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on 2 October 2007
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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I have always had an interest in the story since seeing the 'Rossana Podesta' 'Jacques Sernas' version as a child (which also starred
'Stanley Baker' as the legendary Greek warrior 'Achilles'
This movie made for TV back in 2003 probably follows 'Homer's Illiad' the closest in truth, trying to follow the Ten-Year siege described
by the famous writer.
Of course until the late 1900's 'Troy' had never been found raising the argument of whether the legendary battles ever took place, though
of course the Greek brothers 'Agamemnon' and 'Menelaus' of 'Mycenae' are indeed well documented.
The question I guess is if these great figures and Troy are a matter of historic fact, did 'Homer's' story take place as he described, were
these great figures he tells of a matter of fact ?
Of course the use of the Trojan-Horse by the Greeks to change the course of the siege, is something that will never be proved or indeed
disproved.....either way, it's a great story.
This film follows young 'Helen's' (Sienna Guillory) journey from a petulant teen into the most desirable woman in the known World, the many
suitors, the oath between the Greek leaders when 'Menelaus' (James Callis) won Helen's hand, the misuse of his prize by 'Menelaus' and
then the visit to 'Sparta' by 'Paris' to secure peace between the Greek kingdoms and Troy, the seduction of 'Helen' by 'Paris' followed by
insulting 'Menelaus's pride and indeed hospitality by taking 'Helen' back to Troy'
'Agememnon'(Rufus Sewell) supports his brother in trying to secure the release of 'Helen' though his motives were to have power over the 'Aegean' by destroying all that 'Troy' had stood for.
The sister of 'Hector' (Daniel Lapaine) and 'Paris' 'Cassandra' (Emilia Fox) had told her father 'King Priam' (John Rhys-Davis) when 'Paris' was born that the boy would bring destruction of the Trojan city in years to come, which lead to the child being cast out of the Royal household and left to die, though, found and brought up as a shepherd's son until being accepted back as young man.
Many will find this a little tangled and much less dramatic than the 2004 spectacle 'Troy' in which the battle scenes are pretty spectacular and legendary warriors 'Price Hector' (Eric Bana) and 'Achilles' (Brad Pitt) were far more prominent.
As mentioned earlier, this production though not as spectacular as Troy does follow 'Homer's' story somewhat closer.
Features -
* Helen of Troy - Making the Epic
* An Exclusive 20 minute Featurette.
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This television mini-series takes the action of Homer's ILIAD and presents it as it has never been seen before. Former model Sienna Guillory stars as Helen, the face that launched 1000 ships and the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. The trouble begins when Helen falls in love with Paris (Matthew Marsden), Prince of Troy and the two run off together, beginning the 10 year war between Greece and Troy. Featuring a great cast including Rufus Sewell as King Priam, Paris' father, and boasting some amazing action sequences, HELEN OF TROY is a fabulous production of a classic story.
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VINE VOICEon 2 April 2010
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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on 6 March 2011
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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on 15 April 2007
As an avid lover of all things classical and mythical, I was hoping that the film Helen of Troy would stick to the real story of Troy and Helen's family history. In this respect I was not disappointed. The film included the goddesses giving Paris the apple for chosing the fairest, which was excluded from the Brad Pitt film (Troy).

However, apart from excellent storylines and mythical aspects, there were odd casting choices. ie Paris, himself was quite weak. Also Achilles was appauling. Brad Pitt in Troy succeeded in his role completely. But Helen herself was excellent and the story behind her life was brilliant. As was the faithful rendition of the demise of Agamemnon. I hated the Hollywood retelling of the Iliad in Troy, especially as Paris and Helen were allowed to disappear off into the sunset happily ever after. This film allowed the Gods to be part of the story which was true to the book. I was also delighted to see that the sacrifice of Iphigenia was kept in the film too. Albeit very sad and well acted, it was an important part of the plot. This was crucial to the way in which Clytemnestra began her plotting to kill her husband on his return from Troy (again omitted from Troy).

I would recommend this film to anyone who enjoys the classics and want to see a well made film. The special effects were on a par with the Troy film. So no expense spared here.

Now we need to see a faithful story of the Odyssey as that is a far superior story to the Iliad!
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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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I cannot speak for the accuracy of the history, for that see the previous reviews, but what is clearly evident that they don't say is that this film presents some of the cheapest TV production values of recent years you are likely to see.

There are badly fitting costumes, poorly choreographed fight scenes (e.g. Paris fighting Menelaus with swords, they miss their cue, hesitate, fumble and look lost for improvisation until they resume the choreography again - it would have been better to re-shoot the scene). I had to rewind this part a couple of times as I couldn't believe they'd allowed it to get past the cutting room floor. Sadly, there are several very noticeable 'fumbles' in this very cheap looking movie.

Hollywood's Bible Epics of the 50's were infinitely more sophisticated by comparison, even the Sinbad movies were more life-like! There are painted backdrops here that may have been done by the audience of Blue Peter, even the original Japanese 'Godzilla' had more realism than the CGI ships and battles in this film.

I know the above sounds harsh, but based on the reviews I'd read I had been looking forward to a sophisticated movie, so my expectations were set higher than this film could deliver.

But concentrating its many faults loses the point of this movie, which at its most basic is to simply tell a tale and whether true or false, who cares? Obviously purists do - but then purists would be unlikely to watch this collection of this thigh-slapping, wooden acting and (at times, very naff) script writing. The beginning of the movie, especially, has the amateurish hallmarks of a primary school production; Helen (Sienna Guillory) as an actress in her late 20s dances and prances and skips about in the hope of conveying the youth of the teenage (19 years old?) Helen. It's just embarrassing.

Whether this movie genuinely does improve or the viewer simply becomes accustomed to its style is hard to say for sure, but the film does improve. This is thanks only to the original story, which engages the viewer and pulls the whole piece together despite the cheap production.

Agamemnon (Rufus Sewell) is the only truly solid character, he breathes believability into the role and the success of the unfolding storyline owes a great deal to him, most others in the film seem like 'extras' by comparison. Helen is often little more than a semi-clad female, though by the film's end she does act with a more maturity (acting maturity as opposed to age). And King Priam (John Rhys-Davies) is the last of the main characters with credibility.

There are some neat moments in this movie (clever camera trickery) but otherwise, it seldom rises above the excitement levels of Coronation Street (which also happens to have more convincing special effects). Then again, I only found afterwards that this was originally a US TV mini-series, which explains a lot.

I would say this is a decent story, worth being told, though not in the way it's done here (it's a very different rendition of the story from the film 'TROY' with Brad Pitt, and this, in itself is quite exciting as you won't know the outcome).

Apart from Rufus Sewell, the best I can say about this movie is, "it's a mediocre way of spending the best part of three hours".
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on 31 July 2006
I've studied Classics for the past 3 years and am a real fan of the epics, and this version of the Trojan War explores much more of the story than the blockbuster Troy. For instance we see more of the relationship between Paris and Helen and her life before her fateful decision to leave Sparta. In Troy the action begins with Helen and Paris already together. The epic places the blame for the war on Helen's decsion so it was an odd choice for Troy to totally steam past all of this. I love this version, Helen and Agamemnon are marvelously cast, along with Clytemnestra and Cassandra. Achillies and Menelaus however are appalling, with Paris not far behind them. But if your after a good story that covers more than just the battle scenes then go for this one. It covers the legend of Helen's divine birth, her childhood, her family, her supposed curse, her engagement to Menelaus and the attraction Agamemnon feels for her, her meeting with Paris, her decision to leave Sparta, and the war that results. It also ends correctly with Paris defeated and Helen returning home with her true husband. This is the better version, unchanged by Hollywood. Watch it for a better insight.
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on 17 May 2013
This movie is in some respects better than 'Troy' and in others not as good. The screenplay was not as smooth flowing but it did follow Homer's story quite well, although a lot was left out. Achilles' row with Agamemnon was omitted together with his grand sulk, also there was no mention of Patroclus and the Myrmidons did not feature at all. Odysseus was hardly involved and Hector, the great Trojan hero was not allowed to show his great prowess. The two Ajaxes were barely mentioned. The fighting skills of Paris were somewhat exaggerated. There was an over-reliance on CGI in some scenes which looked somewhat artificial. The acting was a little wooden at times, apart from Rufus Sewell who played a suitably intense Agamemnon. Sienna Guillory made a very attractive Helen and Emilia Fox as Cassandra was very committed. The scenery was nicely shot and the sets were impressive. I also thought that the wooden horse was well constructed. On balance I preferred 'Troy', which had its own issues, but it was a close run thing.
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