Troy is a film that doesn’t believe in itself. Director Wolfgang Petersen knocks the wind from his own sails by distancing the film from the customs and belief system of the Greeks. The main characters mock their own gods, the war they’re fighting, and the woman for whom they’re dying. It is fitting, then, that the likely fate of this film obsessed with the immortality of its characters is to be forgotten in short order.
Petersen’s attempt to modernize the oldest story of Western civilization ultimately strips it of its essence and leaves the audience with the impression that something is missing. That is: the filmmaker chose to deprive the Greeks of their gods. This avoids the campy pitfalls that earlier films like Clash of the Titans were subject to, but robs the story of its moral imagination. The sole value that remains is the one principle that Hollywood can appreciate–the quest for fame.
The gods are not only absent from Troy, they are the objects of ridicule. Hector mocks a Trojan seer for using “bird signs” to predict an easy victory over the Greeks. Achilles goes a step further, seducing the captured celibate priestess Briseis away from her faith and into his bed with the words, “Why do you choose to love a god? I’m sure you’ll find the romance one sided.” In this post-modern Troy, even priestesses don’t really worship the gods. Briseis quickly trades her vestal robes for some space in Brad Pitt’s bed.
And who could blame her? Brad Pitt is at his best with his clothes off and his mouth full. When he does speak, it is regrettable. The rest of the cast tries to make up for David Benioff’s flat dialogue by laying on thick English accents, but Brad Pitt is lucky to get his lines out at all. The ticks and gesticulations that worked in films like Twelve Monkeys, Seven, and Fight Club are distracting here. When he tries to encourage his troops to take the beach of Troy alone by saying, “Immortality, take it! It’s yours!” it’s hard to imagine anyone would have paid attention, let alone followed him out of the boat.
Petersen’s Troy brings the immortal epic down to the level of politics and self-interest. Without the gods, the warriors lack their superhuman strength. Ajax is a monosyllabic brute with little military skill, Agamemnon is an evil, greedy man using Helen as an excuse for a land grab, and Hector is a well-meaning sap who lives by rules that no one else can be bothered with. Patroclus looks like he’d be better suited to sing backup vocals on Hanson’s “MMMBop” than use a sword, and Achilles is a simian mess on an inexplicable anti-violence against women campaign. In the end, the beauty of Diane Kruger’s Helen of Troy does not pass audience approval because none of the warriors in the film think she is worth fighting for.
The plot of Troy undermines all displays of heroics. Hector, the one character permitted any attempts at heroism, tries to rally his troops at one point by saying, “All my life I have lived by a code: Honor the gods, love your woman, defend your country,” but his words ring hollow. The action of the film betrays the Greek moral code. It teaches us that there are no gods, that women are best when seduced away from their virginity or marriages, and, without piety or family, its patriotism amounts to nothing more than a brute chauvinism. If these were actual Greek ideals, the Trojan War would have been best forgotten as soon as it ended. Much like this film.
Meghan Keane is an editorial associate at National Review who also edits swamp-city.com, a news and gossip blog about Washington, D.C.