Helen Of Troy Review
”A cup of wine friend. Our throats are salted by the breeze!”
Robert Wise’s 1956 film Helen Of Troy is full of lines like that, not to mention burly British character actors, in fake beards, holding their sides and roaring with laughter. It moves with all the pace of an overweight snail, contains some performances that might best be called ‘amateurish’ and has no conspicuous visual style whatsoever. Yet for connoisseurs of bad Hollywood epics, it has some minor points of interest and I’m not just talking about those belonging to the not noticeably talented Rossana Podesta, desperately trying and hopelessly failing to incarnate “the face that launched a thousand ships”.
It tells roughly the same story more recently narrated in Wolfgang Petersen’s vastly expensive blockbuster Troy. King Priam of Troy sends his son Paris to Sparta in a bid for peace with the kings of Greece. But his intentions go belly-up when Paris meets and falls madly in love with Helen, Queen of Sparta. The lovers escape and travel back to Troy but the die is irrevocably cast. Menelaus, Helen’s husband appeals to his brother Agamemnon, King of Greece, and a war begins with the initial intention of regaining Helen but with the secondary motive of quelling Troy’s independence which has been gained through seemingly invulnerable defences. Troy has its own champion, the warlike Prince Hector but Greece has Achilles, a legendary warrior who is more than a match for any Trojan fighter with just one single flaw that could kill him.
This is all based, with considerable dramatic licence, on Homer’s The Iliad and it’s certainly a fantastic story. But it’s material which has certain problems built in. The main one is the character of Helen who embodies a concept – Platonic beauty – rather than being a character per se. How can you possibly cast a part without a large proportion of the audience thinking, “Well she’s nothing special!” In Petersen’s version, Diane Kruger did take a fair crack at doing the impossible and she was beautiful and intelligent enough to be halfway convincing. Sadly, Rossana Podesta isn’t a particularly good actress and although she’s quite attractive in a blandly Cinecitta sort of way, she’s hardly a goddess in human form. The characters of Hector and Achilles have similar problems – they’re essentially killing machines, ancient versions of the Terminator, and it’s very hard to give them any depth. In the recent film, Eric Bana worked miracles with Hector, despite getting little help from the script, while Brad Pitt looked pretty and decided against flexing his acting muscles as Achilles. In Wise’s version, Harry Andrews is far too old, flabby and relaxed to be a convincing Hector – far from “loving war” he looks as if he loves his pipe and slippers. As for Stanley Baker, he’s pretty good in his early scenes but eventually just stands there looking like a pub-side scrum half who wishes he was a professional. As for Paris, there’s nothing to be done with this wet dishcloth of a man, a fact upon which the instantly forgotten Jack Sernas lavishes abundant proof.
So Helen Of Troy resembles Troy in its inability to make the central characters interesting and its consequent decision to cast the supporting roles to the hilt. Although Robert Douglas makes a rather boringly restrained Agamemnon in comparison to the scenery-chewing Brian Cox, the immortal Niall MacGinnis is sheer joy as a sulky, self-regarding Menelaus. MacGinnis was the best thing in a number of films of this vintage – his Professor Karswell in Night of the Demon is marvellous – and this is also the case here. Admittedly, it’s something of a stretch to imagine that he could have been a warrior – he’s got a very academic air about him – but he hams up a storm, perhaps rehearsing for his role as Zeus in Jason And The Argonauts. Sir Cedric Hardwicke is also lots of fun as a rather more fiery King Priam than was offered by Peter O’Toole’s oddly fey but touching performance.
Robert Wise was sometimes a really inspired director whose best films - The Set-Up, Odds Against Tomorrow, The Haunting - are masterclasses in the art of controlling one’s material to perfection. But he could also lapse into horribly bland hackwork which relies on basic competence and a certain largeness of scale to hide the lack of ideas - The Sound of Music being the most obvious example. Helen Of Troy is largely in this latter style and you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of any directorial personality whatsoever. It’s reasonably workmanlike and that’s about it. The Cinemascope frame isn’t used with much skill, certainly not compared to the brilliant manipulation of the edges of the screen in The Haunting, and Wise is content to let his DP Harry Stradling make pretty pictures. One scene uses a red filter to good effect, reflecting Menelaus’ rage, but that’s the only time you get the sense of a cinematic eye. As if to try and compensate for this, Max Steiner’s overstated music is spooned over the images where it congeals like three day-old porridge.
However, there is some diversion to be found in choosing the worst line in the script. The guilty men who wrote this screenplay – John Twist and Hugh Gray – have a kind of anti-talent for dialogue which becomes quite endearing as the film plods on and on. “Take your ease my Prince, I will handle this buffoon!” shouts a second-fiddle tough guy, pissed off at once more missing his chance at the leading role. Meanwhile, we are told of Paris that he “could fall into the black pit of Hades and come out with a hand full of sunshine”. Never one to understate the case, Menelaus muses that “We had our differences but she was my wife”. Helen observes of Paris, “This creature is crazy. But it is a nice kind of craziness” and realises he is a Prince because “The sea has destroyed your appearance but not your manner”. Time and again, we are given character information in the most tediously explicatory way possible – “You Hector, do you aspire to anything besides your swordplay and boxing?” – and the characters speak as if they are in a 1950s boardroom – “The virgin Cassandra raises one point which causes much concern” (the point being that Troy will be destroyed in apocalyptic fire). The famous lines are dropped in with embarrassing ineptitude – “Beware the Greeks bearing gifts, “ worries Helen as a very badly scaled model of a wooden horse is hailed by madly screaming crowds. Best of all, however, are the moments when Helen and Paris refer to each other in the third person:
“Two people in love. Against the world if need be”
“Paris, let him be a boy always. Let him never grow old”
“So she is real. That one I loved”
At times, it seems that Helen Of Troy was hauled out of the Warner Brothers archives simply to demonstrate the superiority of Petersen’s flawed but well crafted Troy. While the later film sometimes looked like an endless series of brutal battle scenes, at least it maintained some momentum and was exciting. Wise’s film trudges through the myth without any obvious signs of life. By the time we get a bit of action – not to mention some deliriously awful process work – it’s too late to save the movie. To paraphrase Charles Addams on Cleopatra, if you’ve only come to see the horse, then you’ll have one hell of a long wait. As one character prophetically says, “It’s all one long nightmare!”
Having found this dismal item in their vaults, Warners might have been expected to do some of their impressive restoration work on it. In some respects, it’s a nice transfer, presented in anamorphic 2.35:1. The colours are brash and vivid, there are deep blacks and the level of detail is impressive. But there’s quite a bit of print damage dotted about throughout the film, artefacting sometimes runs rampant and the texturing goes beyond a grainy film-like appearance to be actively distracting in some scenes.
The main English soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, taken from the original four channel stereo Roadshow presentation. Accordingly, it sounds more like Dolby 4.0 with very little use of the sub. However, the music has plenty of punch, the dialogue is natural and audible and it’s a clean, clear track.
The extras are similar to those on The Searchers - although that really is the only point of comparison with Ford’s masterpiece. There are three 1950s “Behind the Camera” featurettes, made for TV, presented by an already gone-to-seed Gig Young and they are all hilarious. The first concentrates on the coming of films with synchronised sound and contains some very diverting clips from Barrymore’s Don Juan. Sadly, when he gets to Helen of Troy things go downhill. Gig tells us that in the film, “You will get to see the inside of a Renaissance palace” which suggests that someone at Warners could do with a history lesson. There’s more inaccuracy when he says “the new technique of widescreen photography and colour that thirty years ago were just a dream.” You might want to tell that to Abel Gance and Raoul Walsh, not to mention the pioneers (at Warner Brothers) of two-strip Technicolor. There’s a fair amount of dubious historical scholarship here as well but we’ll let that pass. The second featurette begins with Gig saying “I hope you enjoyed Casablanca”, leading us to wish that we had been watching that classic rather than boring old Helen of Troy. Gig, obviously fresh from one of his regular visits to the off-licence, pretends to be in Ancient Greece while offering us clips from the film which usefully demonstrate the horrors of pan and scan. Here. we also get a brief interview with Helen of Troy – no, not the actress but the character. This is all terribly odd and perhaps best viewed as the after-effect of one of Gig’s three-day benders. The third featurette is all about the Sounds of Troy and deals with the, er, sound effects. Riveting stuff as I’m sure you’ll agree. We also get the original theatrical trailer, presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1.
There are a reasonably generous 38 chapter stops and some nicely designed static menus. The film offers subtitles in a range of languages and the special features are subtitled in English.
Helen of Troy is poor stuff and not really worth watching unless you’re a hardline fan of epics, both good and bad. The DVD offers a reasonably good technical presentation and some amusing, if uninformative, special features.