Sunday, January 7, 2024

#2,943. Helen of Troy (1956) - The Films of Robert Wise


Released four years before Spartacus, three before Ben-Hur, and eight months prior to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Warner Brothers lavish production of Helen of Troy features moments as grand and spectacular as any of these later classics, even if it does fall a bit short of them.

Based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Helen of Troy carries us back to the year 1100 B.C. Paris (Jacques Sernas), a prince of the walled city of Troy, announces he will travel to Sparta to strike an agreement with King Menelaus (Niall MacGinnis) in the hopes of avoiding yet another costly war. With the blessings of his father, King Priam (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Paris sets sail, only to be thrown from his ship during a violent storm.

Washing up on the shores of Sparta, he meets Helen (Rosanna Podesta), the wife of King Menelaus and, thus, the city-state’s Queen. Mistaking her for the Goddess Aphrodite, Paris falls instantly in love with Helen, who herself develops feelings for the Trojan Prince. Anxious to leave the domineering Menelaus behind, Helen agrees to accompany Paris back to his homeland, knowing full well that doing so will ignite a war between Troy and the whole of Greece.

Directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story), with cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr. (My Fair Lady, A Streetcar Named Desire) and a score by great Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind, Casablanca), Helen of Troy has the look and feel of a full-blown Hollywood epic. This is especially prevalent in the film’s second half, when 1,000 Greek ships land on the shores of Troy, kicking off a series of impressive battle scenes, from the initial attack on the city (which features thousands of extras and plenty of catapults and battering rams) to the mano-et-mano showdown between Paris’ brother Hector (Harry Andrews) and Greek hero Achilles (Stanley Baker). The icing on the cake, however, is the infamous Trojan Horse sequence that closes out the movie, which is staged to near perfection.

While the second half of Helen of Troy is a rousing success, the first is a little more hit and miss. The storm at sea that tosses Paris from his ship is thrilling, as is a fight between Paris and Ajax (Maxwell Reed) set in the court of King Menelaus. Where the movie falters is the romance between Paris and Helen, with the chemistry between the two surging in one scene, then receding the next.

The fault cannot be laid entirely at the feet of its two stars. Italian actress Rosanna Podesta is stunning as Helen, and delivers a stirring turn as the “face that launched a thousand ships”, while French actor Jacques Sernas, though inconsistent, makes for a likable lead. Alas, both performances were dubbed into English, with mixed results (especially weak is Geoffrey Toone’s English dub of Paris, which lacks personality).

For trivia buffs, Helen of Troy is notable for being the first American film to feature Bridget Bardot (she briefly appears as Helen’s slave Andraste), as well as boasting a second-unit director who would go on to bigger and better things: Mr. Sergio Leone!

It may not have stood the test of time like Spartacus, Ben-Hur, and The Ten Commandments, but Helen of Troy is an epic that fans of early Hollywood won’t want to miss, and will be damn happy they saw.
Rating: 8 out of 10

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