memorable supporting performances by Brian Cox, Brendan Gleason and Sean Bean, among other. And O’Toole plays Priam in a truly weird way. I don’t know if it’s good or bad — but he’s not just reading lines.

Could this movie be better? Absolutely… but that’s another thing about viewing works in the context of their time. Two-hour movies are a big ask for an audience in 2022. They were on their way out of fashion in 2004. But Lawrence of Arabia, the film classic that made O’Toole’s career, clocked in at almost four hours.

I’d probably tighten a few things up if I were re-editing Troy, but that’s me in 2022, rushing on to the next thing even though I’ve got nothing better to do.

But if you watched this movie and saw nothing but action and missed the ideas… well, maybe you’ll see them on a re-watch. But if you skipped it before because some puffed-up poseur suggested it was “historically inaccurate,” and “missed the entire point of The Iliad,” let me disabuse you of that notion.

The characters in the Classical tales of the Trojan War, written down across centuries, may or may not have been historical figures at some point. But we receive them through our culture not as facts, but as archetypes and ideas.

They’re ours to play with. Have fun.