Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Helen of boy, oh boy

"The Iliad - the greatest love story ever written!" Yes, it's Hollywood's idea of the Trojan War, c.1956, but with smooching instead of smiting.

The studio system gave the Iliad its best sword 'n' sandals treatment in the mid-century Helen of Troy, which had - among other treasures - a young Brigitte Bardot and the wonderfully-named Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Priam. The movie is as hilarious and terrible as you'd expect, with the violence stagier than the National Theatre's boards.

The first hour is devoted to Paris wooing Helen in Argos, providing the nutritious romance 50s audiences would have eaten up. Paris is astonishingly girly, falling for a Helen who believes that she - the most beautiful woman in the world - is unrecognisable because she's wearing a cowl. I think I got diabetes from this saccharine section. There's everything here but Paris and Helen singing each other a duet called 'I wuv you'.

Before Diane Kruger's Helen (in 2004's Troy) boobed her way along the battlements of Ilion and into the trousers - sorry, hearts - of movie audiences everywhere, there was Rossana Podesta, giving the Iliad that aura of desperate romance it so lacked. Podesta seems to have been Italy's leading lady of the 50s, appearing in every mutilation of ancient history they could produce, including the fabulously named 'Revenge of the Pagans'. (Ooh, the pagans are coming!) She's benignly bland, screwing up her face in lieu of emotion.

After far too much chaste wooing (practically always one foot on the floor), the lovers eventually run away to Troy, where the next hour is devoted to the whole ten years of the war. Befitting the low-tech 50s, men get stabbed underneath their armpit and fall backwards with a tragic yelp, while wonderful (Roman) siege engines pitch up to the walls. There's none of the rolling fireballs of the 2004 version, but just the best you can get on 50 cents.

It's all ludicrous, from the storm which brings Paris to Greece (you can almost see the men hurling buckets of water over the cast) to one of the Trojans counting the Greek ships on the horizon: "One, two, seventy, eighty, three hundred, four hundred - there must be a thousand ships there!" As if that's not enough, Priam later utters the immortal cliche (penned by Marlowe, 2000 years after the Iliad) in front of Helen, in case we missed it.

But none of these are complaints. The best (and perhaps only) way to enjoy this movie is from a patronising 21st century perspective, laughing knowingly at the cheap, anachronistic effects, the Renaissance cliches, the mixing of Roman names (Ulysses, for goodness sake - isn't Odyesseus famous enough?) with Greek.

This era of movies depends so heavily on the romance and the war that when both become outmoded, there's really nothing left. The war side fades as technology flies on, while tastes in romance have long since moved on from the cheesy, restrained fumblings of the 50s. They're historical artefacts, but not in the sense you'd think.

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