I believe there is not a greater act of the creative imagination than Homer's story of the end of the Trojan War, as he tells it in the Iliad and the Odyssey. They are somehow a distillation of all we know of life and human will and love, both a summation and a prediction. Everything is motivated by the gods; every act of theirs, every clash of wills on Olympus resounds on earth in the acts of the humans, as one or another of the combatants and their lovers and their families fight, love, suffer and die. The two tales are perhaps the greatest creation myth ever devised; the great tragedies of the later Athenian playwrights are wrought out of the terrible acts of those who fought at Troy.
The genius of the Iliad is that it tells only of a tiny moment in the war, as it comes near to the end; but in the telling of that moment we see a universe of meaning. And yet historically, oddly enough, we aren't even sure there was a war, or just one, or, if there was a war, that it happened in anything like Homer's telling of the tale. But it doesn't matter, of course, because we have been given a gift of art that speaks as strongly today as it did to the Athenians twenty-five hundred years ago.
Wolfgang Peterson's new film "Troy" is not the Iliad, of course. For one thing there are no gods in it, so the resonances and implications of their fights and maneuverings are lost; the film is the story of earthbound humans, who may call on the gods but are not necessarily heard. It is the story of the great warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt), called to fight for a man he despises, King Agamemnon (Brian Cox), who himself takes the occasion of agreeing to restore his brother Menelaus's wife Helen (Diane Kruger) to him (Brendan Gleeson) as the chance to outfit an armada and capture Troy for his own empire. Does Kruger have the face that launched a thousand (Greek) ships? Sorry, but no. She just looks sweet. (And maybe this is the place to point out that most of these Eastern Mediterranean combatants have the sky-blue eyes of the north; blue eyes have always seemed more visually interesting to the movies than brown.)
"Troy" is also the story of the Trojan hero Hector (Eric Bana), older son of King Priam (Peter O'Toole) and brother to Paris (Orlando Bloom), who has stolen Helen from Menelaus and now wants Hector to fight his battle for him. As we know, he will meet Achilles in the final duel - the last one before the film switches from the Iliad to the Odyssey and presents us with, yes, the Trojan Horse. Some rushed connections are made near the end: Paris hands the sword of Troy to a young man. "What's your name?" he asks. "Aeneus," is the answer. "Take this sword, Aeneus, and go find a new home for your people." Umm, okay. (Scholarly note: There is a death in the film that, if Aeschylus had known about it, would have changed the course of Greek history, or at least Greek drama.)
Screenwriter David Benioff ("25 Hours") has done reasonably well to locate the words and create the texture that keep the film from degenerating into parody. Though his people do not have the depth or resonance of great art they are competently drawn and at least believable. Director Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot," "Air Force One," "The Perfect Storm") does a good job of staging massed battles of thousands, as well as any number of individual grapplings, and his more intimate scenes are also well done. His flotilla of computer-generated ships, though, plow through the sea at about fifteen knots - not likely, given that they're powered by oarsmen.
However, no one is embarrassed by the film. Pitt's deep voice helps overcome his surfer-boy looks, and Australian Eric Bana, freed from playing the Hulk, shows an inner calm and maturity that makes him closer to the truly tragic figure of the Iliad; he is the best thing in the film. Brian Cox as Agamemnon, hair extensions flapping as he rages against Achilles, makes a very powerful villain. Poor Peter O'Toole, though, as Priam, shuffles through the film with only the memory of that great voice to hold us. (I was mesmerized by the fact that he does not blink, which I'll guess is the old actor's trick. I wouldn't put it past him.) Among the women, Rose Byrne as Briseis, Hector's cousin and a priestess to Apollo who becomes Achilles' consort, is excellent.
So you must not go expecting the Iliad, but you will not be disappointed. This is a very creditable job.