Blood and Brawn: How Action Drives Story and Character in Troy

Movies Features Eric Bana
Blood and Brawn: How Action Drives Story and Character in Troy

Adapting Homer to the screen is a mountainous task for any writer, but that’s exactly what eventual Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff set out to do with Troy. Putting together his second script—his first, 25th Hour, was based on his own novel—Benioff sought to use the epic Greek poem The Iliad as more of an inspiration than a source for direct translation. While The Iliad covers one brief period in the Trojan War, a decade-long bout in the 12th or 13th century between the Greeks and the Trojans, Benioff aimed to capture a much wider breadth, including elements taken from Homer’s follow-up, The Odyssey, along with… let’s say plenty of creative liberties.

Benioff ditched all of the influence from the gods, relegating them to deities whose impact is seen through the worship and blind faith of the humans caught in this battle rather than in the hands-on actions they conduct in Homer’s text. Speaking to Creative Screenwriting, Benioff said, “The script covers the Trojan War in its entirety, whereas Iliad is only one fragment of it. I didn’t want to have little titles saying, ‘Flash forward nine years.’ It would have made it more faithful to the source material, but it wouldn’t have been effective for the movie. I always followed the route that I thought was better for the movie; if that meant that I was cheating on Homer then so be it.”

The core idea of Troy, however, remains the same. King Agamemnon (a delightfully hammy Brian Cox) has devoured the Greek kingdoms and forced them into subservience in his quest for tyrannical power. Achilles (Brad Pitt), despises Agamemnon but has become an unruly soldier in his army, one beloved and feared in equal measure for his gifts on the battlefield. The one holdout in Agamemnon’s attempt for complete rule is the city of Troy, which is fortified by enormous walls that have protected it from invaders for centuries. 

Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom), princes of Troy, have successfully negotiated a peace treaty with Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), the King of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon. Unfortunately for the Trojans, Paris’s penchant for women has resulted in him having a secretive affair with Menelaus’ wife Helen (Diane Kruger) and when the princes set sail back to Troy, Paris reveals that Helen has snuck aboard the ship and is coming with them. Enraged upon the discovery, Menelaus goes to his brother demanding revenge, and Agamemnon seizes the opportunity to bring war to Troy, setting the stage for one of the greatest wars in human history.

Benioff condenses the Trojan War from a decade into a couple weeks, and in doing so must streamline not only the plot into a film-appropriate running time but also the development of these characters. Crucial characters like Odysseus are relegated to the sideline, while even central figures such as Achilles are rendered a bit confusing in their motivations, amorphous in ways that certainly aren’t by design. It’s to Benioff’s benefit that Troy was shepherded by filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen. It’s through Petersen that the film finds its beating heart, its understanding of the themes that would unite and divide these men, and the viscera that would take a sharpened blade and pierce it through the flesh of its audience. 

In our current era, action in cinema (particularly Hollywood cinema) tends to favor spectacle over everything else. The bigger you can get, the more CGI you can throw at the screen, the better. It doesn’t matter if your audience can make out the choreography, if they care about why the characters are fighting and what they’re feeling in those moments, if the battles tell a story as rich and dynamic as the one on the page. Is it big? Is it slick? Is it loud? If the answers to those are yes, the $200+ million budget is signed on the dotted line and shipped off to the computers where the effects are generated, slopped together on a screen and delivered to a disengaged audience unlikely to remember these sequences a day after they’ve left the theater. 

20 years ago, on the other hand, Troy put immense care into every single beat of its action, and as a result these sequences drive its emotions in a way the script often fails to achieve, simply because it’s attempting to juggle so much in such a short timespan. Petersen creates a true epic, filling the screen with painterly landscapes and skies that look like they’re soaked in ash. The scale is enormous, with Petersen staging extraordinary scenes in which the hundreds upon thousands of warriors in these armies collide sword and shield on the sands outside Troy. There is, of course, plenty of CG to be found across Troy—how could there not be, with something at this large a scale? What Petersen brings is an understanding, though, that none of this bombast amounts to anything if you don’t care about the people contained within it, and thus he constantly finds moments to insert personal skirmishes into the chaos of armies colliding.

It’s two of these more intimate mano a mano battles which serve as the apex in the film’s genius use of action as a storytelling and character development device. From the beginning of Troy, Paris presents himself as a noble man whose decisions are driven out of his pure love for Helen. When Hector demands they bring the woman back to Sparta, Paris declares that he would go back with her, saying, “I’ll die fighting.” A seasoned warrior who has taken lives and seen friends and family fall beside him, Hector lashes back at Paris’ foolishness, laying into his brother: “You’ve said you want to die for love, but you know nothing about dying and you know nothing about love.”

Paris is unable to see this truth. He’s blinded by his own ego in a world that teaches that honor is everything, and that your worth is only as good as your prowess on the battlefield. As Agamemnon tells Menelaus, “Peace is for the women and the weak. Empires are forged by brawn… The gods protect only the strong.”

Upon returning home to Troy, Hector warns his father King Priam (Peter O’Toole) that they cannot win this war, but even Priam is too coddled by Troy’s history of security, confident that the gods will protect them. Hector is the only one who sees with practicality and reason how these vain fools are playing with people’s lives—how their whole country will fall for the sake of his brother’s “prize.”

This leads us to the first of Troy’s key duels: Paris, finally recognizing that entire civilizations are about to crumble because of his one idiotic decision, states that he will challenge Menelaus to a one-on-one fight and the winner will get Helen. It’s an attempt at a noble gesture, grown from Paris having spent his life seeing men like Hector, who have honor and skill. 

That misguided sense of nobility betrays Paris, who knows deep down that there’s no way on this earth he could defeat Menelaus. The procession towards their battle is all a façade, as Priam gives Paris the famed Sword of Troy, and the young prince adorns himself in regal armor. Yet none of these confections can actually make a warrior. 

Thanks to Petersen’s filmmaking, it’s immediately clear what the result of this fight will be if it follows through to completion. The towering figure of Menelaus grins and tosses away his shield, laughing at this little twerp in front of him. Paris is meek, cowering in fear as Menelaus pummels his shield with blow after blow. Paris swings his sword wildly, a child playing gladiator, while Menelaus mocks him on the field in front of the thousands of men watching. When Menelaus has the prince on the ground, ready to strike the killing blow, Paris reaches his greatest moment of shame. With the cards on the table and his death in front of his eyes, he cowers away and crawls to Hector, latching onto his brother’s leg and begging for protection. Hector steps forward and kills the King of Sparta, betraying the code of the duel.

Orlando Bloom recently spoke about this scene with Variety, expressing his distaste for Troy and the character, saying “For me, playing that character was just like [slits throat]. I didn’t want to do the movie. I didn’t want to play this character. It was completely against everything I felt in my being. At one point it says Paris crawls along the floor having been beaten by somebody and holds his brother’s leg. I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this.’ One of my agents at the time said, ‘But that’s the moment that will make it!’ And I completely fell for that line of an agent.”

The irony is that the agent was correct. Even 20 years after its release, Bloom is unintentionally expressing precisely why he was the perfect choice to play Paris. Bloom hating the character for being a coward, when he just wanted to play the strong noble hero, is so embedded in this performance, and in this scene, that it demonstrates everything we need to know about Paris, Menelaus, Agamemnon (who sits on the sidelines and cackles with glee throughout the fight) and Hector—and thus, about Troy. You can puff your chest out all you want and play pretend about honor, but when push came to shove, Paris went through the motions of being the warrior, only to succumb to the humiliating realization that he needed to beg his big brother to save him. 

As the war continues, the rocky relationship between Achilles and Agamemnon results in the great warrior sitting his battalion out in protest, but his cousin Patroclus (often cited as Achilles’ lover; this has been removed in Benioff’s interpretation) adorns Achilles’s armor and leads the troops into the fight. In a way, Patroclus mirrors Paris, a silly twink who isn’t cut out for this yet still thinks they need to attain their own legacy by riding into the thick of it. Mistaking Achilles’ cousin for the man himself, Hector slices Patroclus’ throat. The moment he realizes what he’s done, Hector knows there’s only one thing that can happen next. 

While Hector has always been driven by honor, by doing the right thing, Achilles is driven by legacy throughout Troy. Hector rouses his troops with “Honor the gods! Love your woman! And defend your country!” For Achilles, it’s a quite different story, getting his battalion pumped for battle by proclaiming, “Do you know what’s waiting beyond that beach? Immortality! Take it! It’s yours!” Achilles flies onto the field like a bat out of hell with a death wish and a frustration that no one can match him. Hector is the only one who poses a threat, but it has to happen on Achilles’ terms. When the two first meet, it’s alone, inside of a temple, secluded from the legions of men fighting on the sand. Hector’s practicality has him ready to face off there and then, but Achilles’ lust for glory insists on waiting until an audience is around to watch, boasting that, “They’ll be talking about this war for a thousand years.”

The showdown between these two lives up to our anticipation. Unlike the immeasurably lopsided fight between Paris and Menelaus, Hector and Achilles are essentially equals. Not only is their duel physically visceral, it’s a moment where everything we’ve learned about these two is embedded into their faces, their skin, their blades. The depth of character that Bana and Pitt have brought to these men is right there on the surface, brought to light by Petersen through the specific fighting styles of each character—the showboating acrobatics of Achilles versus the rugged efficiency of Hector. You can feel the strength, the anguish, the honor, the responsibility that Hector has as a father, a son and a husband coursing through him in this fight. Achilles has tossed aside his need for showmanship and accolades, meeting Hector without an audience, so consumed by his need for vengeance that he wants to face Hector in as simple a form as possible. Just two men in the sand.

The choreography in the Hector and Achilles fight is a testament to the skill that the Troy production brought to the film’s action, no matter how big or small. There’s a stillness to the environment around the combat that reckons with its gravity. We don’t need thousands of men on the beach to understand that this moment—right here, right now—is the one that is going to decide the war. 

For a scene that only occupies a few minutes, the two actors and the crew spent months perfecting each and every swing of their swords. There’s restraint to the amount of editor Peter Honess’ cuts, a shot economy that allows us the gift of knowing at all times where every spear, blade and shield is. We never lose an understanding of geography for any part of these men. Petersen and his fight team put the scene together so meticulously that it allows the actors to perform this dance themselves, without stunt men, so we can see their faces and feel the performances of Bana and Pitt in every step. They’re not just mastering the physical craft, but accomplishing those beats to such a degree that they’re able to still achieve complex performances as actors amidst the flurry of weapons. 

“I remember working with the stunt crew and us always talking about getting the fight to the point where it was so ingrained that you had the freedom to be able to act within the choreography—which we don’t always get to do as actors, particularly with the way things are edited,” Bana recently told me. “Usually, in fight scenes, things are really broken up. In the end, you look at it and you go, ‘I didn’t even need to learn the choreography, to be honest. I just needed to learn who moves at what time. I could have picked that up on the day.” Troy’s approach to this fight gave him freedom, as an actor, to “follow this notion that Hector was gradually breaking down during the fight.” 

“Then we have to feel that he thinks he’s going to win, and then we have to get to that moment where it really looks like he’s not going to win, and how does he deal with that? And then he eventually loses,” Bana remembered. “The way that the choreography was designed, there were moments of breath and so forth in there where you got to see the juxtaposition between Achilles’ brutal confidence and Hector’s humanity and how he was feeling during the course of that fight.” Troy’s second unit director Simon Crane explains that, “The thing that’s most exciting about it is that it’s the actors doing it. It’s the revelation of character through the fight, through the situation, rather than it just being a spectacle of moves.” 

“Revelation of character” is the most potent way to phrase how Troy maintains such a rich sense of storytelling in every action beat, where our investment in these people is never overridden by an epic action sequence. It’s all integrated. When Hector is pierced by Achilles’ spear and the warrior delivers the killing blow, you feel it.

Once Hector falls, so falls Troy. But it’s telling that the sacking of the fabled city isn’t through sheer force or battle acumen, but through the cunning strategy of Odysseus in creating the Trojan horse. It’s achieved without any of the perceived honor and respect of war so treasured by Troy’s characters. It’s achieved by deceit, by sneaking through the gate and indiscriminately massacring every man, woman and child in sight. For all of Hector’s noble drive to be a good man, or Menelaus and Agamemnon’s drive to exhibit strength, the cruelest twist of fate is that Achilles, the greatest warrior in the world, isn’t defeated on a field of battle by another warrior, but from a distance by an arrow shot from Paris, the coward whose vain stupidity set this whole thing in motion. Every moment of action in Troy tells a story, to the point where you could strip it of its dialogue and still experience the tumultuous tale of blood, sweat, brawn and honor in all its glory.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

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