Inspired by Homer’s epic The Iliad, this $200 million film (if you add production and domestic marketing costs) kicks into gear when Paris, a pretty-boy Prince of Troy, falls for the Queen of Sparta and whisks Helen away from her dastardly husband, King Menelaus. This supreme insult sends Menelaus to rally the support of his evil brother Agamemnon, King of the Mycenaeans. Getting Helen back is a matter of pride for Menelaus (he plans to kill her once he gets her home). As for the greedy Agamemnon, he suddenly has an excuse to commission all of the Greek tribes to set sail for Troy and attack an enemy he’s had his eye on for a long time.
Conquering Troy would give Agamemnon a stranglehold on the Aegean Sea and expand his empire. But to do the job, he must get past Troy’s impenetrable walls with the help of Achilles, a mercenary killing machine who shows little loyalty to royalty. The other key player in this violent soap opera is Paris’ noble older brother, Hector. He’s a levelheaded fighter who understands politics, true leadership and is poised to assume the throne of his aging father, King Priam. Hector and Achilles are the film’s opposing alpha males, each with lots of primitive firepower behind them.
As heir to the Trojan throne, Hector is wise, brave and concerned for the welfare of his people. He’s a fighter and family man, and one of the few characters in the film we can root for without hesitation. He respects his father and sticks up for his brother, even when their mistakes put him in difficult situations. He lectures Paris on the topics of love and war. He also models leadership in his family, and honor in battle. He sportingly lets the Greeks “collect their dead” following a skirmish, even though they probably wouldn’t extend him the same courtesy.
Achilles intervenes on behalf of a girl about to be abused by thugs. Priam appeals to Achilles for the body of a fallen son (“Even enemies can show respect”), and receives mercy and a truce. To avoid full-scale war, Paris volunteers to face Menelaus mano a mano. He later shows courage and leadership when Troy’s defenses are compromised. Helen assures him she doesn’t want a military hero, but a man she can grow old with. Odysseus points out, “Sometimes you have to serve in order to lead.”
In a sense, certain characters’ flaws provide lessons as well. Lust and infidelity on the part of Paris and Helen throw nations into bloody conflict, costing countless lives. Agamemnon is vilified for being a greedy, power-hungry misogynist. And despite the bloodlust onscreen, an awful lot of down-time dialogue wags a finger at warmongers, stressing the futility and tragedy of military conflict. Although the script vastly oversimplifies its case against war, lines challenge ivory tower leaders driven solely by ego (“Imagine a king who fights his own battles,” “War is young men dying and old men talking,” “Don’t waste your life following some fool’s orders”).
Polytheism rules, with frequent references to “the gods” of Greek mythology (Apollo, Poseidon, Aries, etc.) and their divine will. If these ancients had embraced the God of Abraham instead of diverse mythological concoctions, some of their scripted credos would have been terrific, such as Hector’s pep talk to his troops: “I have always lived by a code. And the code is simple; honor the gods, love your woman and defend your country.”
The gods are said to favor Achilles, who is part human, part god himself. Even so, he puts little stock in religion, desecrating the temple of Apollo by cutting the head off a statue. He also claims that “the gods envy us” because only mortals can truly enjoy and appreciate life due to its impermanence. Priam is dedicated to worshiping and appealing to Apollo, and heeds the advice of a soothsayer. Hector wonders whether Apollo cares about their plight since the sun god did nothing when the temple was attacked. People put coins on the eyes of the dead—payment for the boatman who supposedly transports the deceased across the river Styx and into paradise. Agamemnon is inappropriately called the “King of Kings.”
Several shots include rear nudity. We meet Achilles as he lies naked with two women the morning after a sexual encounter. Later Briseis, a virginal female prisoner, sneaks up on him in the night and puts a knife to his throat, only to have him flip her on her back so that her violent passion becomes erotic passion (they kiss and sex is implied). Paris visits the married Queen Helen in her chamber where they continue what is said to be a series of forbidden trysts. She drops her dress for him (out of frame) and they kiss.
To goad the audience into siding with these sincere young adulterers, the filmmakers show Menelaus kissing and pawing servant girls at a royal feast. (He’s a heel, so Helen and Paris’ illicit rendezvous is supposed to be OK.) The king toasts his guests by saying, “May the gods keep the wolves in the hills and the women in our beds!” Agamemnon hands Briseis over to his soldiers so they can have their way with her. The married Hector accuses Paris—who reportedly beds many women—of knowing nothing about true love.
The body count is in the thousands. Most victims are skewered with spears, shot with arrows or run through with swords. King Menelaus accosts Helen’s servant girl, then threatens to kill the unfaithful queen when he recovers her. A man’s battered body gets dragged behind a chariot. Achilles buries his sword in a rival’s shoulder, and cuts a swath through enemy soldiers. Other fighters are set ablaze, impaled through the head, slashed in the face, bludgeoned, or seared with a branding iron. An angry Achilles steps on his comrade’s chest and grabs Briseis by the throat (later the buddy gets an apology, but not the woman). Soldiers have their throats slashed. A guy gets stabbed in the neck with a knife. Another is fatally shot in the heel. Bodies are burned on funeral pyres. While sacking Troy, the Greeks murder innocent civilians.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wine makes a few appearances, principally at a party.
Other Negative Elements
Achilles longs to live forever by making his name legendary. In his case by killing people for maximum PR appeal. It’s a selfish pursuit endorsed by his mother, who says the traditional path of raising a family won’t do nearly as much for his legacy as flaming out gloriously in battle. For some immature viewers, this will reinforce the modern mentality that garnering celebrity—by whatever means—is more important than living nobly and anonymously.
Because Achilles is played by Brad Pitt, the character may come across as more heroic than he should. He’s like a modern-day, prima donna athlete—a prideful, conscienceless free agent out for personal glory. He just wants his name in the record books. That would be no big deal if his selfishness proved to be his downfall. But this isn’t a cautionary tale. [Spoiler Warning] Rather, he is undone by finally developing love for a woman, and experiencing a bout of chivalry. Prevailing moral: You’ll live longer if you look out for number one.
Also, the audience is supposed to root for Paris (teen heartthrob Orlando Bloom) and Helen to find happiness together. King Menelaus may have been a rotten cad who had his miserable trophy bride wishing to drown herself daily, but that doesn’t justify adultery and kidnapping. Was Helen an unfaithful wife or a damsel in distress? The film prefers to think of her as the latter.
The last heavily hyped battle between Trojans and Spartans pitted USC against Michigan State in the 1988 Rose Bowl. (The Spartans won 20-17, no wooden horse required.) Much like that football game, Troy features muscle-bound warriors, cool helmets and a few trick plays. The big difference, of course, is the level of violence. Instead of chop blocks, rivals in this contest have limbs chopped off.
Director Wolfgang Petersen combines the close quarters, swords-and-sandals combat of Gladiator with the large-scale clashes that awed audiences in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It’s a brutal barrage that’s turned on and off throughout the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. During the lulls, Pitt and Bloom’s characters have sex with women they aren’t married to. And who’s behind it all? The gods. Thanks, Homer, but as much as I appreciated the moral fiber of that Hector fellow, we’re still better off watching a rerun of the 1988 Rose Bowl on ESPN Classic.