Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



24 April


The fall of Troy, 1184BC

On this day in 1184BC, the city of Troy fell after the most famous battle of antiquity. The Trojan War had started after a Trojan, Paris, absconded with Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Helen was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in history and her love had been gifted to Paris by the goddess Aphrodite, as a reward for choosing her (Aphrodite) as the fairest of all the female gods – the so-called Judgement of Paris. Aphrodite had not mentioned to Paris that Helen was already married. Paris, it had been prophesied, would bring about the destruction of Troy. And so it came to pass that the Spartans set sail for Troy in Anatolia (present-day Turkey), where they laid siege to the city for ten years, during which time Paris was killed, as was his friend Hector. The war came to an end after the Greeks (aka Spartans) infiltrated the Trojan stronghold using a gigantic horse to gain entry, the being horse full of troops who sprang out under cover of the night, after the horse had been dragged inside. Who does that? Drags a gigantic horse into their besieged city after a war lasting ten years? However, legend says that that’s just what the Trojans did. This act of utter stupidity has given us the phrase “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and also the techie notion of a trojan as a nasty thing hiding inside something seemingly harmless.




Troy (2004, dir: Wolfgang Petersen)

Troy gets a bad rap because it is a war movie that ends far from heroically. It ends with defeat, in fact. The fact that it was made by a German, Wolfgang Petersen, who had already made Das Boot, another war film in which defeat was a vital part of the offer, is what makes it an interesting film though, heroics being the prelude not to greatness, but to calamity. Petersen was born in 1941 in the German port town of Emden, which was almost totally obliterated in one night of bombing when he was three. But never mind the amateur shrink’s attempt to wed Troy to childhood trauma. Instead let’s look at the film, which pretty much removes the gods from the equation; this is human cock-up not divine conspiracy. On the Trojan side we have Orlando Bloom as Paris, and Eric Bana as Paris’s brother Hector. For the Greeks it’s a superbuff Brad Pitt (six months of training, apparently) as Achilles and Garrett Hedlund as his number two, Patroclus. Ultimately, though, the film is built around the Pitt v Bana showdown, before it goes on to divulge that the actual decisive event in the war was the construction, delivery and implementation of the Trojan horse. It was a Greek horse, of course, but this is not the place to argue. Instead let’s turn to the film’s weaknesses – the CG is just terrible, Orlando Bloom is completely unconvincing as Paris (the idea that he might have sat in judgement on goddesses is laughable) and Diane Kruger is no better as Helen, pretty though she is. There is no suggestion of what must have been a colossal passion to have caused a conflict so bloody and so long. On the other side of the scales the aged thespians show the young ones how it’s done, with Peter O’Toole in particular, and too briefly, seizing the screen as Priam of Troy, though Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson acquit themselves well too. The fact that they’re all seasoned stage hands and are used to commanding a space tells us everything we need to know about what’s wrong with this film – Troy is an epic done with all the sound and fury ripped out. That is Petersen’s intention. And as the Greeks escape from the horse as the film enters its mournful last few minutes, and lay waste to everyone inside the fortified city of Troy, there is no gloating, no bugles, no glory. Unsurprisingly, this disappointed a lot of people.



Why Watch?


  • Epic film, human frailty
  • A great cast
  • A beautifully dressed movie
  • A beautifully dressed (and undressed) cast


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Troy – at Amazon





Das Boot

Jürgen Prochnow in Das Boot


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



1 November



Death of Jacques Piccard, 2008

On this day in 2008, Jacques Piccard, one of the pioneers of really deep deep-sea exploration, died, aged 86. The son of Auguste Piccard, a balloonist who had ascended higher than any other human in the early 1930s, Jacques initially started out working on bathyscaphes as a favour to help out his father, who had switched from high altitude to the depths. Together, between 1948 and 1955 they built three bathyscaphes. But Jacques was only a hobbyist – by day he was a professor of economics. It was only after governments started to become interested in the development of the bathyscaphe that Jacques abandoned teaching to work full-time on the submersibles. By the late 1950s Jacques Piccard had become a consultant for the US Navy and was planning the first of his deep dives. In January 1963, along with Lt Don Walsh, he descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest place on the face of the earth, over seven miles down. The descent took five hours but Piccard and Walsh stayed a mere 20 minutes at the bottom. Piccard abandoned the mission (whose only purpose was to see if it could be done) when he noticed cracking in one of the 19cm thick observation windows. The bathyscaphe returned safely to the surface. Shortly before the Apollo 11 launch in 1969, Piccard embarked on another remarkable mission, when his “mesoscaphe” was dropped into the Gulf Stream where the current was strongest. At a depth of 1,000 feet, Piccard and his crew drifted 1,444 miles with the Gulf Stream, a journey which lasted four weeks and which went largely unreported, on account of Neil Armstrong et al’s landing on the Moon. A native Swiss who spent most of his life in the country, ironic considering it is landlocked, he continued designing and diving in submarines into his 80s.



Das Boot (1981, dir: Wolfgang Petersen)

Das Boot remains the best film Wolfgang Petersen has ever directed, perhaps because as a German born during the Second World War he felt some affinity for the poor saps whose job it was to serve on U-Boats. And it’s as poor saps that he portrays them, the 42 men packed into the tiny space that Petersen cannily shows us before letting the drama unfold. Claustrophobic it undoubtedly is, though this is not a film about claustrophobia. Instead it’s about men toiling together, cheek by jowl, in a precise ballet that only works when everyone is dancing to the same tune. Jost Vacano’s hurtling camera is crucial to the understanding of what’s going on in this tin can as the submarine sets about harrying a convoy of Allied ships with torpedoes. Then the reverse, as the submarine itself is beset by depth charges while the crew sit silent below, knowing that even talk can be picked up on the destroyer up top’s hydrophones. Then finally the situation reverses again as the destroyers move on and the submarine surfaces to finish off a stricken tanker. At the centre of the manic camera, the wild-eyed crew, explosions above and below, is Jürgen Prochnow as the rock-solid captain, the sort of man other men will die for. The film was a hit in Germany (West Germany, as it was then), and was an early instance of the Germans coming to terms with the Second World War (it helped that the U-Boat captain makes it clear early on that he is not a Nazi). In many respects it is a standard submarine movie – a Run Silent, Run Deep for a new generation – but in Das Boot it’s not what happens that’s important, it’s the way that Petersen, Vacano, Prochnow and the actors dressed in filth-smeared T shirts present it.



Why Watch?


  • All that action in such a tiny space
  • To get the claustrophobia right no walls were removed from the submarine mock-up
  • Six Oscar nominations – a record for a foreign language film. It won none
  • Look out for the director’s cut (3 hours 29 minutes) or even the mini-series created from the same original material (4 hours 53 minutes)


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Das Boot – at Amazon