Genre: Historical Epic
Premise: In 1804, before America has any cachet in the world, a rogue U.S. diplomat arrives in the savage city of Tripoli to demand the release of American prisoners.
About: Tripoli was famously about to begin production in 2003 (2004?) when at the last second the studio pulled out. Ridley Scott, the director of the project, immediately moved on to another Monahan scripted endeavor, “Kingdom Of Heaven.” Tripoli has made waves in screenwriting circles since, with many proclaiming its awesomeness. As I’ve found this to be standard practice when it comes to deserted high profile projects, I decided to read the script and decide for myself. Monahan is pretty much the go-to guy when it comes to historical-based screenplays and is one of the better writers in Hollywood overall (I really dug his underrated screenplay for Edge of Darkness). He actually sold this screenplay on spec.
Writer: William Monahan
Details: 129 pages – 4/11/02 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
Historical-related plots are so hard to pull off. They’re always walking that line between maintaining the historical accuracy of the times and keeping things entertaining enough for a modern audience. The problem is that the speed of life back then was so damn slow, and if you violate that pace, if you try to speed it up Michael Bay style, it feels false, necessitating that you move your story along at “Sunday afternoon” speeds. This requires the writer to dig deep into his bag of tricks to keep the story moving – conflict, mystery, suspense, tension, plotting – all of them must be used to “trick” the audience into thinking things are moving faster than they actually are. The problem is, there aren’t many writers who can do this. But since Monahan is about as skilled as they come, maybe Tripoli would be different.
I didn’t like Tripoli. In fact, I had a harder time getting through this than I did a day at Sunday school. I don’t know if this movie was built for me because it is looooooong and drawwwwwwn out and not much happens and I don’t know if the subject matter is big enough for an entire movie. It’s basically about a guy walking around for a couple of hours. Let me lay out the plot for you.
The story starts off in the Barbary Coast of Africa in 1804. America isn’t a major player yet. To the point where places like Tripoli scoff when Americans show up in their city and demand the release of American prisoners. This is exactly what happens as our hero, Eaton, an easily frightened American diplomat on his way to another country entirely, but who gets roped into Tripoli after local pirates seize his ship, sees other Americans there and asks for their release.
This was the first sign of trouble for me, that our hero wasn’t even specifically headed to Tripoli in the first place. He was going somewhere else and only upon noticing a few of his other countryman being held did he decide to make a stand. When the situation was so meaningless that our hero wasn’t even going there to address it in the first place, it just felt like a second rate problem. And indeed, the Americans aren’t in any imminent danger. They’re just sequestered to their ship in the port. So right away, the stakes feel low.
To the script’s credit, there is one great sequence in this opening act, and that’s when Eaton demands to speak with the city’s ruler, a barbaric man who skins people alive, pokes their eyes out, and forces them to live in cages in his throne quarters. And we thought Charlie Sheen had issues. Just the anticipation of this meeting between Eaton and the ruler was great, and when they do finally have their showdown, and Eaton stands up to him, it was easily the best moment in the script. I still had high hopes for Tripoli at this point.
Unfortunately, Monahan takes the story in another direction entirely. After the ruler denies Eaton the release of his countrymen, Eaton finds out that the king has a brother who’s been exiled to Egypt, and that this brother is a way cooler cat who doesn’t skin people alive and put them in cages. So he gets this idea that he’ll go to Egypt and convince the brother to come back and rule Tripoli.
And thus begins an endless trip where Eaton finds the brother and the two walk back to Tripoli, debating how they’re going to take over the city with so few men. As you know, for any “road trip” scenario to work, the characters have to be interesting. And both Eaton and the brother are – I hate to say it – but really boring. They sound like two college professors debating 200 year old world affairs for two hours. I mean it’s really hard to get through.
I suppose the final battle to take the city back could be epic with Ridley Scott directing, but because I didn’t care about any of the characters involved, in particular the American soldiers who I barely knew, the battle didn’t matter. To make things worse, there’s a huge anti-climactic moment that interrupts the battle at the end that basically makes everything that came before it (aka the entire movie) meaningless.
Tripoli’s faults come down to that most basic pillar of storytelling – stakes. I just didn’t feel the stakes. I didn’t really know or care about the Americans being saved. I didn’t understand why replacing the leader of Tripoli was so important. It seemed like our main character was set on it only because of principle, because the ruler was bad and his brother was good. I get principle but I don’t know if I believe that someone takes a months-long trip to Egypt to find a replacement king then goes back and tries to take over the city simply on principle. In Braveheart, if William Wallace loses any of those battles, his country loses their fucking freedom!! Now THOSE are stakes. Replacing the ruler of a mean but small group of savages who annoyingly interrupt European trade routes with their piracy? I’m not sure why I’m supposed to care about that.
Also, I didn’t like the recruiting of the replacement brother. Mainly because the CITY IS WHERE ALL THE FUN IS! Tripoli, with this barbaric insane leader who kills people for sport….THAT’S WHERE I WANT MY MOVIE TO BE. That’s where all the conflict is. When we’re in this city, we feel like Eaton could be skinned alive at any moment. When he’s off wandering around Egypt, we feel no danger for him whatsoever. Why not have Eaton stay in the city and plan his takeover there? I suppose the answer to this has something to do with that’s not how it happened in real life. So then maybe you focus the story on one of the other characters, possibly one of the Americans stuck in the city?
To be honest, this is why I get worried whenever I open a period piece. Many of them seem to be geared towards historical nerds who love the details yet aren’t that interested in telling a rip-roaring story, which I guess brings us back to Monday’s script review, Repent Harlequin. The details are definitely necessary to making a script great. But a script’s laurels can’t rest solely on historical details. It has to be based on some kind of unique entertaining hook, and I’m still struggling to figure out what the hook of Tripoli was.
So if William Monahan, one of the best writers in Hollywood, is struggling to make an historical epic work, then let that be a word to the wise for all you amateur writers out there thinking you’re going to break into the spec market with an historical/period piece yourself. It’s really damn hard!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you refuse to listen to me and still want to write your period piece, seriously consider starting your screenplay with an opening crawl that highlights the relevant details of the time. One of the reasons I had such a tough time getting into Tripoli was that I had no knowledge of this time period or this city. If there are some important details about why Tripoli is the way it is or what stage America is at right now, the reader needs to know (i.e. “In 1807, pirates out of Tripoli were wreaking havoc on the surrounding countries, severely crippling the most important trade routes in Western Europe, which in turn crippled America’s commerce…”). Set up for us why this story is relevant.