The story of Helen of Troy has captivated audiences for millennia, and Hollywood has tackled Homer’s legend multiple times over the decades. But Robert Wise’s 1956 spectacle remains the definitive cinematic take on the fabled beauty whose face launched a thousand ships. Now available for the first time on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Archive, Helen of Troy dazzles anew in high-definition. While creaky at times by today’s standards, Wise’s sweeping vision still casts a spell 65 years later.
Bringing The Myth To Life in Helen of Troy
By 1956, historical and Biblical epics were all the rage in Hollywood, with studios seeking to lure audiences away from TV with lavish widescreen productions. Helen of Troy was designed to follow in the footsteps of recent hits like The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators. Securing a budget upwards of $3 million, Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops to transport Homer’s poem The Iliad to the big screen.
Overseeing the project was director Robert Wise, already an established hand at musicals and noir. But Helen of Troy would mark Wise’s first foray into the tricky realm of swords-and-sandals epics. To realize his vision, Wise utilized the expansive 2.55:1 CinemaScope frame to highlight the story’s grand vistas and massive battle scenes. Painterly visuals would be crucial for transporting audiences back to the mythic age of gods and heroes.
Joining Wise was an ensemble of up-and-coming actors and Hollywood veterans. In the title role, relative newcomer Rossana Podestà made her American debut, charged with embodying the beauty capable of launching a thousand ships. As her betrayed husband Menelaus, Robert Douglas exuded rage and aristocratic authority. The pivotal role of Paris went to Jacques Sernas, cast just before the film started shooting. And Harry Andrews brought gruff gravitas to his performance as Hector.
Rounding out the call sheet were revered British thespians like Cedric Hardwicke as Priam, Torin Thatcher as Odysseus, and a young Brigitte Bardot in a small early role. This blending of new talent and seasoned vets gave Helen of Troy a prestige sheen befitting its epic aspirations.
The Devastation of War, The Allure of Fantasy
Story-wise, Helen of Troy hews relatively close to The Iliad while condensing events for brevity. After Paris absconds with Helen to Troy despite her marriage to Menelaus, the Greeks spend years locked in bloody stalemate trying to reclaim her. Wise and screenwriter John Twist craft a episodic structure that allows for mammoth battle scenes while exploring ancient concepts of honor, destiny, and the capriciousness of the gods.
For audiences in the troubled mid-1950s, Helen of Troy’s messages about the ruinous cost of war and lust for power resonated deeply. The story’s emphasis on vanity and hubris acting as a catalyst for violence clearly paralleled rising tensions between global superpowers. Even the doomed romance between Helen and Paris underscored postwar disillusionment with tired concepts of gallantry and glory.
Yet the film also offered escapist allure at the height of Hollywood’s golden age. While obviously staid by today’s standards, Helen of Troy awe-inspiring battle scenes and lavish sets were cutting-edge spectacles in their day. Even viewed now, it’s easy to get swept up in Wise’s intricate blocking and swirling camera as huge crowds clash in increasingly brutal action.
The mythic grandeur is amplified by Max Steiner’s rousing orchestral score. Like the film itself, Steiner’s compositions oscillate between romantic fantasy and martial urgency. His iconic “Helen’s Theme” gives the film an emotional centerpoint amidst the pageantry.
Stunning Restoration Revitalizes A Studio Epic
Seeing Helen of Troy in theaters during its initial release must have been an unforgettable experience. While diminutive on home video over the decades, this new Blu-ray release marks the first time Wise’s visual splendors have been seen in high definition. The results are impressive to say the least.
Thoroughly restored in 4K from the original camera negative, Helen of Troy receives a revelatory upgrade here. The 2.55:1 Technicolor photography comes alive with enhanced detail and clarity. Fine textures in clothing and sets become apparent, from the woven chainmail of Greek armor to the weathered stone ramparts of Troy. Helen’s crimson gown positively radiates, and flickering firelight takes on new dimension.
The previously dull matte backgrounds have also been sharpened and color-matched to better integrate with the live action footage. Subtle improvements like this help restore the film’s intended sense of scope. Grain structure remains organic and cinematic throughout, offering a welcome celluloid texture.
Equally impressive is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which opens up Steiner’s bombastic score to thunderous effect. The music spreads across every channel to drive battle scenes and dramatic moments with room-shaking authority. Dialogue is consistently clear and well-prioritized in the mix. For a 67 year old stereo soundtrack, the full surround soundscape is surprisingly immersive.
Helen of Troy is an Important Relic, With Significant Flaws
Even with this sterling technical presentation, it’s important not to view Helen of Troy strictly through the forgiving lens of nostalgia. The film’s incredible scale and craftsmanship do earn respect, even as aspects of the storytelling now feel dated and awkward. The uneven acting in particular hasn’t aged gracefully. Jacques Sernas cuts a regal figure as Paris but delivers his lines with all the passion of a department store mannequin. Harry Andrews manages to lend some gravitas to the role of Hector, but stilted delivery hampers many scenes.
Pacing also proves problematic, with the bloated runtime and episodic plot causing attention to wander during extended expository stretches. The practical demands of such a massive production sometimes distract from nuances of character and theme. And the brash ethnocentrism that stereotypes Trojans as deceitful and cowardly can’t help but rankle modern viewers.
There are glimmers of nuance and mythic grandeur that still enthrall when all elements align perfectly. But Helen of Troy is clearly a studio epic crafted for different sensibilities and values of a bygone era. Viewing now requires understanding these limitations of context. As a widescreen spectacle it remains impressive, but the human element central to all timeless mythology gets lost.
A Showcase Piece, Despite Imperfections
In the final assessment, Helen of Troy is neither perfect masterpiece nor dated disaster — its qualities exist somewhere in between. For all the technical prowess on display, Robert Wise’s first epic lacks the emotional core and strong vision that defined his later career triumphs like The Sound of Music and West Side Story. But as an exemplar of Hollywood’s mid-century fascination with supersized mythology, Helen of Troy endures as an important relic.
And this long-awaited Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Archive gives the film its best shot at enthralling newcomers. The stunning restoration and booming audio recapture a measure of the movie’s intended grandeur. As a showcase for the evolving home theater capabilities of the 1950s, Helen of Troy on Blu-ray succeeds. It cements the film’s reputation as an essential Hollywood time capsule, warts and all. Despite cracks in the façade, Wise’s adaptation still epitomizes a bygone era when studios brought the fantastic to the masses by any means necessary.