A History of Helen of Troy on Film

Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey are two of the most famous, reproduced, referenced, and loved stories of all time. The story of the Trojan War is a complex telling of gods, heroes, and the power emotions can have over history. Perhaps the most infamous part of the story lies in the kidnapping (or running away) of Helen of Troy from her husband in Greece to the loving arms of Paris, Prince of Troy. While this act is cited as the cause of the 10-year war, anyone who’s read the Illiad knows that it was merely a catalyst to a long brewing feud. Nevertheless, because of it, Helen has been painted oftentimes in cinema and storytelling as a vixen, a temptress, and a troublemaker. Sometimes, however, she is portrayed in a very different light, as an unfortunately beautiful woman whose face that could launch a thousand ships got her into some serious trouble. This blog will take a look at some of the more well-known film portrayals of Helen.

Helen of Troy (1956) starring Rossana Podestà

This Warner Brother’s version of Helen of Troy’s story (directed by Robert Wise) decided to forgo the complication of Gods and Goddesses and focus soley on the human interactions. Podestà (a natural brunette) played the fair-haired Helen and while she certainly was quite pretty, her lack of fame in the US led to a voice-over and less-than anticipated recognition. This version of Helen straddles the line between vixen and victim, and both sides of her character are evident. While 1956’s version of Helen of Troy wasn’t bad, it didn’t leave the lasting impression needed to be recognized by most audiences today.

Casting Trivia: Oddly enough, Helen’s handmaiden Andraste was played by the not-yet-famous Bridget Bardot, an actress who would later be called one of the most beautiful in the world by many.

Doctor Faustus (1967) starring Elizabeth Taylor

This movie, directed by Richard Burton and Nevill Coghill, is very different from the others on this list. Based on a play, it is about a man who makes a pact with the devil. Elizabeth Taylor appears as Helen of Troy, but she is a silent character not pivotal to the plot. That being said, it’s obvious that her performance as Helen does nothing to better or worsen her reputation. The biggest thing of note is who they choose to play Helen. Elizabeth Taylor has been, and is still by some, considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. While it is true that beauty is subjective, there are few who could deny the obvious attractiveness and draw of Elizabeth Taylor.

Casting Trivia: This is the sixth of eleven films that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in together.

The Trojan Women (1971) starring Irene Papas

Directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis, this movie was an adaptation of a well-known play, which is apparent when you realize it’s basically a bunch of monologues welded together into a story. The movie focuses on 4 different women from the war, one of them being Helen. Helen is played by Irene Papas, who is actually Greek herself. Unlike some of the other Helen’s in this article, Papas’ Helen is not only a brunette, but a very obvious femme fatale. She could even be considered a villain of sorts since the audience gets caught up in the misery of the other women and realize that Helen and her sexuality may be to blame for their grief. Even after everything she put her husband Menelaus through, he is still entranced by her beauty, spirit, and sexuality. Irene Papas’ portrayal of Helen may not be the most sympathetic, but it is the most passionate.

Casting Trivia: Shelley DeLane played Helen in The Trojan Women, directed by Brad Mays at the ARK Theatre Company in Los Angeles, 2003.

Helen of Troy (2003) starring Sienna Guillory

In 2003 the USA Network released this TV movie (directed by John Kent Harrison) that focused more on Helen and her life story than the war itself. It was essentially told from Helen’s point of view, making her more sympathetic than villainous. Sienna Guillory gives an outstanding performance as Helen; as foolish young girl, a desperate young woman, and a repentant old soul. Being a mini-series, it had the luxury of spanning multiple years and showing character growth in a way shorter films can’t.  Guillory, a model-turned-actress, has the right stunning facial features and golden hair to play the quintessential Helen, her natural beauty making it easy to see why so many men would have desired her. While it may not be as expensive as the following film, this version was the best at showing who Helen was and how she came to be that way.

Casting Trivia: They were having troubling finding the right woman to play Helen until the executive producer spotted Guillory in the film The Time Machine and instantly knew he had to have her audition. She subsequently won the role.

Troy (2004) starring Diane Kruger

In this big-budget action adventure (directed by Wolfgang Peterson), Helen is merely a secondary character. Diana Kruger, a German model and actress who put on 15 pounds  to portray the blonde-haired Helen was little more than scenery in most of the movie. She does have some scenes which show us how intense her love for Paris is, but other than that, she’s just there to make the story chug along. Kruger is a classically beautiful woman who looked the part of a golden-haired princess perhaps better than the rest. Unfortunately, that couldn’t make up for her complete mess of an accent and lack of any real substance. An intensely visual movie; Troy was still heart-wrenching for loyal Homer fans due to its complete disregard for the original story. As for Helen, this is certainly not her best representation.

Casting Trivia: The director originally wanted to forgo casting Helen altogether, since the felt that no one could live up to expectations. When producers insisted, model Charlotte Kemp Muhl was considered for the role (but they decided she was too young) and Aishwarya Rai turned it down (due to nude and kissing scenes) before Kruger, a then unknown, was cast.

There have been many interpretations of Helen of Troy in film over the years. Some have painted her as a vixen and others as a victim. We don’t know if the story of Helen and Paris is true, but it has become almost so with Homer’s The Illiad. Cemented in time, Helen will always be the face of the Trojan War. What Wolfgang Peterson said was true; beauty is so subjective that no one actress could ever satisfy everyone’s idea of the perfect women. That’s why, when casting Helen of Troy, it comes down to not only looks but talent and attitude. Depending on the source material, Helen can come across as merely a decoration, or as multi-faceted character in an intricate play of human emotions.