August 13, 2010

Helen of Troy

1956 film
directed by Robert Wise
written by N. Richard Nash, John Twist, Hugh Gray
based on the poem THE ILIAD by Homer

Let me start off by saying that I hate THE ILIAD. Culturally and historically, it's a work of major importance and I totally get that, but reading it made my brain hurt. There's no consistent narrative, the characters are all over the place, scenes of great power and scope are intercut with sequences of ridiculous actions and motivations, and let's not get started on the gods constantly swooping in and out of things (and I'd also mention that it has no beginning or end, but that's not its fault as it's the only surviving volume of a larger saga). I know, I know, it's an ancient work and shouldn't be held to modern standards, but its sister tale, THE ODYSSEY, is a rich and flowing story with solid structure and genuine character development, and not only fits those modern standards, but holds up as a better example of them than many a modern book.

That said, there is a fantastic story in there. While discussing peace in neighboring lands, Prince Paris of Troy (dashing Jacques Sernas) meets and instantly falls for the beautiful Helen (Rossana Podesta, whose striking face fits the bill). Though she initially resists her growing attraction, Helen ends up taking off with Paris for his homeland, which her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta (the quietly fierce Niall MacGinnis), really doesn't appreciate. Rounding up allied kings and "the greatest army ever known", he sets out to tear down the impenetrable walls of Troy.

This is a bit of a loose adaptation, with important figures like Hector (stony Harry Andrews), Achilles (lean yet shockingly formidable Stanley Baker), and Agamemnon (quietly scheming Robert Douglas) pushed into supporting roles so that Paris, Helen, and Menelaus can have the spotlight, a choice which I found to be both bold and refreshing. All the important stuff is there - Hector is the heir apparent, Achilles all cock and ego (great moment where he just stands there without flinching as arrows bounce off his armor), Agamemnon milking the humiliation of his brother Menelaus as an excuse to launch a raid on the richest kingdom in the lands - we just don't linger on any of it; and as these parts have been so richly explored in other adaptations, nothing feels lost. There are some additions to the story that are odd, like a new, third Prince of Troy, the war-hungry Polydorus (Robert Brown, acting as forgettable as his character), who serves absolutely no purpose before dying at the midpoint. More successful is the expanded first act in which Paris is swept off his boat and sneaks around Sparta as introductions are made, motives explored, and plans set in motion. Because of this, the Trojan War itself doesn't kick in until around the half-way point, but the scale and toll of the battle is captured so well that it works just fine. After all, this isn't the story of the war, but the doomed romance that made such a conflict inevitable.

I don't think this would work nearly as well in the hands of anyone but Robert Wise. As an editor, the man is a master of pace, using moments to build scenes and scenes to build a story, and knows just when to push past and when to draw out. He has incredible control as every moment of this films hits in precisely the right way. Take, for instance, our first sight of the attacking fleet. It's night. The people of Troy line the waterfront balconies of their city. Paris and Helen are called up to stand alongside the concerned and angry King Priam (the always dependable Sir Cedric Hardwicke). They look out on the sea as the torches of a thousand ships fill the horizon. We cut out to those very ships as drums beat out a rhythm for the oarsmen, and Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ulysses (the precise and witty Torin Thatcher) gaze hungrily at their approaching target. We cut back to the balcony. Priam turns and casts a cold glare at Helen. "The face that launched a thousand ships."

It speaks not only to the skill of Wise, but the group of seasoned screenwriters that such a line can be pulled off. While there are a few moments that feel a little forced, like the opening storm that strands Paris or a huge drunken party at the feet of that fateful wooden horse (the creation of which they execute very well, by the way; not many adaptations do), I was surprised at the sharpness of the writing, particularly the central romance. These are two people who can't not love one another, even as reason tells them that everything they know would be better off if they just stayed apart. Every arrow that strikes home, every body that takes a sword, every pyre that clouds the sky is a constant reminder of the consequences of their romance, and yet they get to a point where it's no longer possible to turn away. This is a very, very hard relationship to pull off without it feeling like total fluff (QUO VADIS), but the attraction is immediate (not just physically, but intellectually; something often missed), the chemistry undeniable, and the situations naturally evolving to that point of no return. And a lot of credit is due to the Italian actors Sernas and Podesta. Far from mere pretty faces in empty parts, they fully become these complex characters trapped on a road to tragedy. And points to whoever did the dubbing of their dialogue. It was flawless.

I was really, really impressed with this film. I shouldn't have doubted Wise, but this can be tricky material to pull off. Yet as I think not only of the authentic romance and the honesty of its crushing consequences, but of the spectacularly detailed sets and costumes and the talented cast and the vibrant score and that army of thousands of fully dressed extras with swords and armor and catapults and even four actual on-location battle towers, I'm blown away by just how well he did.

However, about those fake beards....

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2 comments:

Anthony Williams said...

Wow, Robert Wise. Was not expecting to see his name as director. That makes me curious right there.

- How does this compare to 2004's Troy [A film that I've grown to love over the years]?

Your aversion to The Iliad aside, I really do think you'd like David Gemmell's "Troy" trilogy.

NoelCT said...

Wow, Robert Wise. Was not expecting to see his name as director. That makes me curious right there.

This was still relatively early in his career, before he became a big name. Looking at his credits, the majority of what came before this (19 films in 10 years, wow) were a mix of budget studio assignment, film noir, a couple mid-budget war flicks, and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

How does this compare to 2004's Troy [A film that I've grown to love over the years]?

I've really come to like that one, too, and feel that this would make a good companion piece. They hit a lot of the same right notes, but what one gets wrong, the other gets right.

Your aversion to The Iliad aside, I really do think you'd like David Gemmell's "Troy" trilogy.

I'm sure I will. My problem isn't with the story of THE ILIAD, just the scattered, unfocussed way in which it was told. I know that's not fair given the ancient nature of the piece, but as I said, if THE ODYSSEY can do it right, then what's THE ILIAD's excuse.