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War Time

Vachel Lindsay, the poet who was for a time the film critic of The New Republic, published a book in 1915 called The Art of the Moving Picture, a pioneer work in the field. In one of its many comprehensions, he said: "The supreme photoplay will give us things that have been but half expressed in all other mediums allied to it." I thought of Lindsay while I was watching Troy, the latest in a very long line of films made to give us those things that other mediums could not provide. Was Troy made primarily for the account of Paris's seduction of Helen or Achilles sulking in his tent or Priam's pride in his sons? They are all in the picture, of course, along with other stories, but they are like the patches of dialogue in a musical. The real purpose of the musical is the material that surrounds the dialogue: Troy was made for the spectacle that surrounds its stories.

That spectacle is almost entirely about armies and navies and immense battles and magnificent duels and the nobility of warriors. What this emphasis implies, quite markedly, is that several years ago the makers of this film--a very expensive one--were convinced that the world was ready for a celebration of war: war not merely as a subject but as an achievement. Obviously this is a return to classic themes. Much of the world's great drama and fiction celebrates these themes. (When the traveling players arrive at Elsinore, the sample of their work that they give Hamlet is about the Greek conquest of Troy. After Hamlet's death, Fortinbras commands that the prince who is so generally considered a poet-philosopher be regarded otherwise: "Let four captains/Bear Hamlet, like a soldier to the stage.... The soldiers' music, and the rites of war/Speak loudly for him.") Nonetheless, the decision to make Troy was, I'd say, less an urge toward classicism than a conviction that war--war presented as the optimum occupation of mankind--would sell.

The film opens with the seduction of Helen, wife of the Greek king Menelaus, by Paris, prince of Troy. Then comes the pursuit of Paris and Helen by Greeks and then the Trojan War. David Benioff, a novelist, based his screenplay on The Iliad, though he managed to compress the ten-year siege of Troy into twelve days or so. He gathers up bits of the epic as he moves along but is schizoid about the two most famous metaphors in the tale: Achilles's heel is skimped, while the Trojan horse, impressively designed by Nigel Phelps, serves its ominous purpose very well.

The director was Wolfgang Petersen, German-born, probably best known for Das Boot, about a German submarine in World War II, and In the Line of Fire, with Clint Eastwood as a presidential guard. Little in Petersen's past work promised the sweep that propels Troy: his film heaves, rolls on and up, and crashes like a giant breaker. He has also done his best--not always aided by Benioff's dialogue--to lift his characters to the classical without making them remote.

The one utter failure in this regard is Diane Kruger as Helen, marvelously lovely. They might as well have used a mannequin in the role. The only near-risible moments in the film come when Petersen inserts, into the battle scenes of the war being fought over Helen, quick close-ups of her oh-so-troubled face. The most venturesome casting was of Brad Pitt as Achilles. Although Pitt is asked to pose a good deal in statuesque splendor, he really strives to give the role stature. Despite the flowing film-star golden locks, he performs with thought and fire. The depth of his acting is at least equal to the depth of the writing. (At the end Achilles proclaims that his death doesn't matter: his name will be immortal. Doubtless he would be glad to know that he and many other characters in this story are in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.)

Troy itself is made all the more remarkable because every woman prominent in the film is gorgeous. What a city that must have been. Among the men, notable performances come from Brian Cox as Menelaus, solid and heroic yet sly, and Peter O'Toole as Priam. It is unavoidably sad even to praise O'Toole in the role--not just because he is aging or because he has a secondary role with a few good scenes, but because he was the protagonist of the most intelligent film epic ever made. Lawrence of Arabia (another celebration of war) brought us an actor who showed every promise of true greatness; but great talent, as with John Barrymore and Richard Burton, isn't always matched by great strength of character. And here is O'Toole, adequate, not great.

Lawrence is an epic film that one can see again, as I have done several times, because all its elements--spectacle, acting, writing--are in balance. That balance certainly isn't in Troy. Admittedly, Petersen's film is in some ways better than expected, in its basic reasons for existence. Call them the Lindsay reasons. The thousand ships that Helen's face launched, the flowing armies advancing toward each other on immense fields, realize the magnitude that is the film's signet. And they are what we are there for. Digital effects have, I suppose, helped the film's scope: digitalization apparently relates to spectacle-makers as silicone does to strippers. But Petersen maneuvers his cataclysms with all the aplomb of Zeus.

His film made me remember the history of the struggle for mobility and size in the nineteenth-century theater. A book called Stage to Screen by A. Nicholas Vardac recounts the devices and strategies that were contrived then to overcome the physical limitations of theater production. Whenever I look at Vardac's book, I seem to hear audiences of the period crying out for film to be invented before they even knew that it existed. How happy those audiences would have been to see Troy. Physical limitations are gone. If we like, we can go to films simply to be stunned by the limitless. Yes, to tick the obvious, the theater's unique powers are at least as strong as they have ever been, and the mere gluttonous heaping of spectacle onto film is at best boring, at worst disgusting. But when a spectacular film rests on at least a minimal armature of character and cogent action, as Troy does, we can just sink back and enjoy. What we enjoy is the sovereignty over time and place and the force of gravity that film has given to the world.

This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.