John C. Rouman Lecture University of New Hampshire 26 April 2006 From Helen of Sparta to Helen of Troy



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John C. Rouman Lecture

University of New Hampshire

26 April 2006
From Helen of Sparta to Helen of Troy

Monica S. Cyrino


Among the great Hollywood anecdotes that come down to us from the golden age of early cinema is a story told about film mogul Harry Cohn, chief of Columbia Pictures. One day, Cohn heard about a popular story called The Iliad written by a certain author named Homer. Thinking the story had potential for adaptation as a feature film, Cohn called in his crew of writers. "Now, boys," he said, "I want a one-page treatment of this by tomorrow." So the Columbia team dutifully set to work, writing the whole night through. The next morning, bleary-eyed, they proudly presented Cohn with a one-page synopsis. Cohn was delighted by their efficiency. But as he read the treatment, his enthusiasm began to flag. "There are," he complained, "an awful lot of Greeks in it!” (Paul F. Boller, Jr. and Ronald L. Davis, Hollywood Anecdotes, New York, 1987: 68-69).

Tonight I would like to revisit the topic of literary adaptation and discuss the recent feature film, Troy (from 2004), directed by Wolfgang Petersen. As Cohn correctly surmised, there are an awful lot of Greeks in it, and not a few Trojans, too. In my remarks tonight, I would like to focus on one Greek in particular, the famous woman whose journey from Greece to Troy, from Greek to Trojan, tells the story of the Trojan War. How did Helen of Sparta become Helen of Troy?

The opening voice-over of Troy expresses the film’s deliberate intention to remember and recreate onscreen the glorious deeds of ancient heroes:

“Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we’re gone and wonder who we were? How bravely we fought? How fiercely we loved?”

Along with the words of actor Sean Bean as Odysseus, whose honey-smooth voice speaks the brief narration, the film audience hears the ominous rumble of military drums punctuated by a woman’s yearning song. Here is the double focus of the film’s narrative: love and war, and a war fought for love. The most famous war of Greek antiquity was fought for the love of the most beautiful woman ever to grace the earth, Helen of Sparta, or as she is more famously known, Helen of Troy. The distance she travels between her two names tells her story.

Early in the film, the camera pans along a steep wall of rock lapped by ocean waves, where ships are anchored in the choppy coastal waters. The viewers’ eyes are drawn upward to a rough stone palace, carved out of the cliff face and set precariously high above the water. A title card flashes on the bottom of the screen: “Port of Sparta – Greece.” A quick cut to the interior of the palace reveals a long banquet table crowded with revelers. At the center of the table, a tall, imposing man rises and addresses his guests: it is Menelaus, King of Sparta. He faces two young Trojans, Hector and Paris, directly across the table: “Princes of Troy, on our last night together, Queen Helen and I salute you.” At the mention of her name, the camera focuses for the first time on Helen. She is dressed in a lustrous red gown, decked in gleaming gold jewelry, and her blonde mane of hair is tousled around her face. Paris is gazing intently at her, as if to induce her to look at him, but Helen’s eyes are lowered. As her husband continues to speak of the peace treaty between Sparta and Troy, Helen slowly looks up and fixes her kohl-rimmed eyes on Paris. They exchange a dark, hungry glance. Soon Helen steals upstairs and Paris, with a furtive peek over his shoulder, follows her.

While the film Troy claims to be “inspired” by Homer’s Iliad, much of its action covers material narrated in lost works from the cycle of Greek epic poems on the Trojan War. The narrative in the early part of the film was once told in an epic, composed after the Iliad, called the Cypria. Its title refers to the prominent role of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality, who had a major cult sanctuary on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The contents of the lost epic are known to us from later summaries and quotations, and by all accounts the eleven books of the Cypria offered a rather tedious but detailed catalogue of several events leading up to the point where the Iliad begins. Many of the important episodes told in the Cypria center on the relationship between Helen and Paris, and in particular, how the star-crossed pair came to be joined together. The Cypria opened with the tale of the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the mortal king and the sea goddess who became the parents of the great Greek hero, Achilles. This wedding was the premiere social event of the ancient mythological world, attended by all the gods, demigods and elite humans, except for one. During the party, Eris, goddess of Discord, disgruntled over being the only one left uninvited, tossed upon the table a golden apple designated “for the fairest,” causing a major conflict to erupt among the assembled goddesses. Zeus, the supreme god, wisely wanted no part of the decision, and so looked to earth to find a mortal to do the honors. The task was assigned to Paris, who was idling away his time as a shepherd on the slopes of Mt. Ida high above the city of Troy. This was the famous Judgment of Paris, where the young Trojan prince awarded the golden apple to Aphrodite in the divine beauty contest, and so became the favorite of this dangerously persuasive goddess. In exchange for her victory, and perhaps even as a bribe, Aphrodite sends Paris to Sparta, where he is to obtain his promised reward: the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. But Helen is already married.

Like the Cypria, the film Troy begins the story of Paris and Helen a few days after their first meeting in Sparta. Viewers versed in geography may wonder at the film’s fanciful location of Sparta on the Greek coast, where the royal palace is afforded an enviable ocean view. Ancient Sparta, however, was conspicuously landlocked in the middle of the Laconian plain, with no direct access to the sea. (The closest port was at Gythium, modern Gythio, twenty-seven miles south of Sparta.) Inside the palace, Menelaus, played by Irish actor and epic film veteran, Brendan Gleeson, entertains the two Trojan princes, after they have concluded a diplomatic pact between their two previously hostile cities. Although the Greek epic tradition makes no mention of Hector joining his younger brother on his trip to Sparta, Hector’s presence in this early scene of Troy emphasizes the fraternal bond between them so important to the plot of the film. Hector, played by Australian actor Eric Bana, is a sympathetic character throughout the film, and he invites viewers to identify with him through an attractive combination of his warrior’s courage, family loyalty and a strong sense of duty to his homeland. When Hector watches with worried suspicion as Paris sneaks up the stairs to join Helen, the audience follows his anxious glance and realizes the perilous nature of the couple’s fateful passion.

Upstairs in her bedroom, a long shot frames a pensive Helen, played by German model-turned-actress, Diane Kruger. She is undoing her hair ornaments at her dressing table. Paris slips through the door, and never stops staring at her as he drives the bolt shut with a vigorous thrust. Young English actor Orlando Bloom embodies the lithe insouciance and the sexual magnetism of the legendary Trojan prince. In the Greek epic tradition, there are contradictory reports whether or not Helen and Paris consummated their mutual physical attraction at Sparta. The Iliad suggests this occurred later, after they have fled, when the runaways stop at the tiny island of Cranae nearby in the Laconian gulf: the island’s proximity to the coast meant they did not have to wait very long (3.443-45). But the Cypria summary notes that Paris and Helen had sex in the palace the night before they set sail from Sparta, a much riskier place for their adulterous encounter. Like the lost epic, the film Troy dramatically locates the start of their sexual relationship in Sparta, and their early dialogue establishes the chronology of their affair. “You shouldn’t be here,” Helen whispers, avoiding Paris’ eyes, knowing that to look at him would be to succumb. The Helen of the Iliad also turns her eyes away from Paris in their bedroom in Troy, perhaps both to indicate her distress and to avoid his irresistible allure (3.427). Paris counters teasingly, aware of his powerful charm: “That’s what you said last night.” – “Last night was a mistake,” she replies gravely. “And the night before?” – “I’ve made many mistakes this week.” Paris approaches her from behind, and there is a close up of Helen’s face as he strokes her neck and shoulders. Her rapt expression indicates her feeble protests are all in vain. In response to his question, “Do you want me to go?” Helen turns to him and drops her dress to the floor.

Some ancient versions of the story have Menelaus conveniently called away to the island of Crete for a family funeral while Paris is visiting Sparta, so the lovers make an easy escape during his absence. But the film Troy radically concentrates the time of their encounter, forcing the lovers to face the anguish of their last night together. While Menelaus is distracted downstairs with a dancing girl, the film exposes Paris and Helen in a moment of crisis. After lovemaking, their nude bodies bathed in golden light, Paris gives Helen a beautiful necklace of pearls “from the Sea of Propontis.” Just so, the Cypria records that Paris bestowed many gifts upon Helen. Helen begins to weep at the thought of Paris’ departure in the morning, just as she is often depicted weeping in the Iliad. She caresses her lover’s face and describes what the loss will mean to her: “Before you came to Sparta, I was a ghost. I walked and I ate and I swam in the sea, but I was just a ghost.” Paris responds with an impulsive invitation: “Come with me!” Then he delivers a romantic and fateful speech destined to rouse even the disconsolate heart of Helen: “If you come, we’ll never be safe. Men will hunt us. The gods will curse us. But I’ll love you – till the day they burn my body. I will love you.” Helen nods, smiling through her tears – dakruoen gelasasa. Here Troy effectively confirms the Greek literary tradition of the seductive agency of Paris and the willing acquiescence of Helen to her “abduction” from Sparta.

The very next shot is a dazzling forward zoom of the royal Trojan ship under full sail on the open sea. In the epic tradition, Helen and Paris set sail for Troy in amorous privacy a deux, dallying at various stops along the way. The Iliad alludes to the fact that Paris brought Helen back to Troy by a roundabout way, via Sidon in Phoenicia (6.289-92). The Cypria also notes the stop in Sidon, where Paris, somewhat implausibly, sacked the city. But the film takes them straight to Troy, and they are not alone. Here the director follows the standard convention of the epic cinema by emphasizing male relationships, in this case, the fraternal bond between the Trojan princes. Paris, aware of his illicit act, nervously approaches Hector on deck with a genial comment about the weather. Hector’s cautious nature causes him to reply with typical archaic Greek skepticism: “Sometimes the gods bless you in the morning and curse you in the afternoon.” Paris is suddenly earnest: “Do you love me, brother? Would you protect me against all enemies?” Below deck, Helen unwraps her heavy hooded cloak and reveals herself to an incredulous Hector. Next comes a quick cutaway to Helen’s empty bedroom and a raging Menelaus. On the deck of the Trojan ship, Hector is furious, and he berates Paris ferociously for betraying his family and bringing certain destruction to Troy. Hector’s reproach of Paris as an unwarlike womanizer in this scene echoes his disparaging speech in the Iliad just before Paris meets Menelaus in single combat (3.39-57). But Paris is adamant: if war is to come, then he will die fighting for Helen. Just as Paris’ inexperience in military matters is well known from the ancient literary tradition, in the film he also doesn’t immediately realize the geopolitical implications of his actions. “I won’t ask you to fight my war,” he tells his brother. Hector, a veteran of many armed conflicts, replies: “You already have.”

In a parallel scene of fraternal relations, Menelaus next sails to Mycenae – also implausibly located by the sea – to visit his brother, Agamemnon, who scolds him for trusting the Trojans: “Peace is for the women... and the weak.” Menelaus, still fuming, asks: “Will you go to war with me, brother?” Later on, Agamemnon, played with nefarious glee by Scottish actor Brian Cox, expresses his delight that Helen has given him a reason to invade wealthy Troy: “I always thought my brother’s wife was a foolish woman, but she’s proved to be very useful.” Consistently throughout the epic tradition, Helen is cited as the direct cause of the war, while the acquisition of material wealth is only a secondary motive for the Greeks. The Iliad uses variations of the phrase “Helen and (all) the possessions” to describe the reason for the conflict (3.70, 91, 285; 7.350, 400-401; 22.114). At one point, Paris even says he will restore Helen’s property and add some of his own, but he will not surrender Helen herself (7.362-364). But from its very beginning, the film Troy emphasizes that Helen is merely the official pretext for hostile action, intended to cover up a well-orchestrated and long-desired power grab by the greedy king, Agamemnon. Here the abduction of Helen becomes simply an incendiary excuse to justify the attack against Troy by a superpower Greek force – she becomes something like the “weapons of mass destruction” argument in the recent American-led invasion of Iraq. Soon after, a magnificent computer-generated shot of the massive Greek armada zooms back to reveal at least a thousand ships sailing full speed ahead to Troy. The image is clearly intended to evoke the famous phrase from Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus where Helen is described as: “the face that launched a thousand ships.” But it also provides a menacing visual contrast to the earlier shot of the lone Trojan ship carrying the two lovers to their terrible destiny.

When they reach Troy, according to the Cypria, Helen and Paris are married. The film reflects this version of events by staging an impressive sequence of their arrival into the city that is full of wedding imagery. Director Petersen developed a flying camera technique to follow the couple’s chariot with an overhead shot as it enters through the famous city gates and proceeds through a crowd of cheering spectators. To the sounds of epic fanfare, and beneath a shower of rose petals, Helen and Paris lead the procession, while Hector follows on horseback. Helen is dressed in a simple white gown, wearing the pearl necklace from Paris, her hair smoothed down and tamed by a crown of golden leaves. Gone is the ruddy opulence and the wild mane of the Spartan queen. In her place the film audience now sees a pale, uneasy bride, made anxious by the stares and whispers of the Trojan matrons who watch her pass by. As in the epic tradition, Helen’s nervous demeanor in the film suggests she fears the censure of the women of Troy that her relationship with Paris is not legitimate. In the Iliad, Helen tells Aphrodite that the Trojan women will reproach her if she joins Paris in bed (3.411-12). While Helen looks tense and uncomfortable under the curious eyes of the Trojans, Paris is positively beaming.

The scene shifts to the royal palace high above the city, where King Priam awaits the return of his sons. Priam, played by distinguished Irish actor Peter O’Toole, embraces Hector first, then kisses Paris with profound tenderness: the loving gesture makes it clear his younger son holds a special place in the elderly man’s heart. When Paris introduces Helen, her eyes modestly lowered in respect, Priam inquires archly: “Helen of Sparta?” Paris quickly corrects him: “Helen of Troy.” The old king welcomes her warmly, and is impressed by her famous allure. “I’ve heard rumors of your beauty,” he tells her, kissing her gently on the cheek. “For once the gossips were right.” As in the epic tradition, a magnanimous Priam accepts Helen without question or blame, as a father does a daughter, and welcomes her into his now doomed city. In the Iliad, Priam expressly refuses to hold Helen responsible for the war with the Greeks, but instead always treats her with tenderness and even admiration: he blames the gods, not Helen, for the war (3.164-65). The film also suggests that the Trojans value physical beauty more than other people do, and thus are more vulnerable to the overwhelming power of Helen’s appearance. So Helen’s entry into Troy, with all its pomp and flourish, becomes, as it were, the first strike of the Greek invasion, since her radiant presence in the city stuns the Trojans and weakens their resolve to send her back. This scene depicting Helen as she enters the city will be echoed later in the film by the fateful entry of the Trojan Horse accompanied by a similarly inauspicious celebration of the unwitting townspeople. The moment of her transition from “Helen of Sparta” to “Helen of Troy” signals the destruction of the city that adopted her with such a ready and lavish reception.

The rest of the film finds Helen securely behind the walls of Troy, where she also remains throughout the narrative of the Iliad. Since the plot of the Iliad focuses primarily on the war itself and in particular on the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles in its final year, Helen’s actual appearances in the epic are quite few: she appears only in several scenes in Book 3, and briefly in Books 6 and 24. Yet Helen’s name is mentioned several times in the Iliad, especially in the earlier books, in connection with the cause of the war (2.161, 177, 356, 590; 4.19, 174; 7.350, 401; 9.339; 11.125; 19.325; 22.114). Helen’s name is first cited in Book 2 as the motivation for the attack on Troy. She is mentioned twice early on as the direct cause of the deaths of many Greeks “far from their homeland” (2.161-62, 177-78). Later in the same book, Helen is again mentioned twice as the sole reason the Greeks want to retaliate against the Trojans for “the struggles and groans” they have suffered on her account (2.356, 590). This verbal emphasis on Helen’s accountability for the war in the early part of the Iliad corresponds to her prominence as the driving force of the plot in the first part of the film Troy.

Helen first appears as a character in Book 3 of the Iliad, and her conspicuous presence pervades much of the action in that book. Readers of the Iliad have often noted how Book 3 seems to replay several of the adventures recorded in the Cypria, and so offers a sort of “flashback” to events that occurred before the war began, and long before the start of the Iliad. Book 3 restages this earlier time period by “reintroducing” Helen and the theme of her adulterous love affair with Paris. At the beginning of the book, Paris, glamorously light-armed and attired in a leopard-skin, struts out from the Trojan ranks and challenges the best of the Greeks to fight him (3.16-20). Much to his consternation, Menelaus gladly accepts the reckless dare, knowing he can easily defeat the inexperienced young prince in hand-to-hand combat and thus achieve his vengeance for the loss of his wife (21-29). Though Paris is struck with fear (30-37), he agrees to face Menelaus in a “winner take all” duel whose outcome will end the conflict for both sides (67-75). The notion that the two men principally involved in the dispute over Helen, her aggrieved husband and her current lover, would work out their claims in a separate and decisive battle, naturally belongs to an earlier narrative time frame, and suggests the immediate after effects of Helen’s flight from Sparta.

Above the Trojan plain, as Book 3 continues, Helen is in the great hall of the palace weaving a tapestry with scenes from the war being fought “on account of herself” (3.125-28). From this very first image of her, and throughout the Iliad, Helen is one of the few characters who has a sense of the larger narrative scope and purpose of the war, which is being waged, as she later tells Hector, “so that hereafter we may be subjects of song for the people of the future” (6.357-58). Helen’s tapestry, like the epic poem and even the film, is intended to be a record of the heroic trials suffered by the Greeks and the Trojans in the terrible conflict started because of her. The goddess Iris, disguised as a Trojan woman, approaches Helen and urges her to go to the ramparts to watch the fight in which she will be the prize (130-38). Helen, suddenly filled with nostalgia for Menelaus and her home in Sparta, dresses herself in silvery-white clothes and goes up to the wall at the city gates, weeping softly (139-42). An air of melancholy and regret clings to Helen in each of her appearances in the Iliad. In Book 3 in particular, she is constantly looking back on her past, and drawing it vividly into her present. This emotional characterization of Helen serves to bridge the span of time between the first flush of excitement intrinsic to the romantic events of the Cypria and the guilty self-awareness she feels as the casus belli, several years later, during the martial narrative of the Iliad.

At the tower she finds Priam and several of the Trojan elders, who whisper together about the ineffably beautiful, but ruinous woman in their midst (3.154-60). Here the epic offers a single specific detail about Helen’s physical appearance, observed through the eyes of the old men, as they comment: “She seems strikingly like the immortal goddesses in her looks” (158). Priam now greets her with kindness and affection, calling her his “dear child,” as he asks her to name the various Greek leaders who are assembled beneath his city walls (161-70). The fact that Priam is unfamiliar with the Greek warriors and has to have them identified by Helen again suggests an earlier time, long before the events of the Iliad, when the warring armies first encountered each other on the battlefield. Helen responds with similar fondness and respect for Priam, whom she calls her “dear father-in-law” (172). Yet the sight of her fellow Greeks overwhelms her with shame and self-recrimination, and she expresses her vehement wish that she had died before she left her home and family and sailed away with Paris (173-175). Nevertheless, she acquiesces to Priam’s request, and points out the Greek warriors Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Ajax (177-235). During the catalogue, Helen’s emotions are again aroused when she fails to see her two brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, on the battlefield. She quickly explains their absence by surmising their humiliation over her dishonorable behavior (236-242). No one in the Iliad ever directly criticizes Helen except herself, and this she does with exquisite finesse and severity every time she appears in the poem (3.161-80, 241-42; 6.342-68; 24.761-75). Her harsh self-blame together with her anxiety for her brothers can be associated with the moment of the original scandal and her flight from Sparta, and highlights the epic’s attribution of culpability for the war solely to Helen.

The duel between Paris and Menelaus is inconclusive: Menelaus is clearly the victor, but Paris is rescued from his opponent’s grasp by Aphrodite and set safely down in the bedroom he shares with Helen (3.325-82). The power of Aphrodite in this scene echoes her prominence in the Cypria. Just as she brought Paris and Helen together as lovers in Sparta, now she will unite them again in Troy. Aphrodite finds Helen on the ramparts and appears to her disguised as an old wool woman whom Helen loved dearly long ago back in Sparta (383-89). The “old woman” urges Helen to join Paris in bed, describing his radiant charm as that of a man “on his way to a dance, or who has just stopped dancing and taken a seat” (390-94). Here, Helen’s grim present opens a window onto her romantic past, when a beloved figure from her former home reveals to her a captivating image of Paris in all his allure, just as he must have appeared to her “the first time” at her Spartan palace. But Helen shakes off the nostalgic mirage when she recognizes Aphrodite’s beauty through the disguise (395-98), then delivers a tart and impertinent rejoinder to the goddess (399-412). The bitter tone of Helen’s reproach is similar to her earlier self-recriminations, suggesting an element of soliloquy here. Helen is condemning her own susceptibility to the erotic temptation embodied by Aphrodite. “Why don’t you go sit beside Paris…coddle him and protect him... Not me… my pain just never ends” (406-12). But in that moment, Aphrodite asserts her supreme and uncompromising divinity (413-17), with a stark threat that illuminates the permeable boundary between love and hate: “I will utterly hate you as much as I strikingly love you now” (415). Helen shudders, but does as she is told. She wraps herself with her silvery robe, and goes quietly, unseen, just as she left Sparta with Paris years before under the irresistible force of the goddess.

Brought together in their bedroom, Helen turns her disgust and scorn on Paris. But she also demonstrates her seesawing emotions as she confronts the misery of the present war and at the same time relives the erotic adventures they shared in the past. Averting her eyes, Helen tells Paris she wishes Menelaus had killed him on the plain (3.427-33), then a minute later retracts that statement and tells him not to fight again “or else you’ll be killed” (434-36). Paris is well versed in giving a sweet reply that deflects any reproach or resentment. He answers Helen with soft words, acknowledging her anger and soothing it, then leads her to bed with a seductive invitation that again brings the past immediately into the present: “Never before has love so filled my senses, not even the first time when I took you from lovely Sparta and sailed away… as I now love you, and sweet desire takes hold of me” (437-46). Gone are thoughts of her previous husband and home, as Helen again chooses Paris. At the end of Book 3, their lovemaking fuses the past and present into a single moment in the narrative of the Iliad.

As we mentioned earlier, much of the first part of the film Troy presents material from Book 3 of the Iliad that also appeared in the Cypria. The film echoes the epic impulse for narrative flashback in the scene where Paris and Helen are in their bedroom in Troy the night before the Greek fleet arrives. The film portrays Helen as profoundly conscious of her guilt for the war, even as the audience is made aware that she is being used as a decorous pretext by the power-hungry Agamemnon. Helen is framed in a medium shot through the window of the royal bedroom. As she gazes out over the western sea covered by darkness of night, there is a somber expression of dread on her beautiful face. “They’re coming for me,” she whispers. “The wind is bringing them closer.” When Helen acknowledges the coming war, Paris impetuously suggests that they run away together, just as he did once before in Sparta. Helen answers sadly, “But this is your home,” and Paris counters, “You left your home for me.” There follows a conversation that could have taken place between them back in Sparta. “Sparta was never my home,” Helen says, ignoring the (later) literary tradition that Helen inherited the kingdom from Tyndareus, her father. “My parents sent me there when I was sixteen to marry Menelaus.” In contrast to the Helen of the Iliad, the film’s Helen never once feels a twinge of longing for her ex-husband and family, since she doesn’t even consider Sparta her home. (The film also ignores Hermione, Helen and Menelaus’ daughter, whom Helen mentions leaving at Iliad 3.174-175.) But even in the face of Helen’s gloominess, Paris remains naively optimistic, indulging in a pastoral fantasy that apparently recalls his days as a shepherd on Mt. Ida: “We’ll live off the land!” While Paris is idealistic and impractical, Helen is realistic, knowing that Menelaus will demand the ultimate retribution from her lover. “You’re very young, my love,” she tells him wearily. This is the only reference in the film to an age disparity between Helen and Paris. Although never explicitly stated in the epic tradition, an age gap is suggested by the different stages of social maturity evinced by their characters. Helen is married and a queen in her own right when she abandons Sparta. Paris is consistently depicted as a reckless young playboy, in contrast to his more serious and domestically inclined elder brother, Hector. This scene of the film suggests an emotional break between Helen and Paris that begins to diminish the initial optimism of their romance as well as its importance in the cinematic plot.

The next scene is a long shot on the great hall of Priam, where the Trojans meet in a council of war. Paris, who still believes the war is “a dispute between two men,” rashly declares: “I will challenge Menelaus for the right to Helen. The winner will take her home. The loser will burn before nightfall.” As in the Iliad, it is Paris who initiates the duel, although in the film he challenges his rival directly. That evening in the palace courtyard, Paris explains to Priam how much he loves Helen, as the two of them sit before a golden statue of Aphrodite. Like Paris, Priam considers the war to be about Helen: “I suppose fighting for love makes more sense,” he tells his young son. The film portrays the similarity between Paris and Priam in their naïve belief in Troy’s invincibility. But Hector, a more sober realist, knows that Agamemnon has come for power and will stop at nothing short of total dominion over Troy. Even Andromache, Hector’s wife, tells him: “Fifty thousand Greeks did not cross the sea for the Spartan queen.”

But Helen still thinks she can sway the outcome of the war. In the next scene, Hector finds her running through the moonlit courtyard, covered in dark veils. When he catches her, Helen begins to weep: “I saw them burning on the pyres… it’s my fault… All those widows, I still hear them screaming… their husbands died because I’m here.” Her guilt and remorse in this scene is consistent with her characterization in the Iliad, but the film takes Helen one step further. “I’m going down to the ships. I’m giving myself back to Menelaus,” she declares. Hector stops her romantic and useless impulse: “This is about power, not love.” Helen is keenly aware of Paris’ chances in the duel: “Menelaus will kill him. I won’t let that happen.” Hector assures her it is Paris’ decision to fight, but Helen is not satisfied: “I can’t ask anyone to fight for me. I am no longer Queen of Sparta.” Hector stresses that her transformation from Spartan to Trojan is irrevocable: “You’re a princess of Troy now, and my brother needs you tonight.” Helen nods obediently, and returns to Paris.

This scene evokes the meeting between Hector and Helen in Book 6 of the Iliad (313-68), although in the film it takes place at the more critical moment on the eve of the duel between Paris and Menelaus. In the epic, Hector goes to the house of Paris and Helen to rouse Paris back to war after the thwarted duel with Menelaus. He finds Paris fondling his weapons, while Helen sits nearby directing the work of her maids. Hector scolds his younger brother for his idleness, and Paris answers with his trademark charm and cheerfulness. Then Helen addresses Hector, reproaching herself in bitter terms and wishing she had been “swept away” before coming to Troy, an echo of her earlier words to Priam on the wall. She agrees with Hector about Paris’ shortcomings, citing his “unhinged senses,” and she invites Hector to rest a while from the labor of battle, “caused by me, bitch that I am, and the madness of Paris” (354-56). Helen continues to take responsibility for starting the war. Hector replies warmly, but asks her to direct Paris back to the field. In the Iliad, Hector responds to Helen with gentleness and familiarity, suggesting a natural sympathy between them. The film version of their meeting exaggerates Helen’s emotions for dramatic effect, and sets it at more crucial juncture; it also adds a remarkable stroke when Hector sends her back to Paris, thereby mirroring the command of Aphrodite in Book 3 of the Iliad.

In the film, however, the duel between Paris and Menelaus assumes very different contours. The camera flies from the Trojan ramparts over the armies assembled on each side. Menelaus reproaches Paris for abusing his hospitality and stealing his wife “in the middle of the night.” Paris answers blithely: “The sun was shining when your wife left you,” confirming Helen’s willing participation in their affair. Above on the wall, Helen, dressed in shimmering white as in Book 3 of the Iliad, looks anxious, but smiles at Paris when he looks up at her. Priam calls to her warmly, as he does in the epic: “Helen, sit with me.” On the field, Paris challenges Menelaus: “Let us fight our own battle. The winner takes Helen home.” Menelaus knows she is watching, and wants to prove his valor, so he asks Agamemnon to let him kill “the little peacock.” Agamemnon is clear about his plan to seize the city: “I did not come here for your pretty wife, I came here for Troy.” But he agrees to let his brother avenge his honor first, so Menelaus accepts the challenge. Hector urges Paris to stay focused on the fight, and the camera takes the view from inside Paris’ helmet, arousing the viewers’ sympathy for the inexperienced prince. Amid the sounds of Agamemnon’s evil laughter and Helen’s fearful gasps, Menelaus easily knocks Paris down, slashes the younger man’s thigh, and holds a sword to his throat. At this moment in the Iliad, Paris is saved from death by Aphrodite, but in the film, Paris crawls back to the Trojan ranks, and cowers at the feet of Hector. Menelaus, frustrated, turns his face to the ramparts and bellows at Helen: “Is this what you left me for?” Agamemnon uses the broken deal to launch the attack, as Menelaus lunges for Paris: “Fight me, you coward!” But Hector steps forward to shield his brother with his body, and drives his sword through Menelaus’ breastplate. Again Hector assumes the epic role of Aphrodite, as he protects Paris from certain death. A close-up of Helen’s face shows her weeping in relief.

The death of Menelaus midway through the film has elicited much dismay and criticism from viewers, since the Greek epic tradition records that Menelaus retrieves Helen after the fall of Troy and takes her back to Sparta, where they resume their lives together (the recovery is told in the Iliou Persis; they are together in the palace at Sparta at Odyssey 4.1-305). Yet the removal of his character at this point has strong cinematic motivation: it effectively erases Helen’s function as the reason for the war, and reinforces one of the film’s major themes, that the true cause of the war is Agamemnon’s outrageous greed for power. As Odysseus wryly informs Agamemnon soon after his brother’s funeral: “The men believe we came here for Menelaus’ wife. He won’t be needing her anymore.” The loss of Menelaus at this point also begins to diminish the dramatic necessity for Helen’s character in the film. The romance between Helen and Paris begins to lose its centrality to the plot, and the status of “alpha romance” is clearly transferred to the more complex relationship between the Greek hero, Achilles, and the Trojan “priestess,” Briseis. The paucity of scenes showing Helen and Paris in the remainder of the film substantiates this narrative shift.

Right after the duel, Helen is seen sewing the wound in Paris’ thigh, as they sit on their bed together bathed in firelight. The tending of his wound recalls the unhappy story of the Trojan nymph, Oenone, Paris’ first wife, who was gifted with the power of healing. The image strikes an inauspicious note, since Paris abandoned her when he went to Sparta to find Helen; at the end of the war, a jealous Oenone refused to heal Paris’ arrow wound, which soon proved to be lethal. In this scene in the film, Paris is so ashamed he can’t even look at Helen, and he seems to detach himself from her and their fateful bond: “You think I’m a coward. I am a coward. I knew he would kill me. You were watching… my father… my brother… all of Troy. Shame didn’t matter. I gave up my pride, my honor, just to live.” Helen tries to console him: “For love. You challenged a great warrior – that took courage.” Helen attempts to remind Paris of their love, and in effect, to remain relevant to the plot, but Paris is moving away from her and towards some new purpose. She begs him: “I don’t want a hero. I want a man I can grow old with.” Paris is silent and stony-faced, and his glum expression suggests he would rather be a hero. Modern film convention demands that its flawed male protagonists somehow find redemption, and it is no surprise that the audience later sees Paris practicing his archery in the palace. Although nothing in the Iliad suggests an obvious dissolution of the romance between Helen and Paris, the film reflects the overall reduction of its importance in the epic even as it intensifies its focus on Achilles.

Our few remaining glimpses of Helen in the film continue the reduction of her significance as a character and point to her conversion to iconic status. Just before the climactic scene of the film where Achilles meets Hector in hand-to-hand combat, a shot from within the walls of Troy shows Hector waiting for the main city gates to open onto the plain. Outside, a furious Achilles repeatedly roars, “Hector!” The camera pulls back to frame Hector from Helen’s point of view. As Hector turns to look at her over his shoulder, she stands watching him in perfect stillness, veiled in ethereal white like a ghost. Helen lowers her eyes in sadness, as if to acknowledge her responsibility for his imminent death. On the ramparts, Andromache turns away and collapses against the wall. Helen runs to her and embraces her while Hector is brutally slain by Achilles. Later, at Hector’s funeral, a wide-angle shot reveals three women seated high on a dais: Andromache sits in the center, flanked by Briseis and Helen. All three are dressed in black robes edged with gold. There is an ominous image of Helen holding Astyanax, the child of Hector and Andromache, who in the epic tradition is doomed to die after the fall of Troy (as told in the Iliou Persis). In each of these appearances late in the film, Helen is a harbinger of destruction, a sinister spirit of death.

The funeral scene in Troy evokes the final moments of the Iliad. At Hector’s funeral in Book 24, three royal women are also present, but they deliver mournful speeches to commemorate Hector. After the laments of his wife and mother, Helen addresses the body of Hector in her final appearance in the Iliad. As in her earlier scenes, in Books 3 and 6, Helen reproaches herself and wishes she had died before coming to Troy (762-64). Helen recalls Hector’s constant kindness and courtesy to her during all her time in Troy, even when others among her Trojan in-laws justifiably blamed her for their woes (765-72). Helen’s comments here about Hector correspond well to the tenderness of their exchange in Book 6, when even Hector recognizes how much she loves him (6. 360). Now, however, Helen acknowledges her precarious position in Troy and ends her speech bemoaning her lack of friends: “everyone shudders at me” (773-75). Like Helen in the film, the epic Helen manifests herself to others as an evil omen, and she knows it.

The last section of the film covers events recorded in other lost works from the Greek epic cycle. Picking up after the end of the Iliad, a concise epic called the Little Iliad introduces the famous tale of the Trojan Horse and briefly describes its entry into Troy. An even shorter epic, the Iliou Persis or Sack of Troy, provides a few more details in the story of the wooden horse. In this version, the Trojans are suspicious and discuss what to do about the horse before deciding it is a divine gift; thinking they are delivered from the war, they take the horse inside the city amid a great popular celebration. The film stages the entry of the Trojan Horse according to the epic tradition, but it also offers a visual replay of the earlier scene of Helen’s entrance into Troy. As before, the flying camera follows the progress of the horse, as it rolls into the city surrounded by rejoicing citizens. The similarity between the two scenes suggests a symbolic equation between the two events: the arrival of Helen in Troy marks the beginning of the city’s downfall, just as the entry of the Horse signals its final destruction. On a balcony above a broad piazza, Paris and Helen watch the people make merry around the horse, as they share a rather icy exchange. Paris, who earlier argued that the horse should be burned, is disgusted by the revelry so soon after Hector’s funeral: “Look at them. You’d think their prince had never died.” Helen responds with her customary pragmatism: “You’re their prince now. Make your brother proud.” Paris doesn’t even look at her, but stares straight ahead. The moment emphasizes Paris’ anger over the death of his brother in order to set up the thrilling denouement of the film. Paris will avenge Hector by killing Achilles with an arrow shot, and thereby will redeem his earlier cowardice in the duel with Menelaus. But this new motivation for the character of Paris leaves Helen increasingly sidelined as the film draws to a close. The war is no longer about Helen, and neither is the film.



The climactic final sequence focuses almost entirely on the romantic, and ultimately tragic, reunion of Achilles and Briseis in the middle of the burning palace. Agamemnon has tried to seize Briseis, but she kills him with a dramatic stab to the neck. Like the death of Menelaus earlier in the film, the death of Agamemnon at Troy is contrary to the Greek literary tradition, but justified by cinematic necessity. Since the film consistently portrays Agamemnon’s nasty greed for power as the “real” cause of the Trojan War, his spectacular death amid the flames of the city he came to destroy affirms the modern ideal that evil is always punished. Yet one final moment presents an image of Helen as an icon both blameworthy and utterly untouchable. In a rush to save a few Trojans from the ruined city, Helen and Paris head for a secret tunnel under the royal palace. The newly valiant Paris urges Helen to escape without him, informing her he will stay in the city. Helen replies: “The city is dead. They’re burning it to the ground.” But Paris is conscious of his duty, and even questions the value of her love: “How could you love me if I ran now?” She begs him not to leave her, so Paris offers her this feeble assurance: “We will be together again, in this world or the next… we will be together.” In modern cinematic terms, Paris’ promise points to a lack of resolution in their relationship. His words also evoke a foreboding sense of the afterlife. According to the Little Iliad, Paris was already dead when the city was sacked and Helen left Troy, utterly unscathed. In the film, Paris is just stating the obvious, that they will only see each other again in the land of the dead. As the city blazes all around them, the last image the audience sees of Helen is her disappearing figure, holding a torch.
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