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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The face that launched a hundred ships
I found Bettany Hughes very beautiful and couldn't take my eyes off her in this program as she explored sources of information about Helen of Troy, a reaction that seems very appropriate given Helen's reputation. Hughes has done a previous program on Sparta which rehabilitates them somewhat and is rumored as making another one on Socrates.

This 2005 PBS...
Published on 2 Oct 2007 by Phillip Kay

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3.0 out of 5 stars Bettany Hughes is the Best
Historian Bettany Hughes is a splendidly well-spoken as well as lovely lady. I have enjoyed her work over the years (The Spartans is one of my favorite documentaries of all time); and combined here with the estimable Mike Loades, she presents an informative and fascinating documentary here as well.
Published 4 months ago by Barry C. Jacobsen


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The face that launched a hundred ships, 2 Oct 2007
This review is from: Helen of Troy [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
I found Bettany Hughes very beautiful and couldn't take my eyes off her in this program as she explored sources of information about Helen of Troy, a reaction that seems very appropriate given Helen's reputation. Hughes has done a previous program on Sparta which rehabilitates them somewhat and is rumored as making another one on Socrates.

This 2005 PBS broadcast runs for two hours and covers a lot of ground. Hughes states she is interested in exploring how a Bronze Age Queen such as Helen might have lived. Her premise is that there was really a Helen and that the story of the part she played in the Trojan War is based on fact. This approach, which ignores Helen's mythological roles, enables Hughes to restrict herself to the archaeological record, where the life of the Bronze Age elite of Greece has left some trace.

The written record is not too helpful. Homer contents himself with calling Helen the most beautiful woman without giving further details, knowing his audience will fill in the blanks themselves. But, examining Homer closely, it is possible to see how many details he writes about were of an earlier time than his own and reflect the passing down of an oral tradition from as early as the 12th century BC, the time of the War. Just as Michael Wood did in In Search of the Trojan War, Hughes finds experts who can reconstruct Bronze Age weaponry from Homer's descriptions. It seems there is a lot of recoverable detail about how people lived in those times. But all this is supporting detail and doesn't help much where Helen is concerned.

Hughes drives from Mycenae to Sparta, crosses the Aegean to Troy, travels up the Hellespont to Istanbul for a taste of what Troy might have seemed like in its heyday, then travels east to explore the Hittites, the dominant political power of the Bronze Age in western Asia. While filling in a lot of social and political detail, Hughes is not able to fully demonstrate one of her major points, the relative freedom and access to power accorded to women in many societies of that time. There's really not enough evidence to make more than conjectures.

There is another aspect to Helen that Hughes does not really explore, as her search is for a historical figure. Helen is a daughter of Zeus, king of the Greek gods. She and her sister Clytemnestra were hatched from an egg, even though her mother, Leto, was of human form (though divine). Her brothers were the gods Castor and Pollux. Both Helen and Clytemnestra were to prove fatal to the Greek forces through their involvement with the brothers Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army and married to Clytemnestra, and Menelaus, married to Helen.

The Greeks often gave divine honors to their ancestors. If the involvement of Zeus and Aphrodite in Helen's tale are seen as part of this process, then the bloody feud of the Atridae, detailed in Aeschylus' Oresteia and which was an indirect cause of the Trojan War, as well as the story of the Seven against Thebes and of Oedipus, of Perseus, of Jason and Medea and of the Trojan War itself can be read as history, with the very large qualification that the stories, based on fact but created to gain tribal and clan renown, were passed on as part of songs in honor of the ancestors and in rituals enacted at family shrines. In this process the ancestors became heroes, the heroes became gods and children of gods. Five hundred years after these Bronze Age societies had passed away a gifted poet named Homer, who definitely did not ascribe to the religious beliefs of the age he depicted, recreated one such story: so tale became legend, became ritual, became ceremonial song and then became one of the world's greatest poems. Finding the historical elements in this is not an easy job.

Had Hughes wished to she could have looked at Bronze Age rituals that evidently did give status and authority to women and which can be seen on the surviving frescoes from Minoan Crete, thought to be the parent civilisation to that of Mycenean Greece. Women were bare breasted, their femininity was honored, they predominated in ceremonies below ground to invoke the snake goddess who gave wisdom and the bull god who gave life (I can't help thinking of the Canaanite Eve who might have been once such a priestess/goddess). Medea could have been another such figure, as was the Pythoness who gave way to Apollo at Delphi.

The trouble with looking at the past is that other societies had vastly different ways of looking at things than we do. We notice skin color, many ancient societies didn't (which Roman Emperors were black?) We like facts, ancient societies didn't think facts were nearly as important as clan honour. We separate concepts such as patriotism and religion, the Greeks didn't. Nobody's going to find a biography of Helen or a history of the Trojan War surviving on clay tablets because nobody in the Bronze Age had thought of such things.

From the remains we have: a few battered artifacts, an excavated city's outline, deductions from a few lines of poetry, historians such as Hughes try to interpret a vanished way of life. The lack of evidence means there can be more than one such interpretation, and none conclusive. This is the fascination of the past.

One sad fact Hughes is able to confirm is that the scale of things was much smaller than we imagine. Smaller cities, smaller populations, fewer soldiers and ships, raids more common than battles, deaths (despite Homer's gruesome descriptions) more often among the peasantry than the nobility. "The face that launched a thousand ships" was said of Helen almost 3000 years after her time, the tale having grown with the telling.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Will the real Helen of Troy please stand up?, 2 April 2010
By 
bernie "xyzzy" (Arlington, Texas) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Helen of Troy [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
This is an excellent PBS documentary Presented by British historian Bettany Hughes. Bettany is known for presenting excellent documentaries. After an introduction to Homer, we get to travel to Helen's world through locations (Mycenae, Sparta, Aegean, and Troy) travels up the Hellespont to Istanbul and back in time (Late Bronze Age, 1300 B.C).

We are treated to many aspects of Helen's culture from clothing to markup to jewelry and the environment in which her contemporary women would thrive.

I saw the 2-hour show on PBS and watched the DVD. The DVD fits the full screen of the newer TVs and even though it is no Blu-ray is sharp and colorful. The Audio is excellent.

Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly worth watching, 6 Mar 2011
By 
Iset (London, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Helen of Troy [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
This is everything a history documentary should be. We have a presenter who is also the narrator and really knows their subject, stunning filmography, unrestricted access to ancient sites and artefacts which allow us as viewers to sit on the shoulder of the presenter to see the key sites and artefacts that they see, even the extras for the small dose of drama scenes and the score used for the programme is high quality, and highly evocative. Hughes is keen to press home the fact that whilst the poet Homer wrote about Helen much later, at the beginning of the so called Classical Greek era, Helen herself lived in a quite different time, the Bronze Age, which in Greece lasted c. 1600 - 1100 BCE and was a quite exotic beast in comparison to the familiar Classical Age. As aforementioned the filmography is stunning and doesn't put a foot wrong, each shot beautifully done and sucking us deeper into that exotic Bronze Age world that Helen lived in. The whole effort, and especially Bettany herself, is enthusiastic, engaging, and fascinating. The attention to detail in all areas is fantastic, and I applaud the makers - Lion Television, well known for making history documentaries, and shown in this country on Channel 4. Though Bettany has made a number of equally high quality history documentaries over the past decade, this one in particular is an accompaniment to her first book, also entitled Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, and it has definitely succeeded in whetting my appetite to read that book.

The only thing that disappoints me is that this programme can only be bought in a Region 1 format, meaning it will work on DVD players made in North America or region free compatible DVD players, but not Region 2 DVD players which are used here in Europe.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Bettany Hughes is the Best, 7 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Helen of Troy [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
Historian Bettany Hughes is a splendidly well-spoken as well as lovely lady. I have enjoyed her work over the years (The Spartans is one of my favorite documentaries of all time); and combined here with the estimable Mike Loades, she presents an informative and fascinating documentary here as well.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Holds Up a Looking Glass to the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships, 12 Jun 2013
By 
Stephanie De Pue (Wilmington, NC USA) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Helen of Troy [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
In "Helen of Troy," (2005), Bettany Hughes, a highly attractive and educated young Englishwoman, explores Greece and the eastern Mediterranean Sea. She is hoping to prove that the famous Helen was an actual woman, a Bronze Age queen, and to discover more about the woman blamed for causing the Trojan War, a presumably real war that was immortalized by the ancient Greek known as Homer in his long poetic masterpiece, The Iliad (Penguin Classics). This British television production by BBC4, which has run and is currently running on American public broadcasting stations, is available in a one disk, two hour format, with, thankfully, subtitles, as the nicely-bred Hughes speaks softly.

Unfortunately, on this outing, archaeology is not as helpful to Hughes as it has been in some of her others. Still, she manages to throw some light on the life of a Bronze Age queen, and on life in general as it might have been lived in that ancient time. (Archaeology does indicate the plentiful presence of opium in the time and area, Mycenae, of Helen's birth.) There is an interesting segment with experts in ancient weapons that helps to show how the conflict in Helen's name would have been fought, as Hughes does her best to unravel the reality from the hoary myths and put flesh on "the face that launched a thousand ships," then considered the most beautiful woman in the world.

The London-born Hughes, the child of actors, discovered an interest in classical history at the age of four, after watching a documentary on the ancient King Tutankhamen of Egypt. As a teenager, she learned Latin and Greek. She won a scholarship to St. Hilda's College, Oxford. Upon graduation, she was offered a fellowship at Britain's highly esteemed Victoria and Albert Museum, but instead chose a research grant that allowed her to travel through the Balkans and Asia Minor, examining ancient public spectacles and amusements. This vital young woman, who seems always to have been bound for glory herself, has written articles, and, in 2005, also published a book, Helen Of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, on this material. Hughes wrote and presented a radio series on medieval history. And she has written and presented numerous popular TV documentaries for the BBC, PBS, and the Discovery Channel. Among the best known: The Spartans and Athens: Dawn of Democracy . Also Minotaur's Island , and When the Moors Ruled in Europe , both of which I have liked and reviewed on their respective Amazon web pages. The production under discussion is not able to document its subject as well as the latter two productions; still, it is interesting, and does succeed in holding up a looking glass to Helen's beautiful face, presenting its information accessibly. Worth seeing.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Worth seeing., 11 May 2013
This review is from: Helen of Troy [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
Maintaining her usual standard, Bettany Hughes gives us an overview of the story of Helen of Troy. She takes us from Sparta, where Helen was born via Mycenae, where she met Paris of Troy. Whether she eloped or whether she was abducted is unknown, but the view is that she must have been complicit in the flight from Mycenae where they island hopped to Troy. We see the countryside and the locations in both Sparta and Troy. There was no mention of the help that Troy is thought to have received from surrounding states, such as the Hittite Empire, which is thought to have been favourably disposed to Troy and there was very little mention of the actual Trojan war anyway. But it was interesting to see the terrain surrounding the city of Troy. The programme finished with speculation about what happened to Helen and where she might have been buried back in Mycenae years after the Trojan war. Generally well done and worth seeing.
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