Helen of Troy (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?"

    --- Christopher Marlowe, "Faustus" ---


Helen of Troy is a lavishly produced TV mini-series, shot on location in Malta by the USA network.

It is an alternate version of the story. Although it assumes that the legendary version contains the core of truth, the mini-series views some of the incidents from a completely different perspective. Many people objected to it for presenting a dumbed-down alternative to an important epic, or for unwarranted historical revisionism.

Does that make sense to you? I doesn't to me.

The Trojan War is one of the most commemorated events in human history. The greatest painters of every generation have memorialized it. The greatest authors have lionized its heroes. Various incidents are immortalized in every form of iconography from modern advertising logos to linguistic idioms to ancient pottery. Many people who are completely ignorant of real events in their own times can probably identify a "Trojan horse" or describe why a vulnerability is called an "Achilles heel", all because of events that happened 3200 years ago.

That familiarity makes it seem real to us.

But frankly, there are not many things we know about the Trojan War. We can't even say that it really happened.

If it did occur, it probably happened around 1200 B.C. If Homer really existed, he probably composed The Iliad around 700 B.C. It was probably written down for the first time around 500 B.C. The only thing we're pretty sure of is that the version known in 500 B.C. is still virtually identical to one we can read today if we choose to and are able to do so. It is also likely that this written version was very close to the original composition from a couple of centuries earlier, since the work was in a very complex poetic meter (dactyllic hexameter), which didn't really allow it to be altered much from telling to retelling. To avoid the interruption of constant disclaimers, I will assume for the remainder of this essay that there was a single author named Homer, and that he composed his works orally in the period between 750 and 650 BC. I will also assume that there was a Troy, and it fell between 1250 and 1180 B.C. These are not certainties, by any means, but they are based on the best available evidence. (See notes and links below.)

Homer's work is, was, and always will be great literature. It may be the most important unifying cultural treasure of European civilization. It was the first great mythical work to be written down, it is still regarded by Greeks as complex and beautiful poetry, and its enduring popularity in other languages speaks volumes for the timeless quality of the story. The only problem comes when people want to treat it not as literature, but as history. At best, it was composed five centuries after the events which inspired it. The legend therefore grew over five centuries of embellishment by superstitious, primitive, ignorant, people who took pride in their heroes and their country, and believed in a pantheon of ludicrous superhuman deities. If you could go back with pictures and a battery-powered TV/VCR and tell these people about Space Ghost, they would think he was real, and would build a temple to him.

It is not known to what extent Homer thought his account was true. Did he really believe that everything happened as he recounted it, including the constant interference of gods and goddesses, or did he simply use the gods to mythify his story even though he knew it was a crock? We will never know the answer to this with any certainty, but presumably the ancients did believe that the gods intervened directly in their lives, so Homer may have thought all of it happened as he described it. Clearly there are elements in the Iliad that give it a gloss of authenticity, like the minute accounts of the commanders and their ships and the men that sailed with them. Did Homer simply fabricate these details to overlay an encyclopedic patina which would make the myth seem more authentic, or were these details handed down with accuracy for centuries? Or is there a third explanation? We will never know these answers, either.

But there is one thing we know for sure: the ancient myth is bullshit, whether they believed it or not.

  1. The most obvious reason is that there are no prophetesses and there are no gods wandering among humans. Helen wasn't the daughter of a god who disguised himself as a big duckie, Achilles wasn't virtually invulnerable because he was bathed in the River Styx, Cassandra could not see the future, and so forth. Those things should give you a pretty good whiff of some major bullshit in the vicinity.

  2. There is a less obvious reason as well. The Iliad is the Greek version of the story, and nobody wrote the Trojan version. There are two clichés worth remembering in this context:

  • History is written by the winners.

  • There are two sides to every story.

Imagine an account of the history of President Reagan's administration, as written entirely by the admirers who want his likeness on Mt. Rushmore. Then imagine an account written entirely by the Reagan detractors who think he was a dunce and that his administration was riddled with criminality. You see what I'm driving at? The Iliad is a partisan account, and it had 500 years to become embellished by people who were so ignorant they really believed that women could get pregnant from having sex with a waterfowl. Surely the ancient Greeks were no less susceptible to partisanship and pride and bias than we. Perhaps they spun events even more than we do. And they were a lot more ignorant.

So how much of The Iliad and its corresponding ancient legends should we believe? I can answer that. Go back to my original point about the Reagan administration. Imagine that the account was only written by his supporters. Imagine that his supporters sincerely believe that Jesus personally intervened to make Reagan defeat godless Communism. Imagine that their account is handed down verbally for 500 years, with no libraries or other records to dispute the oral accounts, and nobody left alive to remember what really happened for the last 450 of those 500 years. Now imagine that the people who tell the Reagan story over the centuries truly believe that a human woman can get pregnant from goose-fucking. Got a picture? How much of that account do you think you could believe 500 years later? That's how much of the legend you should believe.

The script for this mini-series simply postulated that some of the legendary account was pseudo-religious myth, and some of it Greek "spin". It tried to humanize and de-spin the story, hypothetically of course. The legendary account says, for example, that the Trojan prince, Paris, was treated as visiting royalty by Menelaus, and that Paris responded to this kindness by kidnapping Menelaus's wife (Helen of Sparta, later Helen of Troy), with the help of the goddess Aphrodite. The mini-series chooses to adhere to the same basic facts - Paris visited, was feasted, left with Helen - but spins it another way. Menelaus and his brother were scumbags. They humiliated Helen and treated her like they treated their prize cattle. She fell in love with the noble, unaffected Paris, who had been raised as a shepherd. The Spartans had long intended to conquer Troy for its riches. They did wine and dine Paris for a time, but only to milk him for information which would facilitate a battle plan. When Paris escaped a certain death sentence in Sparta, Helen insisted on accompanying him. In fact, she swam out to the Trojan boat, which was already underway.

There are many other places where the mini-series offers an alternative to the legend, but the one example above should give you the general idea of the revisionist premise. The new legend in brief: King Priam of Troy was wise and just, Helen really loved Paris because he was a great guy, King Agamemnon was a completely power-crazed buttchasm, and his younger brother Menelaus was a spineless toady.

I reckon this version makes just as much sense as the legend. Maybe far more. At least all of the events seem justified, the behaviors seem properly motivated, and the convenient impact of the "hand of the gods" has been mostly excised from the account.


Sienna Guillory (Helen) is gorgeous, and walks around naked in several scenes. Bare buns, see-through breasts.

(Since they claimed to tell the "true story", it is inexplicable that they retained Paris's encounter with the three goddesses and the apple of discord, as well as Cassandra's flawless prognostications, the fact that Helen was the daughter of Zeus, and a few other minor supernatural elements.)

In general, I liked what they did with the story. Although some of the characters are one-dimensional (Achilles is a total asscrevice), some of the others (Menelaus, for example, who usually ends up as an unredeemed and unbalanced villain in the story) are allowed to breathe and to grow. I liked the fact that the script made Iphigenia a beautiful, bouncing, loving, pre-schooler who was slaughtered like a sacrificial goat by her father, right after she ran merrily into his arms. I very much liked the way they had Clytemnestra kill her husband, the arrogant Agamemnon, who had killed their innocent little daughter as a sacrifice for favorable winds, and I could feel her anger when she did it. I felt that I would have done what she did, right or wrong. Isn't that how drama is supposed to work?

I would have been completely thrilled if the script had gone one step further. I would love to see a script about the Trojan war which assumes that there were no supernatural events at all, and gives a hypothetical recreation of the actual historical events which could have inspired the mythical version, using the best available archeological and historical evidence.

  • Assume Helen had a normal father.

  • Assume Cassandra was a madwoman (or didn't exist at all)

  • Assume there were no gods and goddesses, but that the characters believed in them. This interpretation would still allow Agamemnon to kill his daughter, because he believed it would bring the favorable winds. Perhaps a week later, the winds would reverse, and their superstitious minds would make the connection with the sacrifice, because they'd assume that gods do not always act immediately.

  • Show the spin doctors at work. Picture the actual events, then show the balladeers' version of what has been pictured earlier.

Oh, well. I guess if I want that script, I'll have to write it myself. Fat chance of that. In the meantime, this project gets about half way to what I'd like to see, and gets there in an entertaining, sometimes moving way.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Includes 20-minute featurette: "Helen of Troy: Making the Epic"

  • Widescreen anamorphic format

It isn't perfect. The dialogue can be cheesy, the attitudes of the characters seem too modern (ala Xena), other characters are too one-dimensional, Helen seems like a petulant 14 year old, and the actor playing Paris has all the depth of Ashton Kutcher.

But if If you like the whole epic costume drama kind of thing, and you don't really care that this version does not agree with the Iliad, you might pick it up at Blockbuster some weekend. I was aware of the project's weaknesses, but I got involved enough with the characters that I watched it, three hours of it, without the fast forward button.

Nice female nudity, as well!

Footnotes and reference:

1. Who was Homer? Is The Iliad historically accurate? Brief overview

2. This site gives a complete summary of the Homeric Legend and asks if there was a real Trojan war.

3. This site gives a good overview of how the events of the Trojan War have been pictured in the art of the subsequent millennia.

4. What do we know about the real Troy? This is a very good academic summary of the archeological evidence as well as the other, non-Homeric ancient texts.


Helen of Troy (2003) is a TV miniseries filmed in Malta, and tells "the real story" of Helen of Troy, and the 10 year war between Sparta and Troy. This is decidedly not my type of film -- a costumer running 2 hours and 57 minutes, but I was enthralled beginning to end. It was epic in every way, with amazing sets and costumes, battles with thousands of soldiers, and excellent special effects. It was filmed in Malta, and they tried to be as authentic as possible in the design of Sparta and Troy, and also the weapons, utensils and costumes.

Most of the criticisms complain about the fact that the film deviates from Homer's Iliad. I mentioned some time ago that differing from the book it was based on is not a valid criticism for a film, but, in this case, it is outright stupidity. The filmmakers never claim to have made an adaptation of the Iliad, and in fact say they are telling "the true story" right in the introduction of the film.

Whether or not you enjoy the story, you will appreciate what they achieved artistically and technically. 

The Critics Vote ...

  • no major reviews online

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, both reviewers liked it, Tuna liked it more, and decided the correct classification was C+, Scoop thought C was more like it.

Return to the Movie House home page