3.5 out of 5 stars

How do you adapt a story that is 2,700 years old for a modern-day epic motion picture? For one of the most widely read and well-known stories in human history, Homer’s The Iliad has rarely been adapted for the big screen. Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) directed Helen of Troy (1956), told from the perspective of the “face that launched a thousand ships.”

There were also a few Italian films from their sword-and-sandal genre that took a look at the final years of the Trojan War: The Trojan Horse (1961) and The Fury of Achilles (1962). Perhaps the task is too daunting: adapting a tale told mainly orally, with long passages on family lineage and divine intervention. How can you get modern audiences to identify with larger-than-life characters in a savage world? German director Wolfgang Petersen set out to make a film that could bridge the gap between the ancient and modern world. The film was Troy.

Best known for his World War II U-boat film, Das Boot (1981), Wolfgang Petersen was a seasoned filmmaker by the turn of the 21st-century. He had directed critically and commercially successful Hollywood hits with In the Line of Fire (1993), Air Force One (1997), and The Perfect Storm (2000). After missing out on directing the Academy Award-winning historical epic Gladiator (2000), Petersen turned his attention to an even earlier period of human history: the Trojan War. This 10-year war of heroes and gods, passed down from the Greeks, still has historians debating whether it was a real war or a mere myth. Regardless of the war’s truth, Homer’s epic poem remains, and it formed the basis for Petersen’s film.

Troy follows Achilles (Brad Pitt) as he leads the Greek warriors into battle against King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) of Greece. When Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) abducts Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), and takes her to Troy with his brother Hector (Eric Bana) by his side, Agamemnon unites the Aegian kingdoms under his banner and declares war on Troy.

Joining the main cast of Troy are Sean Bean as Odysseus, Rose Byrne as Briseis, Paris’ and Hector’s cousin, Garrett Hedlund as Patroclus, Julian Glover as Triopas, James Cosmo as Glaucus, Saffron Burrows as Andromache, and Peter O’Toole as Priam, father to Paris and Hector. Boasting a cast such as this is impressive but also restrictive. O’Toole’s inclusion is remarkable, and unsurprising given his filmography. Bean is excellent but isn’t given enough screen time.

I truly hoped a different filmmaker like Petersen would come along to bring Homer’s “The Odyssey” to life with Bean as Odysseus, especially after his powerful performance as Ned Stark in Game of Thrones (2011-19), which granted him significant star power. Bloom is solid, even given such an unlikeable character with little room for development; perhaps he was cast because of his prior experience with archery in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03). Byrne stands out in one of her breakout roles. And Kruger, who would go on to become a bigger star in films like National Treasure (2004) and Inglourious Basterds (2009), is excellent in her debut film role, a near-impossible task considering she’s meant to portray the most beautiful woman in all of history. Bana delivers the best performance effortlessly, showcasing both strength and tenderness in his portrayal of Hector. While Hector isn’t the film’s protagonist, he’s certainly the most likeable character and the one audiences root for, thanks in large part to Bana’s performance.

Of course, the greenlight for Troy wouldn’t have been possible without an A-lister. Brad Pitt brings his godlike physique to Achilles, embodying the character in a way that makes him seem like the coolest and strongest warrior in the world. Even off the battlefield, Pitt portrays doubt, anger, and empathy effectively on his face. While his vocal performance as the famed fighter isn’t the strongest, his physical acting in this film is fantastic.

Bana and Pitt bring such star power to Troy that the film’s greatest achievement is arguably their famous duel. While not the climactic moment, their duel is the shining light of the movie. The choreography on display is immaculate, and the actors’ performances elevate this scene above any other in the script. On-screen, we see two characters, the greatest warriors in their respective armies, go toe-to-toe in an emotionally charged clash. The scene wouldn’t work without every member of the cast and crew bringing their A-game. James Horner’s toned-down score, the barren landscape of their arena, and Achilles’ short breaths in the first battle where he breaks a sweat—every little decision culminates in this grand scene. What makes the scene even stronger is that Pitt and Bana performed their own stunts, so the camera isn’t trying to hide any stunt doubles; the emotions are laid bare. The pair even made a gentleman’s agreement to pay each other for every accidental blow (Pitt owed Bana $750 while Bana owed nothing).

Yet, for all of this scene’s grandeur, there is no other scene that comes close to its power. This weakness lies in Troy’s biggest fault which is the screenplay. Written by David Benioff, co-creator of Game of ThronesTroy is barely passable as an adaptation. I consider Benioff a good adapter of books; just look at 3 Body Problem or most of Game of Thrones. And it’s very visible why decisions were made to depart from Homer’s source material. Troy is a grounded epic, without reliance on divine beings or brutal warfare. Perhaps audiences in 2004 wouldn’t react keenly to the more fantastical and horrifying elements of the story. This is also not to mention the highly debated homosexual relationships in the Iliad, namely between Achilles and Patroclus. Big Hollywood studios would not touch that 20 years ago.

Instead, Benioff shifts the focus away from the countless characters in the decade-long war. He highlights Achilles’ story and attempts to tell the tale of a glory-seeking warrior confronted with tenderness and mercy, exploring the conflicts this arouses. Unfortunately, Troy remains too sprawling. Despite a nearly three-hour runtime, there are too many characters and too little time to develop relationships or create emotional stakes that resonate with us.

In departing from The Iliad, Troy becomes lost in a purgatory between a human story and an epic. It feels like the studio wanted to emulate the success of the grand epics then flourishing in Hollywood. Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator had both won ‘Best Picture’ at the Academy Awards, prompting Hollywood to invest heavily in big-budget historical films. However, that period also saw some less successful historical epics, like King Arthur (2004) and Alexander (2004). Large budgets and impressive scale weren’t enough to sustain these films. A focused, character-driven script mattered far more.

Three years after Troy premiered, Peterson released the Director’s Cut. While the new film, with nearly 30 minutes of additional footage, does allow more room for the extensive cast of characters to develop and have more screen time, it doesn’t do enough to create greater emotional engagement or raise the stakes in the film. Instead, much of that running time is devoted to additional brutality and barbarity.

The Director’s Cut is now much more difficult to find on physical and digital media, despite some fans singing its praises over the original cut. In my opinion, the theatrical cut is the superior version of Troy, with a more focused narrative and tighter fight scenes. However, the most striking element missing from the Director’s Cut is James Horner’s score.

When the film received poor reactions at test screenings, Gabriel Yared’s music was cut, and James Horner was brought in to compose a replacement score in just four weeks. He utilised the previously recorded vocals from Macedonian singer Tanja Carovska and supplemented them with Mediterranean musical styles, including distinctive percussion, clarinets, and sweeping brass, to create the final score. What he achieved in that short time is remarkable because Troy’s score is one of the film’s greatest successes. The blaring horns add so much emotional depth to the war scenes, making them seem grander by assaulting our senses beyond sight. Horner’s score feels so integral to the film that it’s echoed in his music for Avatar (2009). Why his score and the beautiful vocals were cut in the Director’s Cut is a mystery. Perhaps most egregious is the replacement of the low-key bongo percussion during Hector and Achilles’ duel with Danny Elfman’s score for Planet of the Apes (2001) for no apparent reason. For the musical achievement alone, I champion the strengths of the theatrical cut.

Troy’s success rests heavily on its strong technical aspects. It received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for ‘Best Achievement in Costume Design’. The creation of distinct battle garments for each side, alongside the extravagant styles of the upper classes, helps to draw us into the ancient period. The hairstyling team did a fantastic job creating unique styles for the actors, ones they’ll likely never wear again.

The cinematography is stunning. Shot by Roger Pratt, the film looks epic in every frame. The grand scale of this epic is on display throughout. The battle scenes are the greatest showcase of this. While Troy doesn’t boast the greatest action sequences ever assembled, the combination of rapid cuts and the physical movements of the actors on screen creates an awe-inspiring sense of scale in the battles. Filming battle scenes is an art form, one that seems to be increasingly lost in modern blockbusters, which rely heavily on VFX to pit graphics against each other. The immense scale of hundreds of actors on screen is a difficult feat to pull off, and Troy does it well. Credit must go to the choreography, editing, and cinematography for creating battle scenes that have us on the edge of our seats. Troy may not be the definitive war epic, but it is a shining example of the kind of scale Hollywood can bring to the big-budget blockbuster.

20 years later, the same time that Odysseus spent away from his home, Ithaca, Troy remains a star-studded, impressive epic of 21st-century cinema. For all of its faults in the adaptation and underdeveloped characters, the massive scale of the war scenes, beautiful score, and duel choreography are modern marvels. I wish more studios would take risks on films like Troy. Trusting filmmakers like Petersen, who sadly passed in 2022, to deliver well-made, grounded epics might not lead to cinema-changing events. But summer blockbusters that transport us to places unseen and take our breath away with gorgeous size is what makes it beautiful about the medium.

USA • MALTA • UK | 2004 | 163 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Wolfgang Petersen.
writer: David Benioff (based on ‘Iliad’ by Homer & ‘Poshomerica’ by Quintus Smyrnaeus).
starring: Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Diane Kruger, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Brendan Gleeson & Peter O’Toole.