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November 14, 2005

Toga Movies

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've never been a huge fan of classical epics. Spectacle isn't generally my thing, I don't think marble looks good on film, and the diplomacy-love-and-battles storylines that are usually featured don't tend to hook me.

Even so, I approve of such films. I'm glad when they're being made and watched. Rightly or wrongly, I take their existence as a sign of movieworld health. The talents of designers, costumers, and technicians are being stretched. Directors are putting large-scale craft to use. Actors, god bless 'em, are keeping straight faces while wearing silly costumes and ridiculous hairstyles. And audiences are arguing over casting choices and historical veracity. These are all good things. So, despite my lack of enthusiasm for most such movies, I cheer the genre on, and I check in on a decent number of such films.

Over the weekend, The Wife and I caught up with a couple of recent attempts. "Troy" was first up. Watching "Troy," the two major facts you're forced to wrestle with are the computer effects, and Brad Pitt as Achilles.

Are you adapting well to the new world of computerized crowd scenes? I'm still struggling. Watching a crowd scene in a pre-digital spectacle, you knew that the people had actually been assembled in front of the camera. When a horizon line was spanned by rows of warriors, you knew that thousands of real people had been costumed and put in place. If the moment was right in dramatic terms, you might have the fun of gasping both at the story point and at the sheer human effort involved in achieving the shots that told it.

Computer-generated crowd scenes hit me very differently. They can be nifty to look at in a dazzling-computer-game kind of way. But watching a computer spectacle, I don't think I've ever felt anything resembling awe. I know that a lot of computer work and computer ingenuity has gone into creating the shots and the scenes. But it all feels so … small-scale -- more like needlework than like general-ship. Which isn't to diss needlework, just to dramatize the tension I feel between how I'm asked to take the scene and how the work that has gone into the scene actually feels to me. Even watched on DVD, the crowd scenes in "Lawrence of Arabia" feel huge and expansive. The crowd scenes in "Troy" feel like they take place on a 15" computer monitor. Plus, it all seems so arbitrary. 50,000 warriors? Hell, why not clone 'em a few more times and show 500,000?

That said, some of the computer effects in "Troy" were neat enough. The shot of hundreds of triremes on their way to the Dardanelles made me go "Cool!" And "Troy"'s CG soldiers have a lot more individuality than computer-generated figures usually do. Not that watching crowds of them hurry around seemed any less like watching an ants' nest than it usually does ...

Brad? Well, along with many sensible people, I'm happy razzing Brad for being the awful, vain, self-conscious actor that he is. But watching "Troy," I confess that I also had moments when I liked him. He certainly wasn't any good. Never unaware of the camera, he pouts and poses and postures. And when the time comes for him to have an emotion, the poor boy works so very, very hard at it.

But now and then he won me over anyway. I liked him for wearing the film's International Male toga fashions so unashamedly, and for tossing around absurdly glamorous golden locks. And I liked him for playing a legendary warrior in the first place -- for being willing to be play male on the big scale.

Small rant: More actors these days should take on square, straight-faced roles, don't you think? More of them should take the risk of acting heroic too. The last few decades have so dismantled the traditional male-hero archetype -- the characters who used to be portrayed by Kirk, Clint, Duke, and Charlton -- that it can sometimes feel like none of our male stars dare play men. Instead, they're all wise-assing boys determined to score points by kicking a great archetype while it's down. And how sad -- how tragic -- for all of us that the only male heroes we allow ourselves these days are figures out of comic books. So I'm prone to applaud virtually any earnest attempt to portray a heroic-scale male figure. Brad's a pretty bad Achilles, god knows. Still, I lead a round of applause for him.

Despite its scale, "Troy" is pedestrian -- a competent if uninspired show, populated by tons of hyper-proficient British actors. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen and written by David Benioff, the film compresses the story into what seems like a couple of months. It doesn't rely on the gods; it's an attempt to treat the story as a human drama. And it plays fast and loose with some of the traditional characters and storylines. You scratch your head: Did Paris just escape from Troy through an underground passageway? And don't I remember that Agamemnon made it back to Greece? Still, why shouldn't Hollywood allow itself some of the liberties with the material that the Homeric poets no doubt allowed themselves? In any case, I didn't mind the film's somewhat plodding quality, and I halfway enjoyed the movie as a Classics Illustrated version of the Trojan-invasion story.

Oliver Stone's "Alexander" is a far more remarkable piece of moviemaking than "Troy" is. Stone soups up the movie in that Stone-ish -- ie., trippy and hallucinatory -- way of his. I often enjoy being swept up by and appalled by Stone's frothing-at-the-mouth, bestial-gonzo filmmaking, and he certainly gave "Alexander" his all. As Alexander's super-seductive mama, Angelina Jolie is a writhing, erotic serpent-woman out of a decadent Symbolist painting. The soundtrack groans and heaves as Alexander's father sloshes through damp caves, showing Alexander what it means to be a leader.

And Alexander's first battle against the Persians is a gigantic, inventive, and energized set piece. The camera's in among the dust and the lances, right there as panting, armored horses crash by. And then it's 'way up in the clouds alongside the Zeus-eagle who oversees Alexander's adventures. Stone drives the tension and the excitement levels higher and higher as he cuts between these perspectives, and there's no question that his efforts have their effect. You experience the battle as raw immediacy and as Zen clarity both. It's a bloody brawl ... It's a gigantic chessboard ... IMHO, the scene is an inspired portrayal of what it's like to be exalted yet calm all at once -- of what it must be like to find the Zone while in the midst of battle.

That said, The Wife and I turned the DVD player off shortly after the big battle scene ended and never gave the film another thought. Stone had simply failed to involve us with the story or the character.

He'd failed to involve us with Colin Farrell's performance as Alexander too. Farrell deserves applause for doing his best to suggest ferocity and charisma. But he's so badly miscast and mis-directed that I sometimes couldn't help wincing. Reviewing his ultra-beefy, NFL-worthy troops, firing them up with the pride of being Greek, Farrell looks more like a scrawny runt than a legendary leader of men. I was one of the few people who thought that Russell Crowe looked silly in "Gladiator." He seemed to me to be so determined to be taken as a macho dude that he had "small man" instead of "alpha male" written all over him. But Farrell as directed by Stone really puts the "wanna" in "wannabe." My suggestion: If you're in the mood for a gonzo-mystical Oliver Stone-directed biopic that features a fascinating and charismatic lead performance, skip "Alexander" and rent "The Doors" instead.

That makes me oh-for-three where the cyber-toga movies are concerned. Thumbs down to "Gladiator"; thumbs neither here nor there for "Troy"; and thumbs elsewhere entirely for "Alexander." Is it just me, or is Hollywood still figuring out how to create and market a convincing sword-and-sandle epic for today?

David Benioff talks about writing "Troy" here. Oliver Stone babbles and rants about "Alexander" here. What drugs do you suppose Stone was on?



posted by Michael at November 14, 2005


"Computer-generated crowd scenes hit me very differently....The crowd scenes in "Troy" feel like they take place on a 15" computer monitor. Plus, it all seems so arbitrary. 50,000 warriors? Hell, why not clone 'em a few more times and show 500,000?"

Michael, dead-on on this a degree. The computer-generated battle participants in all of the "Lord of the Rings" movies worked for me, because most of the characters in those movies were not of the Human race. So, in some key scenes were there seemed to be the "500,000" clones you mentioned were believable since they weren't human in the first place. Clones in "Troy"? Didn't work under the same construct.

Re. Mr. Pitt. I would have enjoyed to read what your wife thought of his, uhmm, appearance in the movie. It seems he was mainly contracted as eye candy for the sweeter sex so as to attract those not interested in the gore of the battle scenes, but rather in the deportment of Mr. Pitt and his skimpy wares. Did her opinion of the movie and of Brad coincide with yours?

Posted by: DarkoV on November 14, 2005 08:25 AM

I thought Brad Pitt came off downright terrific in "Troy" compared to poor Orlando Bloom!! How Bloom's agent ever permitted him to take on this whiny, stupid, inchoate coward is completely beyond me. And the fact that this little dumb dishrag is who won Helen and ended Troy is simply unacceptable! If you were Peter O'Toole (wasn't he the King?) wouldn't you just be totally ashamed of your son? I stood openmouthed at the fact that the teeanage girls of the realm swoon when Orlando shows up, until I saw "Pirates of the Carribean" and some degree of sex appeal actually seemed present. It would have made FAR more sense for Helen to throw it all over for Brad Pitt!

Posted by: annette on November 14, 2005 08:28 AM

P.S.--you have complained about Russell Crowe's lack of genuine alpha male appeal before. Just for the record---Russell Crowe is really sexy in "Gladiator". Brad Pitt is really sexy in "Troy". Just in case you guys were wondering!

Posted by: annette on November 14, 2005 08:32 AM

Television does it better, especially the history and science channels. When I want a ancient epic battle, I like those rows of red lines facing the blue curves on a topographical background.

Just kidding. I think. I did enjoy the four hour series on the Crusades last week much more than any of the movies you have mentioned. And I am often curious about the re-enactments, which are little low budget movies of Baldwin and Saladin.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on November 14, 2005 08:48 AM

A movie with good CGI crowds was Kingdom of Heaven. During the film I didn't think about their fakeness or realness even once; I accepted all.

Maybe that's because the film had so many other faults that I didn't have time to nitpick?

BTW, if you remember your Aeschylus and all that, Agamemnon did indeed make it back to Greece, where his wife went all Mrs. Bates on his ass. Iphigenia wasn't half so lucky, but she did make it as far as Brooklyn.

Posted by: Brian on November 14, 2005 09:35 AM

Battle scenes are an interesting conundrum for the cinema. With its ability to switch between alternating points of view, movies would appear ideal for capturing both ends of the "experiential" spectrum of a large battle. To wit they should be able to show both the up-close and personal adrenalinized craziness of the actual soldier-on-soldier fighting (particularly in the hand-weapon era) as well as the far more detached view of the general-strategist. (Granted, there may not have been very much of the latter in Homeric battles and even Alexander personally led the critical charge of his heavy calvary; I don't think the notion of the completely 'detached' or 'aloof' general became big in military history until Hannibal around 200 B.C.) Still, while it's easy to take pictures of two grunts banging swords, what few movies have gotten across is that most cases there is actually a plan (smart or stupid) being executed in battles (however well or poorly); there's a coach calling the plays, so to speak, and he usually has some rationale for what he's trying to do. One film that partially got this across was the fight between the Romans and the Germans in "Gladiator"; obviously the Romans were handling the whole affair 'by the book' with results that were unlikely to be happy for the Germans. What it failed to do, of course, was to suggest that the Germans had any counter plan themselves; they ended up just being stereotypical wild men from beyond the borders of civilization.

I agree with you that the use of computer generated troops doesn't seem to help convey either perspective on battles. As you say, there is some indefinable but real energy, undoubtedly similar to that felt in military encounters, generated by the presence of so many people. A great description of the mass psychology of battles and its peculiar effects on both fighting troops and generals, is present in von Clauswitz's "On War", BTW.

As for Mr. McManus' comment: I like those rows of red lines facing the blue curves on a topographical background, I wonder if there isn't more truth in what I take to be jest than he might think. I've often wondered why movies so rarely incorporate conceptual items (diagrams, maps, documentary-style narration, the whole panoply of communication devices used on television news shows) to get across the more abstract qualities of what is going on in the story. As I mentioned in a posting on Fritz Lang's movie "M", I adore his very 'conceptual' treatment of how the police are conducting a search for a serial child murderer, and it feels so much more honest to see it treated conceptually rather than compressing all the action into the personal activity of one or two figures, a la "Law and Order". So let's hear it for red lines and blue curves on topographical maps!

I wonder if one of the biggest problems for movies in presenting battle scenes is the fact that I don't know of a single movie director or writer who ever played a senior role in a real-life battle. It's difficult to know what Napoleon really was thinking or feeling in the middle of his battles (even a writer of genius, like Tolstoy, seems to be projecting more than knowing in his discussions of Napoleon's psychology in "War and Peace"). And this is despite the fact that Napoleon, unlike most of history's great warriors, seems to have made a fairly vigorous attempt to communicate his mindset.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 14, 2005 11:32 AM

In this context, I must say I regret that Stanley Kubrick never got a chance to make his movie on Napoleon. If anybody was likely to appreciate detached intellection in the form of generalship --Napoleon himself once commented that "Certain problems facing the general are worthy of Euler"-- it would have been old Stanley.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 14, 2005 11:48 AM

Russell Crowe looked damn fine in Gladiator. I didn't see Troy, though months before the movie came out, I saw the trireme scene in a trailer and wanted there and then to see the movie. Then I read that they took the gods out of the story and the whole thing seemed pointless. Brad Pitt, btw, is a little too pretty for my taste.

Posted by: Rachel on November 14, 2005 12:14 PM

Now, if anybody were making a film about Narcissus, Mr.Pitt will shine.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 14, 2005 12:29 PM

What Annette and Rachel said. Russell Crowe looked amazing in Gladiator, I thought, and I am unashamedly a Russell Crowe fan, inasmuch as I am capable of being a fan of actors and actresses. I just need to like the way they act, *or* the way they look, or some combination of the two. I do not care what they do off the screen.

Hmmmm, I'd like to post a more intelligent comment about all of this, but that would take precious time away from contemplating Russell in his Gladiator gear......

Posted by: MD on November 14, 2005 01:46 PM

What I think is missing from these modern-day epics is the kitsch. Once upon a time, the more muscular the lead actors, the kitscher the movie. The epics took on the biggest characters in history and the founding myths of western civilisation, and delivered them with a leer sometimes bordering on homoeroticism.

Michael, you say you don't like marble on film, but it's hardly ever used nowadays. Likewise purple feathers, oiled gladiators, and redundant leather strapping. The once-copious use of snakes is rare now. People are hardly ever seen bathing.

I don't believe anybody was ever really turned on by any of these tropes, but they provide a background hum of camp zaniness that brought another dimension to the Epic. They allowed viewers with a sense of humour to exchange a knowing chuckle with the director. In this way the dialogue between creator and audience that's essential to both high and low art was formed.

Now we have Russell Crowe - unenigmatic, bluff and a pretty straight guy who fights people when he's drunk. What you see is what you get. Any glimpse of his feminine side (such as the effete designer stubble in Gladiator) is accidental - it's meant to signify masculinity, and probably did the year the film was made, but already looks like affectation.

At bottom, today's Epics try too hard and take themselves too seriously. Bring back kitsch!

Yours (not too seriously),


Posted by: DaveVH on November 14, 2005 02:25 PM

I have now seen Troy, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven (on DVD). All three are too long; all are, except in patches, unconvincing portraits of their time and place. It says something about our time and place, maybe, that most of such drama as they can summon up is in their battle scenes. In fairness to Oliver Stone and Ridley Scott, they do a pretty good line in carnage, if you go in for that sort of thing, although in Scott's case less would have been more.

One thing about these modern sword-and-shield epics, though, makes them at least watchable. The general level of acting in the supporting roles is far superior to what you got in the Ben-Hur/Cleopatra days.

In Troy: the great Brian Cox as Agamemnon; Sean Bean as — I forget who; Rose Byrne as Briseis; Saffron Burrows as Hecuba (?).

In Alexander: The film is poorly cast in general, but still, there's Angelina Jolie.

In Kingdom of Heaven: Jeremy Irons, Philip Glenister, David Thewlis. And, much to my surprise, Orlando Bloom held the screen in the lead. I had only seen him once before, in Troy, and a lot of people seem to have confused his role there with his looks or acting style: Paris is supposed to be somewhat callow and vain! Anyway, in Kingdom there is no denying his presence.

And for us lads there is the call of feminine beauty: Diane Kruger as Helen of Troy and Eva Green in Kingdom (new to me, and certainly not hard to look at).

Posted by: Rick Darby on November 14, 2005 05:59 PM

Seen all 4 (Gladiator, Alexander, Troy, and Kingdom of Heaven)

I liked Gladiator. Russell Crowe, maybe not so much, but I liked the theme of the movie. Crowe, at least to me, felt pretty much like he belonged.

I thought Pitt was decent in Troy, but clearly he did take it a little too far with the pouty vanity. Out of his league, but, hey, you're right, he tried. What I seriously disliked about the movie is the way it seemed so small scale. And that is partially to do with CGI I'm sure, but also the structure of the movie itself. You thought the movie took place over months? I thought it took place over like 3 days, max. And for an epic, that's pretty sad. The supporting cast was way too cartoonish as well. Agamemmnon? Prius? Paris? C'mon. The only one I liked at all was Odysseus.

Alexander just plainly stank. You were right not to watch it all the way through. The first battle scene was the best, the rest get progressively worse and worse. The last one is like a flashback to Platoon, even though the actual historical strategy used in that battle was amazing. Colin Farrell couldn't even lead a football team though, he's completely overwhelmed.

Kingdom of Heaven was another must-miss. The only thing I felt after watching this was that my time had been wasted. I felt no desire to keep watching the movie, there was nothing compelling about it. The villain was, again, cartoonish, and just plain stupid. None of the actual reasons for any of the actions in the Crusades are ever touched on, and the viewer is just along for the ride of Orlando Bloom being swept along in the intrigue. Even when the climactic battle scene happens, the viewer is left wondering why the battle is even being fought.

Posted by: . on November 14, 2005 09:14 PM

Friedrich: Kubrick was going to use your idea of diagrams and animated maps in his Napoeon picture. It never happened, of course, but I'd love to have seen how it worked. The script is here in PDF if anyone wants to take a gander.

Regarding battle scenes, I thought Raoul Walsh laid down two textbook examples in the 1940s.

They Died With Their Boots On tells the story of Custer's rise and his Last Stand against the Sioux. The Battle of the Little Bighorn is a superb example of what we might call the objective style - a very high camera, sweeping vistas, the various Indian cavalry regiments laid out like pieces on a chessboard, with Custer's men forming a defensive circle in the middle. Despite this scope, we also get to see each of the men in Custer's regiment as distinct individuals. It's all very extroverted and exciting and an entirely coherent view of strategy.

Six years later, Objective Burma. Despite it's title, this is an archetype of the subjective style. Here the camera remains down among the huddled men, who are surrounded by Japanese. No sweeping vistas here. It's a night battle fought in pitch darkness, and we - like the soldiers themselves - only see the enemy when he is lit by a flair. Any snap of a twig could signal an attack. Compared to the boldness of the Little Bighorn, this one is tense, psychological, almost noir. (James Wong Howe photographed it.) It reminds me of the bridge scene in Apocalypse Now.

The thing is, I can't imagine a scene which could combine both types. The needs of one seem to cancel out the needs of the other. While "Boots" does manage to show us each man's little section of the battle, it doesn't ever get us inside their minds, nor do we identify as keenly as we do with the men in "Burma". It's all a blaze of glory.

Both flicks starred Errol Flynn, BTW.

Lastly, if you want to see battles portrayed as a careful step by step process, check out Lion Of The Desert. It's about the Italian Fascist Graziani vs. the Libyans. First the artillery barrage, then the feint, then the tanks up the middle, etc. Kind of a turkey in most other respects, but interesting battles, especially a fight over a mountain bridge. And Khadaffi himself footed the bill!

Posted by: Brian on November 14, 2005 09:21 PM

Friedrich, it's funny you mentioned Fritz Lang, because at the mention of diagrams, I immediately thought of Lang's Woman in the Moon. This movie is not famous, and may not quite deserve to be; it takes way too long to get the dang rocket off the ground, but the last hour is great, and Lang employs diagrams at key points to keep his audience informed (an audience way less sophisticated than we are about space exploration; this was 1929, after all).

Go here for a description of the movie with screen caps, including one diagram comparing gravitational fields of the earth and moon. The geekiness is sort of endearing.

Posted by: Fred on November 14, 2005 10:54 PM

"new world of computerized crowd scenes"?
Didn't Star Wars (or the Empire Strikes Back?) do these 25 years ago? Maybe today's are from scratch, but does that really make all the difference?

Posted by: L on November 15, 2005 02:49 AM

Michael – I agree with both you and Darko V about cgi – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I wasn’t as much bothered by it in “Troy” as you were, but hey, I loved the obviously fakey, but still thrilling stop-motion animation in “Jason and the Argonauts,” so I’m obviously not too hard to please.

I thought Brad Pitt was great in “Troy.” I recall one critic dismissing him as more surfer than god-man, but then I thought that a surfer is exactly the modern equivalent of someone like Achilles. And I thought that Eric Bana made for an appropriately sympathetic Hector and a great contrast to bright Achilles.

It’s ironic that you write about the old style male hero when Oliver Stone was lambasted for depicting Alexander as a lover of men as well as war (and I’ve heard that the DVD was re-cut to downplay Alexander’s bisexuality).

Of course, both Agamemnon and Menelaus made it back to Greece, and Helen did not end up with Paris. Still I enjoyed the movie despite the liberties it took with Homer. I recall being dismayed at all the film critics who moaned about not wanting to have to read “The Iliad” even though they had months to bone up on the background to the film. I was even more annoyed at the effete and irrelevant review of the film in the New York Review of Books, which panned the movie for attempting to tell the story of the Trojan War from beginning to end instead of concentrating on the same time frame as “The Iliad,” stupidly insisting that the movie audience should practically be classic literature majors.

Sean Bean played Odysseus in “Troy.” Saffron Burrows played Andromache, wife of Hector.

Retired Marine Captain Dale Dye and Oxford University historian Robin Lane Fox helped map out the battle scenes in “Alexander.”

I agree that Farrell was woefully miscast in “Alexander.” I just don’t know what Stone was thinking of. On the other hand, I thought that Crowe as perfectly serviceable in “Gladiator,” and damn near magnificent several centuries later in “Master and Commander” as Jack Aubrey.

Posted by: Alec on November 15, 2005 09:01 AM

The problem with modern sword-and-sandal epics is that, as far as I can see, they don't concern themselves with what is at stake- beyond the glory of making an historical epic. (or the glory of being Oliver Stone and constantly worried about gayness while obsessed with men-men story lines.)

Even the cheapest Victor Mature in chariot flick respects the idea that the audience deserves and can appreciate the story. Oompa-Loompa-orange make-up, and all.

Speaking of the little guys: M. Blowhard, what did you think of Deep Roy as the whole tribe in the lastest Willy Wonka?And what did The Wife think? For my money, Roy made the movie. Netflixed just for his numbers.

Posted by: j.c. on November 15, 2005 08:43 PM

Thanks for an enjoyable posting. The reason the moviemakers showed a force of 50,000 is that that's the approximate size of the Greek army in the Iliad.

Posted by: keypusher on November 16, 2005 03:46 PM

_Blackhawk Down_ is an excellent portrayal of a very long and complicated battle. It does a very good job of mixing individual perspectives with godlike oversight with fog of war/random stuff going wrong. Then again, the entire movie is devoted to a single battle.

Posted by: Zach on November 19, 2005 10:27 PM

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