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[Beliefnet, May 13, 2004]

What’s the difference between "Troy" and a sword-and-sandal epic of forty-plus years ago? Stumped me, too. Superficially, there’s a lot in common: swords, sandals, sand, buxom ladies, pompous declamation ("Your glory walks hand in hand with your doom"), and faux-hearty earthiness ("May the gods keep the wolves in the hills and the women in our beds!," an invocation you hope you don’t accidentally get backwards.) In terms of the grand feeling "Troy" hopes to evoke, it could be "Ben Hur" or "Spartacus."

It differs chiefly in being merely more: more explicit sex, more explicit violence, more CGI extras cloning on the fringes of the scene. There are a lot of leading roles in this Grecian formula, and most of them follow in the earnest footsteps of those who’ve gone before. Brian Cox plays King Agamemnon (Greece) broad and loud, while Peter O’Toole is delicate and sad-eyed as King Priam (Troy); put them together and you don’t quite have Peter Ustinov as Nero, but it’s still satisfying.

When the film ventures an updated, as in more naturalistic, approach, it improves on the genre. Eric Bana portrays Prince Hector (Troy) with an appropriately troubled brow, and his wife Andromache, played by Saffron Burrows, is the most genuine figure on the screen. In fact, she draws the eye more than Diane Kruger does as Helen (both Greece and Troy-she switched sides). Director Wolfgang Petersen wanted an unknown to play Helen, and Kruger was the winner of a battle that launched 2000 faces. Yet her shell-like face is pointy, small, and hard, with narrow eyes. She’s not expressive, and the script gives her little to express. Burrows makes Andromache’s fears for her husband and love for her baby so palpable that she’s the more interesting one to watch when both women are on screen. I wondered if they covered Burrows with freckles on purpose, just to tone her down.

But when the film tries to update the genre in terms of sexing up the leading man it loses its drive. Achilles (Greece) is a great, complex character, at once a bully, a foolish braggart, and a man of honor. The part needs an actor who has some dark tones, and Brad Pitt, who seems to be a real nice guy, just doesn’t have them. His famously bulked up physique, his full pink lips contras ting with a perfectly even tan, his cute upturned nose, and his straggly sun-bleached hair combine to spell out one thing: surfer. In the emotionally wracking scene that sees Priam come to Achilles by night to ask a heartbreaking favor, Pitt looks simply dumbfounded. (O’Toole, a true master, is all over the scene like butter on a hot crumpet.) A movie about the siege of Troy that lacks both a strong Achilles and a strong Helen just can’t get very far.

But where is it trying to go? Classically, this has been understood as a great tragic love story; Helen left her husband King Menelaus (also Greece, and I hope you’re keeping a scorecard here) for young Prince Paris of Troy (Hector’s little brother is portrayed by Orlando Bloom, conveying all the complexity of a sheet of typing paper). This runaway romance triggered a war and a ten-year siege that ended with a lot of very fine people dead.

But David Benioff’s script dispenses with love. "You think Agamemnon cares about his brother’s marriage?," Hector tells Paris, who has been worrying about a Greek attempt to take Helen home. "This is about power, not love." Helen is Agamenmon’s excuse to attack Troy. It’s only magnificent deeds of courage and conquest that allow us to live forever. Achilles’ mother, Thetis (Julie Christie), reminds her son that if he stays home he will marry and have children, but will eventually be forgotten; the only path to immortality is heroism in war. "Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity," and the thought of dying and dropping below its waves has them downright spooked.

All this fear of living an ordinary life; all this fear that when the light goes out, you do too. Celebrity is salvation to a culture that has lost belief in God. And the gods are literally knocked down in "Troy," and we are firmly instructed that they have no power to rise and defend their priests and temples. If there is no God, no hope for life after death, then all you can do is aim for fame. "They’ll be talking about this for a thousand years," Achilles says. We in the audience do our part, sitting in the dark talking about Eric Bana and Brad Pitt, keeping the wheel of celebrity spinning. Is that really all there is?

The empty joke of it all is, of course, that if Achilles turned to powder three thousand years ago, he’s hardly around to savor being talked about today. All this admiring remembrance is going to the dead letter office. But if he could have heard the lady behind me he would have at least been gratified to know that his story can still astonish. As the wooden sides popped off the giant wooden horse and Greek soldiers began creeping out into the streets of sleeping Troy, she let out a yelp: "O my God!" Of all the sorts of buzz Warner Brothers hoped to hear about this film, this must be the one they least expected: "It’s got a great surprise ending!"

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