The battle of making ''Troy'' - The epic and expensive movie will soon tempt the gods of box office returns, but Brad Pitt's face launch a summer hit?

By Gillian Flynn
May 14, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Drive an hour through the Mexican desert and you’ll spy a curious thing: massive slabs of stone jutting defiantly from the sand. An impregnable fortress in a Mediterranean seascape. The walls of Troy on the Baja Peninsula. Pass through the gates and you’ll see the sun flashing off Apollo’s temple, high atop a cliff. On the beach below, several hundred extras pant in their salt-laced armor, as Peter O’Toole and Orlando Bloom prepare to film the discovery of the Trojan horse, which looms like an ominous chess piece at the edge of the rowdy surf.

After a smoke and a touch-up, O’Toole is ready. He glances at two plague-pocked actors playing dead, stares up at the 38-foot wooden beast, and regally purrs, ”What is this?”

He does it again and again. A wicked wind blows waves of heat and needle-sharp sand. Flies descend in petulant cliques. And a boom mike slips its shadow into the frame. Cut. ”Oh, for f — -‘s sake,” O’Toole snaps.

The dead come to life — extras stretching, sipping, blotting, then submitting to more painted-on gore. O’Toole kindly douses a dead man near him with some anti-fly ointment. The snippet of a scene continues. ”What is this?” ”What is this?”

This — sand, sun, annoyance, grandeur, misery, myth — is Troy, director Wolfgang Petersen’s take on the 2,800-year-old tale The Iliad. A sprawling, David Lean-inspired epic, Troy, initially budgeted at $150 million, boasts 1,250 extras, a re-created ancient city, several epic battles, and more than five months of location shoots in London, Malta, and Mexico. The stakes, like the film, are massive.

Troy has become one of the most expensive movies in history. In return for its hubris, the ambitious production’s budget ballooned to more than $200 million as it suffered a string of costly crises: emergency relocation, set destruction, and an injury to star Brad Pitt that postponed a crucial fight scene for months. See, Pitt, in his first starring role since 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven, plays mercenary warrior Achilles, and he…tweaked his Achilles. ”It’s such a bad angle,” he groans. ”Stupid irony.”

But a good Greek tragedy needs irony. And death, and love, and mayhem and guys with names like Itssolongyourejustshowingoff-forus. For those who haven’t dabbled in Homer of late: Remember the face that launched a thousand ships? That’s Helen, queen of Sparta (Diane Kruger). Prince Paris (Bloom), on a peace mission to his Spartan enemies, falls for her and rashly spirits his lover back to Troy. Helen’s furious hubby, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), presents the problem to his brother, the land-grabbing Supermonarch Agamemnon (Brian Cox), who uses it as an excuse for war, and looses Greece’s armies — and Achilles — upon Troy.

Sound gigantic? Makes sense — Petersen was also the director behind The Perfect Storm and Air Force One. Says Pitt: ”Wolfgang is a very savvy storyteller, he knows what’s going on, he has a dry sense of humor…and he does it BIG.”