Release Date(s)1956 (July 25, 2023)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Helen of Troy is based on Homer’s Iliad, Homer’s epic poem centered on the Trojan War in 1100 B.C., and was designed to be epic in scope, in keeping with its source material. One of the first international film productions, it features a cast of European actors in a production combining history and legend in a fast-paced drama that doesn’t depart significantly from the original.
King Priam of Troy (Cedric Hardwicke) sends his son Paris (Jack Sernas, La Dolce Vita) to Sparta to secure a peace treaty between the two long-time enemies. A storm at sea sweeps Paris overboard and forces the ship to return to Troy. Paris washes ashore on Sparta, barely alive. Helen, Queen of Sparta (Rosanna Podesta, Sodom and Gomorrah), whom he mistakes for a peasant, discovers him and nurses him back to health. Helen’s beauty enchants him, his beauty enchants her, and they fall in love.
With his strength restored, Paris proceeds to the palace to meet with King Menelaus (Niall MacGinnis), Agamemnon (Robert Douglas), Odysseus (Torin Thatcher), and Achilles (Stanley Baker). There, he learns that the king is Helen’s husband. He also discovers that the king and his advisors are debating whether to wage preemptive war with Troy.
Menelaus sees that his wife and Paris are attracted to each other and, intensely jealous, plots Paris’ death. Aided by Helen, Paris flees and, when they are nearly caught by the Spartans, kidnaps her and returns to Troy. This gives the Spartans a cause to attack Troy. Determined to help Menelaus regain his honor, all the Greeks unite and sail in thousands of ships to attack Troy. But the high, stone walls of Troy are an impenetrable obstacle and its gates repeatedly defy the pounding of a battering ram. So the attack becomes a years-long siege, the Greeks intent on breaching the walls of Troy and decimating the city, the Trojans intent on wearing down the Greeks to win a war of attrition.
Realizing they can never get through Troy’s walls, the Greeks resort to duplicity. They will feign a retreat by sea, leaving a huge wooden horse as a tribute. But hidden inside are Greek soldiers, ready to exit the horse late at night and open the gates to the Greek troops. Hence Helen’s cautionary line “Beware the Greeks bearing gifts.”
Helen of Troy is a grandiose production that makes excellent use of CinemaScope and color in retelling the story of the Trojan War. The story hinges on the relationship of Paris and Helen, but the love scenes are weak and leave the viewer eager for the action to resume. The primarily British supporting cast adds gravitas to the film, although many of them appear briefly. Only MacGinnis has a meaty role as the spurned Menelaus, glowering and glaring at Paris and Helen with murder in his eyes. Cedric Hardwicke, with a dopey-looking false beard, plays King Priam of Troy as a beneficent, cautious ruler. Brigitte Bardot has a small role as Andraste, a slave sent to Paris in Troy.
Podesta is lovely and a good fit, physically, for “the face that launched a thousand ships,” but her acting skills fail to match. Rather than assume the bearing of a great queen, she comes across as a seductive temptress. Most of her scenes lack fire, but there’s one good scene in which she comes alive as Helen and Menelaus argue. Her romantic scenes never convince, and it’s clear she’s merely spouting florid dialogue and trying to look vivacious and alluring. Sernas’ Paris is the lovesick hunk, blinded by Helen’s beauty and disregarding the potential consequences of taking her to Troy. Sernas is handsome but fails to ignite many sparks in his scenes with Podesta. He’s best in the fight scenes, showing off his physical prowess.
The real star of Helen of Troy is the spectacle, impressively staged at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios and in Tuscany, Italy. Director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) has restaged the siege methodically, with thousands of extras, oxen, massive assault towers, and catapults. These sequences are exciting and comprise the meat of the film. Made well before CGI, the film is amazing in its deployment of actual human beings. These scenes are filmed mostly in long shot, amplifying thrills as the Greeks try unsuccessfully to breach Troy’s walls.
Watching Helen of Troy these days, one can’t help marveling at the production values. Today, it would be financially prohibitive to make such a film without computer-generated imagery to create a “cast of thousands.” Technically, the film is a cinematic miracle of organization, planning, and staging.
Helen of Troy was shot by director of photography Harry Stradling, Sr. on 35 mm film using the WarnerColor (CinemaScope) process and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.55:1. The Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative. Picture quality is excellent with fine detail and a wide color palette, ranging from bold primary tones to earthy hues. The wide screen images are impressive, particularly the battle scenes. In more intimate close-ups, the problem is what to do with wide swaths of space on the left and right. Director Robert Wise’s staging of the actors is often stiff, with various characters orating from standing positions as listeners, also standing, fail to react much. Didn’t ancient Greeks and Trojans ever speak as they walked? But Wise does make the most of the project’s $6 million budget with spectacular visuals.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. The soundtrack was originally created in 4-track stereo with RCA sound recording on magnetic prints. Dialogue is clear throughout. Rosanna Podesta and Jack Sernas are dubbed, likely because of her Italian and his French accents, but the dubbing is good. Sound effects play a big role in the battle scenes and contribute to their effectiveness. Max Steiner’s score adds excitement and amplifies the scenes’ epic nature. The Blu-ray release begins with the 5 1/2-minute overture that preceded the film in the prints used for the road show engagements.
Bonus materials on the unrated Warner Archive Blu-ray release include the following:
- Warner Bros. Presents TV Series Segments:
- The Look of Troy (6:06)
- Interviewing Helen (6:06)
- Sounds of Homeric Troy (6:06)
- Napoleon Bunny-Part Cartoon (7:07)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (4:11)
The Look of Troy – Actor Gig Young demonstrates a projector used for early sound-on-disc films. He shows a scale model of Troy and an ancient vase that provided the basis for the galley ship created for Helen of Troy. A model of the Trojan horse entering Troy dissolves into actual footage from the film. Young notes that Helen of Troy will be released simultaneously in 56 countries.
Interviewing Helen – Gig Young provides a brief synopsis of the film. A costumed actor introduces Rosanna Podesta who, as Helen, defends her reputation and explains her point of view of the events. Clips from the film, in black & white, are shown.
Sounds of Homeric Troy – Host Gig Young discusses how sound effects were created for the film, such as arrows being shot from bows, swords striking shields, the huge gates of Troy being battered, and battle scenes. A brief scene of battle is shown silent and then with sound to emphasize the importance of sound effects and music in creating excitement. A tense, dramatic scene between Helen and Menelaus is shown.
Napoleon Bunny-Part – This 1956 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon, directed by Friz Freleng, stars Bugs Bunny, who takes a wrong turn off the Hollywood freeway and tunnels into the headquarters of Napoleon Bonaparte. Mel Blanc provides the voices.
The major studios all produced color and widescreen epics during the 1950s. Helen of Troy represents a form of moviemaking intended to fill seats in movie theaters and give audiences what they couldn’t get at home on small, black-and-white TVs. The film fills the eye with spectacle and, if you can discount the lukewarm performances of Podesta and Sernas, offers two hours of entertainment.
- Dennis Seuling