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.
Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies. Plays on TCM on Friday, March 16. Also on DVD.