Near Homer



reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, June 7, 2004


The lavish, and deserved, success of 2000's "Gladiator" set off an almost comical frenzy among Hollywood's he-man stars and directors to mount stupendous productions honoring the pagan heroes with whom they most closely identify. Back in the 1930s, studios would have hustled out numerous knock-offs of Ridley Scott's sword-and-sandal hit within a year, but in today's entrepreneurial industry, the pace of dealmaking is ponderous and the chance of a particular project making it all the way to your local multiplex is shaky. 

For example, veteran director Michael Mann ("Ali") tried to launch movies about a couple of guys he feels he can relate to: Julius Caesar and King Leonidas of Sparta, hero of Thermopylae. But in Hollywood, after all is said and done, more is said than done, so don't expect to see either any time soon. 

Similarly, Denzel Washington was attached to an Afrocentrist life of Hannibal (not the Cannibal, but the elephant-bestriding Carthaginian general). Vin Diesel's more ethnically correct Hannibal, though, now looks likelier to get off the ground. 

At one point, Oliver Stone, Mel Gibson, Martin Scorsese, and, improbably enough, Baz Luhrmann of "Moulin Rouge" were all vying to make Alexander the Great movies. The only right and fitting solution would have been for each to lead his cast of thousands into a four-way mass melee upon an agreed-upon battlefield, with the last auteur standing getting to make his conqueror epic while the losers lick their wounds. Disappointingly, a humdrum race to organize financing and logistics instead ensued, with Stone the apparent winner. 

Yet, the laurel for being the first to wrap a "Gladiator" facsimile goes to Wolfgang Petersen, director of "Das Boot" and "The Perfect Storm." His seriously barbaric "Troy," starring Brad Pitt as the wrathful Achilles, turns out to be worth the 48 month wait. 

Just as Achilles is destined to fight Hector, prince of Troy, Pitt's looks and talent have always seemed to foreordain that he'll challenge Tom Cruise, prince of blockbusters, for leading man supremacy. Although Pitt resembles a younger Robert Redford, he seems to lack the necessary Legend in His Own Mind gene. Notorious as an underachiever who sells more magazines than movie tickets, Pitt has favored quirky roles better suited to Steve Buscemi. 

Yet, by starring in this super-colossal $185 million extravaganza as fabled Achilles, a hero driven solely by his lust for eternal fame, Pitt finally has submitted to his fate. Of course, Achilles is such an antihero that Pitt isn't fully sacrificing his indie-cred. (The 40-year-old's insanely ripped abs and ferociously masculine persona make me wonder whether he turned to hormonal help.) 

The film works best for semi-educated folks like me who know the characters of Homer's Iliad, but had forgotten the finer points of his plot. Homeric aficionados will sniff that young screenwriter David Benioff cut the meddlesome Olympian gods while expanding the plot beyond Homer's tight focus to include such traditional crowd-pleasers as the launching of the thousand ships and the delivering of the Trojan Horse. 

Even more heretically, Benioff makes up new scenes. For instance, Homer violated Screenwriting 101 by killing off his star before the boffo finale, so Benioff send Achilles with the commandos inside the Trojan Horse. 

The gay crowd will moan that Achilles' pal Patroclus has been turned into a chaste cousin, but ancient Greek bisexuality was so radically unlike modern American homosexuality that gays shouldn't have proprietary rights over Achilles' depiction. 

I fear that Petersen, a 63-year-old German, may too generously estimate the classical learning of America's movie-going lumpen-youth. For example, the wily but likeable tactician played by Sean Bean is introduced only as "the King of Ithaca." A less trusting soul would have explained to the teen audience that he's Odysseus. ("The one who got, like, his own spin-off sequel, you know?") 

Moreover, "Troy," like Homer, refuses to tell them for whom to root. The minding-their-own-business Trojans are nicer, but the belligerent Greeks are winners. 

Still, the youth market may find the Bronze Age warriors comprehensible since their prickly, pre-chivalric trash-talking ethos prefigures that of post-chivalric African-American athletes like the petulant hoops prodigy Allen Iverson and rappers like the murdered Tupac Shakur. Achilles sulking in his tent because King Agamemnon insulted his honor by taking his spoils-of-war sweetheart Briseis is surprisingly like Kobe Bryant moping on the court because Shaquille O'Neal dissed him by demanding the basketball. Rated a moderate R for graphic violence and some sexuality/nudity.

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