On Page and Screen: Helen of Troy

Last night, I watched Helen of Troy, a 1956 swords and sandals epic on TCM.  The film was pretty boring, but at least Helen (played by Italian actress Rosanna Podesta)  in this version, had something of a storyline. She wasn't just a pretty piece of scenery while the men do all the heavy lifting. In this film, the Greeks are all blowhards and boring, and the Trojans are all pretty boys.  Poor Cassandra runs around with a doily on her head, as she weeps that no one will listen to her.

After the film was over, I realized that it's rare that Helen is the center of the story surrounding the Trojan War, despite the fact that the Greeks allegedly went to war with the Trojans over her 'kidnapping' by Paris.  In most films, we briefly see her love story with Paris, they run off together, and then film directors go to town on gory war scenes. Just think of the 2004 film Troy or as I like to call it Brad Pitt's thighs since Wolfgang Petersen spent more time lovingly filming Pitt's impressive physique as Achilles then on anything remotely resembling character development. 

In the 2003 TV version Helen of Troy, Helen is played by Sienna Guillory, who is beautiful, blonde and boring.  She's so insipid, it's hard to believe that Menelaus would risk lives of thousands of men to get her back. It's easier to believe that getting her back was just a ruse to do what men do best, wage war, for money and territory. Sienna Guillory pouts a lot, but she's easily overshadowed by Rufus Sewell as Agamemnon and James Callis (of Battlestar Galatica fame) as her husband Menelaus.  The one saving grace of this miniseries is that it actually tells Helen's story from childhood, including her kidnapping by Theseus.  Helen shouldn't be so passive though in her own story.

In Troy (2004), Helen is played by Diane Krueger, who is beautiful, blonde and can act, although you wouldn't be able to tell from this film because so much time is spent on Achilles and his best friend/lover Patroclus.  In fact, I barely remember her in the film at all.

Yet, if you read the mythology, Helen is a fascinating character in her own right. The daughter of Leda and Zeus (who came to her as a Swan), she was hatched from an egg, (her brothers Castor and Pollux hatched from another egg) and along with her sister Clytemnestra (who gets her own story in the Oresteia).  As a child, she was kidnapped by Theseus, who was also the son of a god.  She was apparently so beautiful that she had something like 25 suitors who came from around the world to seek her hand. After she runs off with Paris, the Trojans don't embrace her, in fact they hate her for bringing war to their land.  The infatuation between Helen and Paris wears off over the ten years of the Trojan War, as Helen sees that Paris is weak compared to his brother Hector.

Helen has been served better by authors from the playwrights Euripides and Jean Anouilh, and novelists that range from Margaret George and Amanda Elyot who have taken full advantage of the rich wealth of stories surrounding her.  Historian Bettany Hughes has a fabulous book about Helen of Troy that examines the story from a historical point of view.

I would love to see either HBO or Showtime adapt Margaret George's novel into a miniseries, perhaps with someone like Christina Hendricks as Helen.  That brings up another question, why is Helen always blonde?

Is anyone else as fascinated with the story of Helen of Troy? Do you think her story has been well-served by filmmakers?


Sarah said…
I compltely agree. And Brad Pitt's thighs are very nice, I wanted more of Helen of Troy. It would be nice if there could be a Showtime mini series (though it would probably be historically inaccurate) that would follow Helen throughout her life from her birth through the Trojan War.
I would accept historically inaccurate as long as Helen was at the center of her own story. Just thought of another actress who could play Helen, British actress Gemma Atherton who played Tess of the D'urbervilles.
Parabolic Muse said…
I feel kinda meh about Helen of Troy, although you enhance it quite a bit.

Fabulous blog!
Gem said…
I also wonder why Helen of Troy is always portrayed as blond. Perhaps it has something to do with the Medieval times's ideal of feminine beauty: blond, fair-skinned and blue-eyed. :)

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