Friday, July 8, 2011
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.
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?