Helen of Troy  (1956)

Helen of Troy  (2003)

Troy  (2004)

Ulysses  (1955)

The Odyssey  (1997)


Most of what we know of the Trojan War comes from the poetry of Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. In these works, myth and history converge. For centuries, these accounts were thought to be merely myths. But in the 19th century, archaeological evidence began to emerge for the historical authenticity of the war. I wish I could record that I have been to the excavations at the northwest corner of Turkey and stood on the walls of Troy, but the tour that I was on chose to skip the site because it was too distant and uninteresting. Admittedly, there are only some fragments of unearthed walls, but I would like to have been there. Now I must rely on Homer and the movies.

The surprise for most first-time readers of the Iliad is that it only accounts for the final battles in the last year of the decade-long war. Even the conclusion of the conflict, involving the ruse of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy, is left to a brief episode in the Odyssey. Those who have read the works of Homer are in for even more surprises, however, when they see what has been done to them on the movie screen. There are five films in my archive that cover the events of the Trojan War, each of them claiming a debt to Homer. Yet all of them take liberties that fundamentally alter the story from what was originally told.

The two films, dedicated to the charms of Helen of Troy as the cause of the Trojan War, set the stage for the ancient viewpoint on the conflict. Both of them begin with the passionate love affair between Helen of Sparta and Paris, Prince of Troy. Both of them also try to extract maximum emotional value out of the “elopement” of the two lovers from Sparta to Troy, and the war that followed on the heels of this insult to Greece. Homer began his account with the arguments between Agamemnon and Achilles nine years later. To understand the instrumentality of Helen in this story, it is necessary to go back to the myths of Olympus.

At a wedding feast being celebrated by the gods, Zeus is challenged to pick the fairest among the three women closest to him, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. He wisely sidesteps this tender trap and sends the three contestants to be judged by Prince Paris on a mountaintop in Asia Minor. Paris is at this time living as a rustic shepherd unaware that he is the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Each of the goddesses present themselves to him and he is moved to award the trophy, a golden apple, to Aphrodite, who has promised to provide a likeness of herself to be his bride.

In fairly quick succession, Paris finds himself back in royal robes at the palace where he was born, and reunited with his family. He is sent to Sparta as a peace envoy and there he meets Helen, who is the promised personification of Aphrodite. Helen is the daughter of Leda, who was the Queen of Sparta impregnated by Zeus in the form of a swan. If the movies about Troy choose to include this mythical prologue at all, they typically begin with the meeting of Helen and Paris. To my knowledge, the banquet of the gods and the Judgment of Paris, both popular subjects on the walls of art museums, have never been fully enacted in a Hollywood movie. The wedding couple, Thetis and Peleus, would become the parents of Achilles, the key character in Homer’s Iliad.

Helen of Troy  (1955)

The video for this movie has a prolog of black and white footage from a 1955 television program about the making of Helen of Troy. The host shows a model of Troy that he says is based on the excavations in Turkey.  Also shown is footage of the site showing current progress. There is a model as well of a Greek warship, and a suggestion that the film would need a thousand of these ships in full-scale. The film is about to be accorded the unprecedented honor of a “worldwide opening.” Through the magic of television, the host meets Helen herself (Rossana Podestà) on the ramparts of Troy. They discuss the hardships of the Trojan War and he shows a diagram of the “walls of Homeric Troy, built in 1500 BC.” The film is promoted as “one of the greatest love stories ever written.” Who, it might be asked, wrote it? Certainly not Homer.

Set in Troy, “3000 years ago,” the Trojans are represented as a carefree people with a Minoan-like love of beauty. They are feeling threatened by the powerful Greeks to the West. In the court of Priam, Paris is accused of adoring one Goddess alone, Aphrodite, and neglecting others, such as Athena. Paris is sent as an envoy to the Greeks, against the dire warnings of his sister, Cassandra. There is no mention of the mythical Judgment of Paris. Shipwrecked in a storm, Paris is washed ashore at Sparta where he is found by Helen, who approaches splashing through the sea-foam. The delirious Paris takes her for Aphrodite. She calls her slave girl, Andraste (An-drast-ee, played by Brigitte Bardot), to help care for the Trojan. The smitten Helen makes Paris think she is a slave girl too. They fall in love. None of this resembles anything attributed to Homer.

The kings of Greece are meeting in the palace of Menelaus, King of Sparta and Helen’s husband, to plot war against Troy. Achilles heaps contempt on his peers. Paris arrives inexplicably in the middle of the conclave. Part of his mission, he says, “is to spread civilization.” When Menelaus realizes that he is losing the affections of his wife to the handsome prince from Troy, he locks Paris in a dungeon. Helen sends Brigitte Bardot to help him escape. Paris and Helen flee to the seashore pursued by soldiers. With nowhere else to turn, they leap into the waves and make for Troy on a waiting ship. The kings have been having difficulty finding sufficient cause for war with Troy. Paris and Helen have given it to them. It can be observed that the movies never opt for the classic idea of the “abduction” of Helen. They prefer to picture an independent-minded woman rejecting her repressive marriage and escaping with her handsome lover to begin a new life.

Paris and Helen enter Troy triumphantly. When Priam and the court learn that Paris has brought the Queen of Sparta, there is great consternation. Paris is cursed by “every woman with a son or brother.” The mob turns on Paris. The Greeks set sail with a mighty armada and the Trojans prepare for war. As the ships approach, Priam turns to Helen on the battlements and quotes Marlowe, “The face that launched a thousand ships.” The Greek Kings stand on a rise and regard the walls of Troy. It is a very believable spectacle. Great armies take to the field. The Trojans are dressed in robin egg blue. War machines are rolled into place and the siege begins.

The first nine years of war pass quickly across the screen and finally the story begins to approximate the part that Homer wrote. Where the Iliad leaves off, the episode of the Trojan horse is added in and Troy is burned. Here Helen is given the immortal line, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” Priam commands Helen and Paris to escape with their lives. They flee with the refugees while Priam and Hecuba are led off to die. Menelaus finds Helen and Paris in the crowd and engages Paris in sword battle. Paris is stabbed in the back by another. Menelaus reclaims his wife and takes her to his ship. As they sail into the west, Helen proclaims her undying love for dead Paris. This film is well-crafted but ultimately undistinguished, demonstrating that 1950s sword-and-sandal movies, though often wooden, established a human scale that is refreshing in light of the over-produced epics that would follow.

Helen of Troy  (2003)

This is a two-part TV miniseries, produced by the USA network. Later it was released to DVD as a feature film, running almost three hours. It opens with the prophecy of Cassandra that if Paris lives, Troy will burn. The infant is abandoned on a mountaintop where he matures into a handsome goatherd. While still on the mountain, Paris is visited with a vision of the three Olympian goddesses seeking his judgment. In a reversal of the myth, Aphrodite makes him a gift of the Golden Apple in token of her promise to deliver Helen to his bed. In the meantime, Helen is growing up as an awkward but pretty girl in the palace of her father, Tyndareus, King of Sparta. When Agamemnon and Menelaus arrive at the palace in advance of Agamemnon’s marriage to Clytemnestra, both men are struck by the allure of the bride’s younger sister, Helen. Now a completely separate mythical element is introduced to the story when Theseus arrives to attend the wedding and abducts Helen to Athens. He intends to marry her when she comes of age. This interlude serves the needs of Helen’s story when Theseus informs her that she is not the adopted daughter of Tyndareus but the lovechild of Zeus and Leda. She is rescued by her brother, Pollux, but both he and Theseus are killed in the melee.

Back in Sparta, Helen is now in disgrace for having caused her brother’s death. He was heir to the throne and the angered Tyndareus offers her to any one of the kings who will take her. Menelaus wins a drawing and acquires her as a wife. When Tyndareus dies, Menelaus becomes king. He is proud of his possession and requires her to parade naked before the men gathered in his throne room. One wonders if this actress had the same feelings toward her director that Helen felt toward her manipulative husband. Just at this moment, Paris arrives at court as peace envoy from Troy. Gazing upon the splendid Helen, his eyes travel upward until they meet hers. There is an instant attraction. They find ways to spend enough time together to realize they want to escape to Troy. On the waterfront, Helen steps back and pleads with Paris to depart without her. She changes her mind once again, running down the wharf and leaping into the water. Their fates are sealed.

Agamemnon's Palace at Mycenae

Agamemnon’s Palace at Mycenae

The first half of the movie concludes with the Greek fleet, commanded by Agamemnon, becalmed at Aulis and unable to sail for Troy. Agamemnon learns that the gods require tribute before the campaign can go forward. He must sacrifice his little daughter, Iphigenia (Iffy-jenya), if the thousand ships are to have wind to fill their sails. The child is brought to the altar and put to death . The fleet sets sail across the Aegean. For the full story on this heart-wrenching episode and it’s a tragic aftermath, see Greek Dramas on Film. Much of this follows the broad outlines of the ancient sources but the spaces between are filled with screenwriters’ fiction. The priority is to keep the Romeo and Juliet story of Paris and Helen at the center of the action.

The second half of the movie finds the armies of Greece massed on the plain between the sea and the walls of Troy. Priam stands on the battlements with Helen to watch his two sons, young Paris and the older Hector, go to their doom. Achilles is used as a secondary character here, a blunt force warrior. Contrary to Homer, it will be Agamemnon who kills Hector and drags him behind his chariot. Agamemnon is dominant in the prosecution of the war, and it becomes clear that he is more interested in the conquest of Troy than in the liberation of Helen. He is wracked with guilt over the death of his daughter, Iphigenia. Further departing from Homer, he rapes the captive Helen and is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, before he leaves the shores of Troy. For the more familiar playing out of the fate of Agamemnon after his return to Mycenae, see Greek Dramas on Film. Paris is killed on the battlefield, and the damaged Helen is restored to Menelaus. It is a sordid conclusion, but to be fair, there is value here. This is the only one of the films covered in this post that encompasses the entire span of the war, from the Judgment of Paris to the fall of Troy, and the death of Agamemnon.

Troy  (2004)

The only Hollywood movie that adheres roughly to the outlines of the Iliad is the Brad Pitt blockbuster, Troy (2004), which is more interesting for its background than its foreground. It plays irreverently, not to say irresponsibly, with Homer, padding out a love story for Brad and killing off characters that are later to appear in the Odyssey.

May 15, 2004.  For one of the first times in years, I managed to get to the cineplex on the opening weekend of an important new movie. The seats were filled almost entirely with young people who appeared to have been lured far more by the star power of Brad Pitt than interest in the Homeric epic that “inspired” this film. It was a disappointing experience. This was not the first time I felt myself out of step with the generation to which most movies are aimed, but it was an occasion that forced me to reflect on the differences in perspective.

My reasons for being in the cineplex that evening were driven by a desire to know what Hollywood had to say about the Trojan War. Like many who were not educated at school, I had little knowledge of Homer or of the importance of this war as a milestone in history. Just as it was for an unknown percentage of those sitting around me, I was in my youth more interested in going to the movies than I was in studying for a history test. Only with a belated coming of age, did I develop a curiosity for what lay on either side of the time of change I had lived through.

My first taste of Homer came in the 1990s, long before I was aware of any movie based on the Iliad. My work in that time involved long drives over the roads of North America and I had discovered the pleasures of audiobooks. These trips gave me the opportunity to listen to books that I would never have taken the time to sit down and read. My most rewarding discovery was long recordings of classic works from early history. I listened to Gilgamesh, the Argonautica, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and many others from more recent centuries. This was not dry scholarship, but an opportunity to hear the great epics delivered by skilled performers in the ways they were meant to be experienced by non-reading audiences. These were works from the oral tradition that preceded the wide availability of books, beginning only about 500 years ago.

The first time I listened to the Iliad on tape, I had to laugh at the petty arguments and schoolyard behaviors of Achilles and Agamemnon. This was certainly not what I expected from the iconic tale of heroes on the threshold of Western Civilization. They are arguing over possession of two young women, taken captive at Troy. My first impression was that this was an odd way to set the foundations for a culture, but further study changed my mind. The treatment of heroes and other role models as fallible and even comical has a long tradition stemming from the Asiatic side of the pond. Look no further than the Old Testament for stories of those who tried and failed to live up to the standards set by the One God. It is a humanizing device.

Unlike the Helen of Troy movies, this version puts Brad Pitt’s Achilles at the center of the action and makes him a golden-haired hero. My own concern was that Pitt was too young for the role of Achilles and that he would drag the whole thing down to the level of action-adventure. But Pitt brought a surprising power to his role and the failure of this film was not his to make. The next level of encouragement came with the fact that the Greek hierarchy, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Ajax, Nestor, were played by men of mature vigor.

The first danger signals for a compromised movie came with the meeting of Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Helen in Sparta. The filmmakers had decided to eliminate all references to the intervention of the gods in the playing out of the Trojan War. Without the spirit of Aphrodite over his shoulder, Paris is reduced to a callow youth in love. Helen is a supermodel (Diane Kruger), undeniably attractive but the love scene between them in the Spartan palace lacked magic, Helen’s nudity notwithstanding. It was not a surprise to see these star-crossed lovers join hands and run to a ship bound for Troy.

After I saw this movie, I wrote a long review detailing the pluses and minuses that march across the screen. Essentially, they break into two ranks. The backgrounds are marvelous, offering spectacular views of the landscapes and seascapes between the palaces at Mycenae and Troy. In the foreground, however, the story is played out in directorial choices that distort the work of Homer almost beyond recognition. As usual, I have been debating with myself on how much of this catalog of errors should be loaded into this website. Still in a quandary, I decided to check in with Roger Ebert to see if part of this task had been attended to already. Happily, I found that he and I are pretty much in agreement and I will leave it to Roger to discuss the foreground activities of the actors. I will only add one quibble. He objects to the interpretation of Achilles as introspective and ambivalent about the war, saying it is untrue to the nature of Greek myth. But in fact, these qualities of Achilles are abundantly displayed in the Iliad.

A second viewing of this film revealed a heightened contrast between foreground and background. The loves of the movie stars are banal, but the panoramas of the Trojan War are spectacular. Small moments, especially those involving Peter O’Toole as Priam (say Pree-am), carry echoes of authenticity. There are a couple of Making Of pieces on the DVD. One of them concentrates on the set designers’ concerns for authenticity. The head designer makes it clear that they were interested in historical inspiration only so far as it contributed to the epic concept of the film. When they learned that the real Troy was much smaller than they thought, they tapped Egyptian-Hellenistic and Assyrian architectural forms to enlarge the vision. It gradually becomes clear that there was a disappointing unconcern for accuracy if it conflicted with entertainment. Shooting was done in Malta, Mexico, and England in 2003.


As I write this, I am overtaken with memories of characters in the Iliad that have remained submerged for more than fifty years. In the time when I might have been in college, I had fallen into a job at a very large Shakespeare theater. One of the productions I worked on as a young stage manager was Troilus and Cressida, based on a combination of medieval legend and Homer’s Iliad. It became notorious for the decision of the director to set the action of Shakespeare’s play in the American Civil War. The Greeks were the Union and the Trojans were the Confederates. There were detractors among the purists, who saw this as a cheap gimmick. But there were also those who saw it as a brilliant solution to presenting the timely themes of this play to the modern audience. Of course, I knew little of Shakespeare and less of Homer in those days, but I spent several months in intimate contact with the play as it entered the repertory. I had a catbird seat for all the arguments. It all begins to come back to me now.

What I remember most about the production of Troilus and Cressida at the Stratford Shakespeare Theater in 1961, is not the declamatory speeches of the main characters, but the wry comments of a character called Thersites (say Ther-site-ees). Like Falstaff or Lear’s fool, he had a low view of staged heroics and royal arrogance. The audience loved him for it.

The only other films I have found about the Trojan War are less important and less historical. There are two Italian films from the sword-and-sandal era of epic knockoffs. The Trojan Horse (1961) frames the story from the Roman point of view, featuring Steve Reeves as Aeneas. Fury of Achilles (1962) is old and stiff-jointed, taking an almost documentary approach to the story of the war.

Ulysses  (1955) – Italian / Kirk Douglas

The Iliad has taken its place as the first great work of Western literature, and the Odyssey is the second. While there is no doubt that these are imaginative works, exercising full poetic license, the debate in recent centuries has been over whether or not they are rooted in actual events. Many scholarly, scientific, and adventurous minds have applied themselves to the search for history in the myths, and they have not come up empty. Since the cavalier excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the late 1800s, there has been a growing sense that there is a geography and a historical timeline to the events of the Trojan War. Schliemann also sailed to the island of Ithaca in hopes of finding the palace of Odysseus, but fell short of his goal. In recent times, there have been claims that the fabled palace has been found by archaeologists in Ithaca and the flames of speculation have been stirred up once again. Still, it cannot be overlooked that this story of the homeward journey is driven primarily by mythical fictions. The King of Ithaca is known equally as Odysseus, from Homer, and Ulysses, from the Romans.

Released only ten years after the end of World War II, the Italian film, Ulysses, signed on Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn to give the project broader international appeal. It worked well, and the success of this film gave rise to the Italian sword-and-sandal genre. Despite its Romanized title, it is the story of the Odyssey according to Homer, though greatly abridged. The movie, like the Homeric epic, frames the action with events in the palace at Ithaca, where Penelope waits for her warrior king to return from Troy. Ten years have gone by since the war ended. Her son, Telemachus, is angered by the uncouth suitors who have gathered at the palace to seek Penelope’s hand. Refusing to believe his father is dead, the young prince sets off by ship to search for Ulysses. During these opening episodes, there are reports on the ending and aftermath of the Trojan War, including the popular tale of the Trojan Horse devised by Ulysses.

Now the action shifts to Kirk Douglas, tracing his island-hopping adventures on the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Ulysses has been gone from Troy for several years, but the goddess Calypso caught him in her web and would not let him go. Finally freed, he has shipwrecked on an island closer to Ithaca and fallen under the spell of a beautiful woman named Nausicaa (Rossana Podestà, who in the following year would be seen playing the title role in Helen of Troy). The battered mariner has lost his memory and spends his time walking on the beach trying to remember where he has been. After a time, he is able to recall his encounter with the horrific one-eyed cyclops, named Polyphemus, and his ordeal in passing the island of the sirens. The gates of memory have been opened and he remembers yet another alluring woman who wanted to keep him for her own. She is the witch-goddess Circe (say Sear-see). He has lost all his ships and the men who sailed them.

Now restored, Ulysses returns to Ithaca to face the intruders who have befouled his palace. Anthony Quinn is the alpha male. First Ulysses tests Penelope to be sure she has been true to him, and then he slays all the suitors who had designs on his wife. This is the myth without the poetry.

The Odyssey  (1997)

This two-part miniseries arrived on TV screens in May 1997 to great anticipation, promising a fleshed out version of Homer’s epic with a contemporary slant on the material. Many familiar names were on the cast list. It began well enough with Odysseus rushing to the side of his wife, Penelope, who was giving birth to their son, Telemachus. They were well suited to their roles as King and Queen of Ithaca, but the unfolding of the story quickly began to degenerate to the level of Saturday morning TV.

Agamemnon and Menelaus, looking like pewter soldiers, arrive on the island to summon Odysseus to the war against the Trojans. There is no mention of Helen. Odysseus bids farewell to his wife and baby and sails off with the Armada. Out at sea, Odysseus is visited by a mild mannered Athena (Isabella Rossellini) for some pleasant conversation. There is a brief recap of the ten-year war featuring a quick battle between Hector and Achilles and the later death of Achilles. He is represented as blond and muscular, foreshadowing the 2003 interpretation by Brad Pitt. The Trojan Horse, masterminded by Odysseus, gets the most screen time. Laocoon (say Law-oh-co-on) warns the Trojans to beware of the Greeks and their gifts. He is carried into the waves by a giant sea snake. Preparing to leave for Ithaca, Odysseus stands on the rocky shores of Troy and announces to the gods that he alone brought about the end of the war. The gods, he says, are no longer needed. He is answered by a deep-voiced Poseidon who promises that he will regret his arrogance. Now the long voyage begins. This abbreviated prelude is useful as a set up for the Odyssey, but from this point onward things take a turn for the worse.

I watched the two installments of this miniseries while traveling north to south across the USA. Because I stopped and stayed with friends along the way, it was difficult to pay attention to the fine points of the story. The people who joined me around the glowing screen were all in agreement that this was what the Odyssey would have been if it had been composed almost 3000 years later by the people who write Hallmark cards. It’s not all bad, but it’s mostly bad.

At first, I had the idea of making notes on the ways in which this TV version differed from the original. My own loss of interest and the distractions from those around me who were talking among themselves made my plan unworkable. The version according to Homer begins on Ithaca when Telemachus is already grown to manhood and ready to set sail in search of his father. Ten years have passed since the end of the war. Homer preferred the flashback technique, but the Hallmark people want to put one foot in front of the other.

 The tale is already turned on its head. The tale is already turned on its head. On TV, Odysseus departs from Troy immediately after the war and is beset with delays engineered by the angry Poseidon. Next he stops at an island for a chance encounter with Aeolus, God of the Wind, played by Michael J. Pollard with an untempered New Jersey accent. Within sight of their home island of Ithaca, the crew disobeys orders and opens a bag of wind given to Odysseus by Aeolus. Their boat is blown far off course to the island ruled by Circe (Bernadette Peters). She puts Odysseus under a seductive spell and five years pass before he comes to his senses. Circe is repentant and sends him into the underworld to get directions back to Ithaca from Tiresias. This ends the first installment.

In the next installment, they are menaced by a monster created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and then thrust into a watery vortex where the boat and all of the crew are lost. With some help from Hermes, a kind of male Tinkerbell, Odysseus finds his way to the island ruled by the beautiful Calypso (Vanessa Williams) and once again, he is made a love slave. At last, he returns to Ithaca on a flimsy raft. Poseidon makes one last assault on him, demanding his acknowledgment that mortals are nothing without the gods. He returns to Penelope in their palace on the hill and the story concludes roughly as Homer told it.

For movies about the aftermath of the war, see Greek Dramas on Film.

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