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Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

Mess with the gods at your own risk.

That would appear to be the lesson of ``Troy,'' Warner Bros.' $200 million big-screen version of the Trojan War legend. Perhaps it wasn't a bad idea to take the supernatural elements out of Western literature's oldest poem, Homer's eighth-century B.C. ``Iliad,'' and other accounts of a 10-year siege that might have occurred circa 1,200 B.C. But maybe Zeus, Aphrodite and the gang weren't thrilled with that idea.

``Troy'' suffered tragic setbacks: record Mediterranean heat while filming last summer on Malta, more high temperatures (and two ruinous hurricanes) when Iraq War fallout forced a location switch from Morocco to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; the death of one cast member; and the ironic (or was it?) injury of Achilles-player Brad Pitt's Achilles tendon, which forced a three-month postponement of the Greek super-warrior's showdown with his Trojan opposite Hector (``The Hulk's'' Eric Bana).

Now that the massive endeavor is finally ready for theaters, ``Troy'' faces the wrath of self-appointed lesser deities: film critics who have generally been lukewarm to the pricey epic - and academics who may have issues with the liberties director Wolfgang Petersen (``Das Boot,'' ``The Perfect Storm'') and screenwriter David Benioff (``The 25th Hour''), have taken with a cornerstone of Greco-European culture.

``It was part of the original pitch,'' explains Benioff. ``I said from the beginning that I wanted to cut the gods out and make it about the entire Trojan War. The first scene in 'The Iliad,' the rage of Achilles, happens on Page 82 or something of the script. And the final scene, the meeting between Priam and Achilles, is maybe Page 123 of a 144-page screenplay. 'The Iliad' is really just a third of the movie.''

When a man loves a woman

The story began a decade before Homer's epic starts. The basics are pretty common knowledge. Pretty young Trojan prince Paris (``Lord of the Rings' '' Orlando Bloom in the movie) seduces the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen (German model Diane Kruger), and brings her back to his walled city. This does not sit well with her husband, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) of Sparta. He gets his brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox), who's already conquered most of Greece, to launch a 1,000-ship task force across the Aegean to bring Helen back.

Achilles, who hates Agamemnon, fights for his own glory. Paris' big brother Hector correctly thinks that this is all a stupid mess but fights valiantly in defense of his kin and subjects. Ten years of indecisive fighting later, the Greeks pretend to depart, leaving a big wooden horse on the beach. That part was mentioned in passing in Homer's sequel ``The Odyssey,'' but wasn't really explored until some 700 years later, when the Roman poet Virgil wrote ``The Aeneid.''

Anyway, we all know what happened next. Except in the movie version, the absence of the gods isn't the only alteration to the collective mythos. For starters, Achilles is no invincible semi-deity with a weak heel.

``I never thought of it in those terms,'' says Pitt. ``We never played any kind of immortality in the story. Achilles was just very skilled at what he does.''

And that required enough superhuman effort from the 40-year-old actor, who even gave up smoking to look the (often near nude) part.

Bulked-up Brad

``It was a lot of hard work and impending midlife crisis, I think, as a great motivator,'' Pitt says. ``To play the ultimate warrior, my trainer said, 'You've got to take it to a place of discomfort every day.' So every day became about a couple of hours in the gym, taking it to that point of absolute discomfort. And I tell you, it sucked for about three months. But once I pushed through that, I started to enjoy it, actually.''

One of the critical javelins that's been hurled at the movie is that it relies too heavily on the buff male bodies of Pitt, Bana, Bloom and others. But director Petersen claims that he was working a classical aesthetic with that.

``My intention was, from the very beginning, to pay respect and homage to what the Greek legends are all about,'' says the 63-year-old filmmaker, who studied ``The Iliad'' in Greek as a schoolboy in his native Germany. ``It's not only about spirit and great stories and legendary characters; the whole of Greek mythology has very much to do with physical attractiveness.''

With a dash of up-to-date, sexually correct politics.

``And I thought, it's always the woman's body that's exploited in movies; why don't we do it the other way around a bit?'' adds Petersen. ``We had a little bit more with Helen in first cuts, but I edited that down a bit. It was more like going with the beauty of the guys.''

Which had its advantages for the poor girl who had to portray literature's greatest beauty.

``It certainly made me very popular amongst my girlfriends,'' Kruger reports. ``They all came to visit.''

Still, ``Yeah, obviously, it was a little intimidating,'' says the 27-year-old actress, whom Petersen claims not to have known was one of his countrywomen when he picked her audition tape out of thousands submitted. ``But also because, apart from what she stands for physically, to me it was a very challenging part as well. It's very emotional, she's very vulnerable, and I did not have a lot of experience. Before this, I had only done four small films.''

Far from Homer

As Kruger indicates, ``Troy's'' Helen is a more sympathetic figure than ``The Iliad's.'' So, for all the Warners executives' fears that he came off too cocky, is the film's Achilles. This is one of 1,000 reasons why one academic feels ``Troy'' misses the boat.

``He is a jerk,'' Richard P. Martin, the chair of classics at Stanford University, says of the Pitt portrayal. ``And Achilles is a homicidal maniac in 'The Iliad,' but he's much more interesting. He's a poet, his speeches get you into his soul. By comparison, Pitt is kind of grunting and smirking. It was a great lost opportunity.''

Far from the only one, in the respected Homerist's estimation. But one of the few points Martin is somewhat forgiving about is the gods-excising ploy.

``It's such a big, tricky issue,'' Martin acknowledged. ``In defense of the filmmakers, unless you have really innovative, ingenious ways to make the gods come on screen, it's going to look hokey and ruin things.

``On the other hand, in defense of Homer, the reason that so many people do things in the poem is because there is what scholars call double motivation, a divine motivation overlaying human motivation. The reason why Achilles doesn't kill Agamemnon in shot one is because Athena tells him to wait awhile for a better chance. That, in a weird way, is more realistic, because humans do irrational things.''

All Greeks, no gods

Benioff, of course, has his rationalizations.

``I just pitched it without the gods, partly because I felt like we couldn't possibly have time to do justice to the human characters as well as the gods,'' the screenwriter admits. ``But it was also partly out of fear. If even Laurence Olivier can't do Zeus without making it seem cheesy, who the hell can do it now? I really had this dread of seeing an actor in a toga throwing CGI thunderbolts.''

Anyone who's seen the 1981 howler ``Clash of the Titans'' knows what Benioff is talking about. But enough about gods. Anyone conversant with the classical canon will be scratching their heads at the premature ends some Greek dudes meet in ``Troy,'' at Troy, when traditionally they went back home to have whole other plays written about them.

``I think it's fun!'' Benioff says of messing with numerous outcomes. ``It makes it more surprising for the classicists. Honestly, my feeling was that there's nothing I'm going to write that's gonna hurt Homer. Homer's come this far, Homer's gonna survive Hollywood.''

Once again, Martin does not disapprove. Too much.

``I don't believe in respecting myth at all,'' the professor says. ``Myth survives precisely because it is manhandled, that people get hold of it and they turn it to their own purposes. If they do change it, however, they should make use of the one supreme Greek virtue, which is intelligence. They should do it to make it more emotional, more effective, more about mortality. And they just screwed up on that score.''

Like it happened ... today

Whether you feel that way or not, the one almost supernaturally powerful thing about ``Troy'' is how its 2,800-year-old story bears contemporary resonance. It's evident in the aftermath of the Achilles-Hector confrontation, despite the much-tamer-than-Homer manner in which Petersen presents it.

``I think it's constantly relevant,'' Benioff says. ``When those images came on our television screens of the contractors being dragged through the streets of Fallujah, there was talk about cutting that scene from 'Troy.' Luckily, we didn't, because it's one of the important, iconic images from the story. But people were saying how eerie it is.''

``I sort of went through this with 'Black Hawk Down' as well,'' adds Australian actor Bana. ``It's very, very normal when you have a movie that depicts war that people correlate it to where we're at at that particular time. Back then, it was kind of like 9-11, and now it's what's going on in Iraq.

``In a way, it's kind of naive because there's never been a period of time in our history when someone isn't at war,'' Bana reckons. ``So these themes are always relatable to someone in some country. Of course, it's completely alignable to current events. But there's very little factual correlation; it's more just the way of the world, unfortunately. No wonder 'The Iliad' has lasted so long. It's very relatable to politics and ego and power-hungry people and bloodthirst and love - just everything.''

Including, we could also say, the absence of God or gods, no matter how often wars are fought in their names.

``I said this earlier when I made 'Das Boot': Any film that tries to deal with war in a realistic way is, by the nature of the thing, an antiwar film,'' says Petersen, who is old enough to remember the destruction of World War II. ``It's just horrible what happens, it's a tragedy. It's just what it is.''

However differently they present it, even Hollywood and the Greeks could agree on that.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670



3 photos


(1 -- cover -- color) Brad pumps up, Homer gets a makeover for `TROY'

(2) A horse is a horse, except when it's the warrior-filled Trojan Horse, as depicted in ``Troy.''

(3) Brad Pitt, left, who plays Achilles, listens to director Wolfgang Petersen on the set of ``Troy,'' a movie beset by more than a few disasters during production.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 14, 2004

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