How do I prefer Troy to Braveheart? Let me count the ways.
It’s easy for historical films to think they need to relay some deep meaning or reflection that has an impact on modern life. They need to focus on high-minded ideals. Thus The Patriot and Braveheart both became statements about freedom (which always goes down well in the States) and, coincidentally, dramas about uppity rebels defeating the conniving, oppressive English.
Troy, on the surface, follows the same pattern. It goes heavy on a message similar to that of Gladiator: “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.” That sounds worryingly pretentious, but what it translates to on-screen is Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon and the others each trying to carve out a name for himself in the annals of history. Early in the film, a young boy tells Achilles that Boagrius, his opponent, is the largest man he has ever seen, and that he (the boy) would not want to have to fight him. “That is why no-one will remember your name,” replies Achilles, perfectly summarizing his character in one exchange, and the premise of the film.
Why are the characters motivated? So they are remembered. Time and again, heroism is linked to the retelling of one’s actions once one is dead. What the notion of “heroes doing heroic stuff for the sake of being remembered” really means is that Troy is great fun: copious battles and sex, pitched at just the right level that it feels indulgent but not gratuitous.
As a side note, the reason Troy has no real need to relate to the present is that it is set far enough in the past (some 3,200 years) that no-one could be offended by the pantomimish characters who populate it (neither Greeks nor, erm, Trojans, the nearest descendants of whom would be Turkish by geography but Roman according to legend, in which Aeneas, ancestor of Romulus and Remus, escapes the sack of the city).
It’s based on a legend, so the ridiculous liberties it takes don’t really matter, whilst if, say, Braveheart takes dumb historical liberties, it feels like a slap in the face of any intelligent viewer. Achilles single-handedly captured the beachhead from the defending Trojan army? Well, he’s been dipped in the Styx, so of course he did. The same argument can’t really apply to William Wallace, who is, after all, human.
If Braveheart is supposed to be an underdog story, but then deploys every establishment Hollywood cliché (often stereotypical and offensive) to try to make the film work, it undermines itself. Meanwhile, Troy never pretends to try to be anything at all, other than an epic. It’s definitely not an underdog story. The Greeks are stronger and cleverer than the Trojans; they win. Those with honour (Hector, Priam) die, and the cowardly and the shrewd (Paris the former, Odysseus the latter) survive. And there’s no history for it to betray, just a flexible story handed down and developed over thousands of years.
Troy revels in the leeway the mythology allows it. It’s hammy but fun; it’s well cast, from Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson in terribly believable roles as the violence-loving Greek kings to Orlando Bloom as the arsehole pretty-boy Paris, who runs away from honour (and survives both of them). It’s simple, and good entertainment.
I find this far more endearing than the gloomy, if striking, 300, which has far more artistic merit. Likewise, at the other end of the sword-and-sandals spectrum, it’s a little better made than Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which is just straight-up terrible. Troy is not pornographic, just titillating. It might objectify women, but it sure as hell objectifies men too, if not more, making the most of young Brad Pitt before he became, I dunno, Dad Pitt? Nor is the film gratuitously violent in the way Spartacus is. And enough care has been taken to make the costumes and locations and so on look suitably “ancient” that we can buy into its world in a way that that TV series could never bring us to.
This goes hand-in-hand with making it accessible. The film is nowhere near as poetic as Homer’s poem, obviously. The opening lines of the Iliad go like this:
Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
Meanwhile, in a dramatic scene on the boat back from Sparta, Eric Bana’s Hector shouts at Orlando Bloom’s Paris:
“You say you’re willing to die for love, but you know nothing about dying, and you know nothing about love!”
It’s cheesy. It’s great. And Troy has loads of sex and battles and stuff, so who really cares if the script is silly, anyway? The same logic goes for the generic “ethnic” music that is overused to make certain moments—usually deaths of named characters—seem somehow profound. You’d expect no less. Even when hints of Aussie accents slip out in conversations between Bana and Bloom (who, along with Rose Byrne, make up a sizeable contingent of the cast sourced Down Under), the flaw can be forgiven. After all, maybe that was how Trojans sounded.
It’s perfectly likely that Wolfgang Petersen intended Troy to go down as a classic, a great epic along the lines of Ben Hur or Spartacus (the Kirk Douglas one, not the Starz one), and to build on the success of the similarly sun-drenched Mediterranean blood-fest of Gladiator four years before. But on watching Troy, I can’t but help take it as unbridled early-00s light entertainment taken to the max, enjoying itself. Is that a problem? Probably. Maybe I just like it because I was in Rome last night. Doesn’t really matter. The end proves the means don’t need to come into it.
If all films were like Troy, I would despair. But it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It’s an epic, and I can think of relatively few exceptions that trump it in this context—Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan are far more emotionally resonant, and hell, even Kingdom of Heaven and The Last Samurai are arguably better. But Troy is fun, and doesn’t preach anything other than it practises. When it comes to Hollywood, that’s an underrated quality in a film.