When it’s on: Wednesday, 23 May (12.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
Maybe it’s my fault. I came to Helen of Troy expecting a lot, certainly something classier than Wolfgang Peterson’s 2004 entry, Troy, and thinking about it my hope rested in the name of director Robert Wise on the credits. This is the guy who made one of my favourite science fiction films (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and The Haunting, which has an unimpeachable place in my top five horror flicks. His Oscar-winning years might have been in the future, but a quality director is a quality director, right?
Wrong. Without wishing to get into a debate about whether the best films always score at the Academy Awards (mainly because we all know the answer to that one), it turns out that Wise was as capable as anyone of putting out the occasional dud. Helen of Troy is a clunker, no doubt there. It’s almost rescued by some impressively staged battle scenes towards the end, as the Greeks stop mithering and actually attack the walled city, but getting to this point means sitting through what feels like hours of people talking, often by actors who aren’t up to the job. After watching it, I treated myself to another viewing of Troy, a film I have on DVD but have rarely returned to since seeing it at the cinema and not being entirely satisfied. My feeling at the time was that Peterson had allowed himself to be sucked into making a vehicle for its star, Brad Pitt, but having watched it again that now seems an unfair assessment and in fact Troy scores reasonably well. I’m not about to frame the poster, but I enjoyed it, which is more than I could say for the 1956 film.
Helen of Troy was a joint Italian-American production, which was filmed in Rome’s massive Cinecitta Studios and sported a multi-national cast. The two romantic leads (Jacques Sernas as Paris; Rossana Podesta as Helen) were European actors whose lines were re-dubbed, fairly standard practice for the time yet leading to claims that the film was unfairly criticised for its use of voice-overs. It wasn’t. If every movie lost a star for redubbing, then presumably Sergio Leone would have been dismissed as a hack.
There’s a far simpler reason why the pair didn’t go down well. Both look the part. Sernas shows an admirable willingness to wear very little throughout the picture (he has the torso for it), whilst Podesta reportedly won her part over a number of American actresses in an attempt to ensure the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ didn’t elicit a response of ‘No it isn’t, it’s [insert name of Hollywood glamourpuss here]!’ in theatres. Whilst beautiful enough to play a character so beguiling (as far as anyone can be), Podesta’s problem was the same as Sernas’s – she wasn’t much of an actor. The camera spends a long time on these people. Their job is to convince us that the Paris-Helen love affair was passionate enough to risk destroying a city for. You’d hope for sort of the chemistry oozing from the screen achieved by Burton and Taylor on the otherwise dull Cleopatra, and it just isn’t there.
After that, Helen of Troy feels like a film going through the motions, telling a universally known story in an unimaginative and disembodied fashion. Like Troy made almost half a century later, writer Hugh Gray erased the Gods from his adaptation of The Iliad and told it from the Trojan perspective. There’s a nice sense of Troy as the peace-loving city that is just trying to keep the Greeks at arm’s length. Agamemnon and his group of bored heroes appear to be waiting for any excuse to attack, which of course they get with the Helen debacle. The king’s court is a gathering of British character actors. Stanley Baker plays a grumpy Achilles and doesn’t get enough time to explore the reasons why he might be anything more than an ancient Greek Victor Meldrew. Menelaus, the Spartan king wronged by Helen, is far better value in the hands of Niall McGinnis, who simply over-acts his lines wonderfully in a film with otherwise very little spark.
The fault lies ultimately with Wise. Production values are reasonably high and the sight of thousands of extras having at each other in antique armour will always have some intrinsic level of interest, but the direction is flat and lacking imagination. Considering the level of trickery and manipulation deployed in The Haunting, getting a lot from scenes in which very little happens, it’s makes this all the more disappointing. The film’s fine solution to the problem of putting 1,000 Greek warships on the screen is nicely handled, and there’s some good red filtering over shots of the God of War, but that’s about all I remember as being worthy of note. Otherwise, the enjoyment to be had is in recognising well known faces in small roles (Brigitte Bardot turns up in a tiny part; Janette Scott plays the doom-prophesying Cassandra) and enjoying some bloody awful dialogue. ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts,’ indeed.
Helen of Troy: *