Before watching the movie:
What is this movie? Pointing a money canon at the screen. Probably billions of dollars to tell one of the oldest stories we have written down. Big battles, bigger stars, almost three hours of runtime for them to compete for like cinematic gladiators. Pretty and exciting and violent and maybe it even resembles the source material, but at least it’s Epic. That’s the impression I’ve always had of this movie as a former Latin student.
After watching the movie:
The city-states of the Aegean are at constant war, and Agamemnon of Mycenae intends to build an empire by conquering them, despite owing every battle to Achilles and his leadership of the Myrmidons. Meanwhile, as Trojan crown prince Hector has just finished negotiating a peace with Menelaus of Sparta, Hector’s brother Paris, infamous ladies’ man, took up an affair with Menelaus’s wife Helen. When Hector and his Trojans set sail for home, Helen leaves with them to stay with Paris. Seething from the insult, Menelaus goes to his brother Agamemnon to ask him to bring all the Greek armies together to take Helen back from Troy so he can kill her himself, which Agamemnon readily agrees to as the perfect excuse to add Troy to his collection of subjugated kingdoms. As the Greeks lay siege to Troy, Hector tries to find the diplomatic solutions that lead to the least harm done to his country and his people, but still accepts that Helen is a Trojan princess now. Meanwhile Hector’s father King Priam insists that everything is in the will of the gods and nothing can be done to change whatever fate is in store for them. While most of the Greeks loyally fight for Agamemnon, Achilles fights more for his own personal glory, and loathes being in service to a king that hides behind his troops.
I feel like 2004 is really late for a movie about Ancient Greece that’s been cast from a Who’s Who in British Acting with some pretty Americans thrown in for domestic appeal. While it was still too early for anyone to have considered it, I’d be much more interested in an all-Mediterranean production where people speak with actual Greek accents instead of pretending Ancient Greece was a Royal Shakespeare Company show. There’s at least one scene that takes place in a stone ruin, and while I guess that those were not unheard of in those times, it seems more like it was included because “Ancient Greece means broken columns scattered around the hillside, right?”
While this movie credits that it is “based on The Illiad“, Troy is sympathetic and they include an Aeneas cameo, so it feels more heavily influenced by the Aneid. The Illiad was written by Greeks to illustrate Greek glory, while the Aneid was written by a Roman to concoct a Trojan pedigree for Rome and therefore Troy was the nobler kingdom and Greece only won because they cheated. Greece is clearly the aggressor in the wrong here, and while Paris is also in the wrong, the rest of Troy is just caught cleaning up his mistakes. Paris isn’t even all that wrong because the first thing we learn about Menelaus is he ignores his wife to play with prettier, younger women right in front of her.
The main exception to the Greeks being the villains is the bad boy antihero Achilles, who only wants his own personal glory while chafing under his kingdom’s obligation to serve at the call of Menelaus. And yet despite his personal motivations he’s also shown to be one of the most honorable Greeks through his protection of Briseis, a captured priestess who happens to be Hector’s cousin. From the quick research I did, it sounds like they cleaned up the relationship a bit to make Achilles more noble, but I was surprised she was in the original material at all since the main thing I knew about Achilles’ personal relationships going in is that a lot of people enthusiastically read Patroclus as Achilles’ one true love and for all I knew, Briseis was created to give him a safe heterosexual love interest while playing Patroclus as his surrogate son.
While the last people who deserve a happy ending are the final couple, there’s a strong sense that the best ending isn’t to live happily ever after, but to get a prominent death. All the people we care most about get a classically tragic and noble death. All the people we like least get an exciting death at a hero’s hand. Paris and Helen just survive by hiding in the city until they escape while everyone else goes out and dies for them, and I guess they have to spend the rest of their lives with that knowledge.
There’s a ton of story in the fight sequences and for once I can actually follow what’s happening really well, and I can’t just tune out until the music dies down and I look up to see what the outcome of all the punching is. This is somewhat rare for modern action movies, and the prevailing theory is that a generation of cinematographers grew up on pan and scanned video making it impossible to read the fight scenes and decided that shaking the camera and cutting too quickly to get any useful information is how to make things exciting. But I think more than that, in this case the Illiad details a lot of events that happened in battle, so they actually had story beats to include in the sequence instead of just scripting “a fight scene happens and it’s the choreographer’s job to fill the next five minutes”.
This is one of the most engaging action movies I’ve watched in a while, especially considering the runtime and how much of it is action sequences. This is a throwback to the gigantic productions of the classics from the golden age of cinema, and while I’m pretty tired of cinematic epics casting white people with British accents and togas as Greeks and Romans (or proto-Romans here), they sure do make it almost worth the 2 hours, 40+ minutes.