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A Troy story

Times Staff Writer

When director Wolfgang Petersen finished his last movie, “A Perfect Storm,” he next considered making “Batman vs. Superman,” only to see that sequel of sorts fall apart. Petersen still ended up telling a tale of dueling superheroes. It’s called “Troy.”

Based on “The Iliad” and its 2,700-year-old chronicle of jealousy, pride, cowardice, sacrifice and war, the $170-million “Troy” is both the ultimate summer movie and one of the season’s trickiest storytelling challenges.

Yes, it features three strikingly hunky male actors (Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana) in various states of sweaty undress, there are extravagant and bloody battle scenes, you can gaze upon the face (and glimpse the body) that launched a thousand ships, and, to cap it all off, here comes the Trojan horse.

Yet the film, which opens Friday, also must wrestle with the death of its most appealing protagonist and an array of characters who scarcely fit into the Hollywood template of good and evil. All this for a target audience whose first thought upon hearing the name Homer is likely to be “The Simpsons.”

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But if Homer’s “The Odyssey” can be retrofitted into “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Gladiator” can win the best picture Oscar, who’s to say “The Iliad” can’t be remade as a modern blockbuster?

“From the very beginning, that for me was what was fascinating, and that’s what also adds a very modern element to it,” says Petersen, who as a 15-year-old in his native Germany read “The Iliad” in its original Greek. “The characters are flawed. They are complex. They don’t follow old Western movie terms. They are more close to reality of what people are all about, even if they are these larger-than-life characters. Achilles is an extremely modern guy.”

Unlike Sue Grafton novels, Xbox video games and almost every big-budget Hollywood movie, Homer didn’t specialize in easy, black-and-white narrative delineations. Equally knotty is that his two central heroes -- Achilles (Pitt) and Hector (Bana) -- ultimately must fight each other, and a friendly tie is not among the possible results. Chances are a whole lot of “Troy’s” audience will be crushed by the outcome.

“We have been trained as a moviegoing audience that when we go to see an epic, you’re going to be rooting for the heroes and whatever their quest is,” says David Benioff, the “25th Hour” novelist who adapted the “Troy” screenplay. “This is a very different story.”

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In a number of ways, it’s also a different story than “The Iliad.”

Zeus doesn’t cast thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus, and Aphrodite doesn’t rescue Paris (Bloom) from certain death. Gone too are Homer’s lengthy monologues and any of his Achilles-Patroclus homoerotic themes: Don’t expect “Queer Eye for the Spartan Guy.” Material not included in “The Iliad,” including the famous wooden horse and the fall of Troy, was added to round out the legend.

Even though Benioff and Petersen stripped away the poem’s ever-present gods, fate still showed its hand during the film’s making. With the onset of the Iraq war, the production relocated from Morocco to Baja California at a cost of $25 million, and a stunt performer died soon after breaking his leg during a beach landing sequence in Malta.

Leading men intrigued

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“We think Achilles may be a little too cocky.”

When Benioff received that early script note from Warner Bros., he had a simple response. “Of course he’s cocky. It’s Achilles!” Benioff told the studio. “But it’s like the great Reggie Jackson line: It ain’t bragging if you can back it up. And Achilles certainly does.”

Benioff is both exceedingly well read (he’s a graduate of the UC Irvine creative writing program) and now among Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriters. His per-script fee exceeds $1 million, although his asking price when he sold “Troy” in his first-ever pitch meeting with a studio executive was just $150,000.

Soon after his screenplay was messengered around town a little more than two years ago, “Troy” attracted interest from an array of leading men. “Everybody had read it,” Petersen says. “I had so many actors, a lot of them quite prominent.”

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Petersen says his first choice to play Achilles was Pitt, who at the time was planning on starring in “The Fountain” with “Pi” director Darren Aronofsky. Pitt, who hasn’t had this prominent a film role since “Ocean’s Eleven” three years ago, left “The Fountain,” spent a lot of time in the gym, and picked up his “Troy” armor. When Petersen was toying with “Batman vs. Superman,” the filmmaker briefly met with “The Hulk’s” Bana, whom he liked so much he cast him in “Troy.”

As easy at it might have been to cast the film, it was more complicated to translate the sprawling, 15,693-line epic poem into an understandable 2 1/2-hour movie. The names of some of the film’s characters might be familiar, but the traits of Hector, Achilles, Paris (Bloom) and Agamemnon (Brian Cox) can be as complicated as Andromache (Saffron Burrows) might be unpronounceable.

“Troy” is mostly faithful to that blurry design, even if the filmmakers redacted several of Homer’s more problematic scenes.

As often as not in both Homer and the film, people make decisions for selfish, rather than noble, reasons. The great warrior Achilles is as interested in memorializing himself as he is in fighting for his country. Paris is motivated by beauty, not bravery. Rather than being great leaders, kings prove to be petty and vain.

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“I really enjoyed Hector’s predicament,” Bana says. “Clearly he’s brave and noble, but he’s forced to do a lot of things he really doesn’t want to do. I think those kind of characters are really rare.”

When “Troy” opens, Achilles is nowhere near the front lines; he’s snoozing in his tent with several naked women, hung over from what must have been an interesting party the previous evening. At the same time, thousands of Agamemnon’s invading Mycenaean troops are marching into battle against an equal number of Thessalonian soldiers, lead by Triopas.

The kings strike a deal: Rather than fill the plains with their armies’ blood, they each will offer up a single combatant in a winner-take-all duel. Triopas volunteers the colossal Boagrius, while Agamemnon offers Achilles, as soon as the reluctant warrior can be awakened. Who do you think wins?

Yet it is lust and vengeance, not violence, that really set the story in motion and start the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. The Trojan prince Paris makes off with Helen, queen of Sparta (newcomer Diane Kruger), leaving Helen’s husband, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), angry enough to launch 1,000 ships to get her back. Menelaus, his brother Agamemnon and Achilles sail for Troy, whose walls are defended by Paris’ older brother, Hector.

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“I just proposed this really ruthless stripping down of the story to the core, which for me was always Hector and Achilles and their inevitable conflict,” Benioff says. “You know one of them is going to die, and you’re not sure which, and you’re also not rooting for either one.”

MPAA’s rating

For all the parsing, what does remain on screen is Homer’s often graphic descriptions of fighting. “He writhed along the ground like an earthworm stretched out in death, blood pooling, soaking the earth dark red,” Homer writes (in a translation by Robert Fagles) of one battlefield casualty. The film is no less gory.

Warners tried to get the ratings board of the Motion Picture Assn. of America to consider giving “Troy” a PG-13 rating, but the film was handed an R for its “graphic violence and some sexuality/nudity” (although its rating in Europe, where “The Iliad” is local history, is less restrictive).

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If “Troy” maintains “The Iliad’s” brutality, it occasionally departs from the classic. Since he was writing long before the era of Hollywood research screenings, Homer didn’t have to worry if his characters were so flawed as to be unsympathetic.

Just before his climactic clash with Hector, an enraged Achilles in “The Iliad” throws a dozen prisoners of war into a fire. The scene was never included in “Troy” because moviegoers wouldn’t forgive the swift runner for such barbarism. “You would never recover from that,” Petersen says. “The audience would get up and walk out of the theater. And you know what? We don’t want that.”

The movie also makes Paris braver and less narcissistic than he is depicted by Homer.

“Even before my pitch meeting, the feeling was this isn’t going to work if I’m not willing to make changes,” Benioff says. “It felt like the best way to make this movie is that any time there’s a fork in the road, where the decision is, ‘Do I do what I think is best for the actual movie, or do what is precisely faithful to the original text?,’ I am going to make the first choice. And I think it’s the way it has to be.

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“Sure, there are going to be people who are going to be upset. There are people who are upset because Spider-Man had organic web shooters instead of little machine things. There’s no chance of making everyone happy. That’s what I always told myself.”

Ali versus Holyfield

The weapons clutched in their hands may be historic, but Achilles and Hector fight much like modern pugilists, which is part of Petersen’s plan. Rather than have Pitt and Bana study only swordplay, the director gave the actors tapes of contemporary boxers. In Petersen’s mind, Achilles was Muhammad Ali, all grace and fluidity, deceptively nonchalant but nonetheless lethal. Hector was modeled on Evander Holyfield, not nearly as polished or effortless but no less determined to be victorious.

“I used a lot of his fights as inspiration,” Bana says of Holyfield’s bouts. “He could win from unwinnable positions. He had so much belief in himself and God -- it’s blinding.”

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Warners also has a lot of belief in “Troy,” which is the first in a series of pricey Hollywood sword-and-sandal stories that follow “Gladiator’s” critical and commercial triumph four years ago. This summer Disney releases “King Arthur,” while Warners will distribute the November epic “Alexander.”

Like “Gladiator,” Petersen hopes “Troy” can prove relevant to today’s audiences, despite the chariots and breastplates. For a movie that has so much bloodshed, “Troy” tries, just as Homer did, not to glamorize combat, suggesting it ultimately yields far more victims than heroes. “That’s the interesting thing about ‘Troy,’ ” the director says a few hours before he shows his movie to hundreds of movie theater executives on the Warner Bros. lot. “There are a lot of surprises that go against your cliched expectations.”

In an era of ambushes, roadside bombs, enemy combatants and collateral damage, the movie is a reminder that we now practice a no less violent but less dignified way of settling disputes.

“People ask us why are these kind of stories being told again, when you go all the way back to when they had some rules of engagement, and they respected them,” says Petersen, whose breakthrough film was 1981’s World War II submarine drama “Das Boot.”

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“Conflict is necessary and will be with us as long as mankind exists. But then there was a special system of morality and ethics and honorable behavior in war. Today, it’s more or less gone.”


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