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Biblical epics, costume dramas and ancient world spectacles were a Hollywood fixture since the birth of the feature film. Italian cinema made a specialty of the lavish pageants with such early silent epics as Cabiria (1914) and D.W. Griffith imported the genre to America through the Babylon sequences of Intolerance (1916), spawning a Hollywood staple carried on by Cecil B. DeMille and others. In the 1950s, as Hollywood responded to the threat from television with widescreen spectacles, the lavish historical pageant was a natural to fill the big new frame. 20th Century Fox launched CinemaScope in 1953 with The Robe, a biblical tale set against the decadence of ancient Rome. Soon all of the tales of the ancient world were being plundered by Hollywood all over again, this time in color and widescreen.
While this kind of lavish spectacle wasn't exactly standard fare for Warner Bros., a studio more noted for handsome, sturdy dramas and tough, brawny adventures than gloss and spectacular production values, they nonetheless entered the fray of widescreen epics with the Biblical tale The Silver Chalice in 1954. Helen of Troy, from the Greek legend celebrated in Homer's The Iliad, followed in 1956.
Helen of Troy retells the story of Paris, prince of Troy, and Helen, Queen of Sparta, and the love that launched the Trojan War as a grand tragedy of devotion and greed, without the gods of Homer's tale interfering in human affairs. This 1956 version offers a romantic tale with Paris as the peace-loving prince from the persecuted Troy who risks his life to pursue peace from the kings of Greece, who prove to be a scheming, greedy bunch of rulers looking for an excuse to pillage the treasures of the well-fortified Troy. Helen rescues the valiant Paris from her despotic husband and together they flee to Troy with the united armies of the Greek kingdoms following in their wake.
Shot in Cinecitta Studios in Rome and on location on the Italian coast, with a crew of Hollywood and Italian artists and technicians, Helen of Troy made spectacle its selling point, from the ship braving raging seas to bring Paris to Greece to the magnificent palaces and ancient cities recreated for modern audiences. It all culminates in the invasion of Troy, where a screen filled with war ships brings a veritable cast of thousands to storm the walls of the city with spears and swords.
With the subject and spectacle serving as the "star" of this film, Warner chose to cast unknowns (at least to American viewers) in the title roles. Rossana Podest, a reigning Italian sex symbol, was chosen to play Helen, "the face that launched a thousand ships," as the legend goes. The role failed to launch her in Hollywood, but in the smaller role of her innocent young slave Andraste was a rising young French actress about to explode as an international sex siren: Brigitte Bardot; she plays cute and coy to Podest's dignified beauty. Jacques Sernas, a handsome leading man in French and Italian movies, is the film's Paris. All three performers were coached in English, at times learning their lines phonetically, and the French-Lithuanian Sernas was ultimately overdubbed by an uncredited Edmund Purdom, a British actor with his own career in cinema spectacles.
A cast of respected British actors fill out the supporting roles, including Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Priam, the wise King of Troy; Niall MacGinnis as the corrupt, corpulent King Menelaus of Sparta, Helen's hateful husband and the film's villain; and the brawny Stanley Baker as the arrogant warrior hero Achilles, "the man who blows his own horn," in the words of Menelaus.
Robert Wise was handed the reins of the large-scale production. A filmmaker who worked his way to the director's chair from the editing department, he had edited Citizen Kane (1941) before learning the ropes of directing in RKO's B-movie unit, establishing his talent for visual style and ingenuity in films such as fairy tale-tinged The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and the stylish yet tough film noirs Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949). By the time he was offered Helen of Troy, he was a veteran with almost twenty features to his credit, including the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the acclaimed war drama The Desert Rats (1953) and the all-star big business drama Executive Suite (1954). He had never made a costume epic before, but he'd proved his versatility by working in practically every other genre Hollywood had to offer.
Wise looked at the project as an experiment, he explained to Sergio Leemann in his book, Robert Wise on His Films. "CinemaScope had come in and I felt that it was probably time to get myself into that mainstream of big-size picture-making." While most widescreen productions tended to fill the screen with full shots and longer takes than standard films, Wise saw no reason why he couldn't shoot and edit as he did in other films, "as long as I composed them carefully... I think I was the first one to use editing in its purest sense with CinemaScope." The film has a quicker editing tempo than other widescreen spectacles of its era, which helps drive the massive battle sequences. Wise wasn't able to give Helen of Troy much personality, but his grandly mounted production became one of the studio's top moneymakers of 1956.
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: John Twist, Hugh Gray (screenplay); Hugh Gray, N. Richard Nash (adaptation); Homer (epic poem, uncredited)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Thomas Reilly
Cast: Rossana Podest (Helen), Jack Sernas (Paris), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Priam), Stanley Baker (Achilles), Niall MacGinnis (Menelaus), Nora Swinburne (Hecuba), Robert Douglas (Agamemnon), Torin Thatcher (Ulysses), Harry Andrews (Hector), Janette Scott (Cassandra).
by Sean Axmaker
"Robert Wise On His Films," Sergio Leeman. Silman James Press, 1995.
"The Warner Bros. Story," Clive Hirschhorn. Crown Publishers, 1979.