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Helen of Troy
Helen of Troy
Actor: Bettany Hughes
Genres: Educational, Documentary
NR     2005     2hr 0min


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Movie Details

Actor: Bettany Hughes
Genres: Educational, Documentary
Sub-Genres: Educational, History
Studio: Pbs (Direct)
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 11/01/2005
Release Year: 2005
Run Time: 2hr 0min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 5
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

The face that launched a hundred ships
Phillip Kay | Sydney | 10/02/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"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, Leda, 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."
Helen from all angles
Kerryah | Port Adelaide, Australia | 01/22/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Bettany Hughes' TV special and accompanying book both explore the enigmatic Helen of Troy as a mythological, archetypal and historical figure. Shot in various locations in Greece and Turkey, Helen of Troy explores the cultures involved in the Trojan War, the principal characters from Homer's Iliad, and the gods who favoured either side in the conflict that raged around the abduction of Helen by Paris, Prince of Troy. If you've never been to Greece or Turkey, this program will make you want to go."
Very Informative and Entertaining
Mark L. Mckenzie | San Francisco, CA USA | 02/03/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I actually first watched this at a friends house. Its the first time that when I got home I went to Amazon and had to have my own copy. Its really done well and Ms Hughes provides just the right mix of been a history teacher and also a lover of ancient culture's. It's filmed quite well and if you like Michael Woods DVD and Books then this ones for you. The main difference is Hughes has more energy than Wood although I am a Wood fan.Its about the right mix of been serious about your history and been lost in your love for it, Bravo !!!"
The Kitchen Sink
Bruce Owen Brady | Santa Clara, California United States | 06/01/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Bettany Hughes' Helen of Troy video is just the sort of thing many professional critics loathe. Why? Because it cannot be easily stuffed into a genre and pigeonholed. Is it a history? Is it a love story? Is it a cautionary tale or an Rx for deathless fame? Is it all of these things? Poor critics, lucky viewers.

Why are we viewers so fortunate? Well, because this quest to find the essence of "the most beautiful woman in the world" is stuffed full of the kinds of things we aficionados of history "lite" love. It's got war, romance, social/cultural commentary, dress up and primary research involving pine resin wine. It also has ancient weapons, archeology, history, mythology, play acting: in short, the kitchen sink. We also get a free tour of relevant sites in Greece and in Anatolia.

What are all these devices in aid of (sorry about that pesky preposition)? They help the viewer find some kind of truth about a mystery-bound woman who (if she's truly something more than a singer's torrid poppy dream) was either a plaything of the gods or of her own libido.

Ms. Hughes, an Oxford-trained historian, is an author and the creator of other BBC/PBS Greek-inspired television programs. For those who agree with Kit Marlow that, "all is dross that is not Helena," she's also written a book which explores her enigmatic subject in more depth than a two-hour TV production can provide. "Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World" was the book's title. The current printing is now being sold as "Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore." It's good to be reminded, from time to time, that marketing types invariably seek the lowest common denominator.

Using surviving ancient sources, the video explains Helen's background and what her life as a high-born Spartan might have been like. Ms. Hughes notes that, "Helen would...always be linked with passion and pain," and that she was the sort of woman who, "walked hand-in-hand with spirits, deities and demons."

Presenter Hughes uses the services of make-up artists and ancient weapons experts to help her flesh out the shade of Helen and the Trojan War environment. In the first instance, a model is transformed from a pedestrian young woman into the image of a powerful Bronze-Age queen. The end result of a little paint and a little art is startling. During another scene, several weapons experts, kitted out as Greek warriors, demonstrate cuts and checks, using spears, swords and shields. It's effective, but the most powerful show-and-tell moment comes when these men roll out two new-built chariots and maneuver them on the plain at Troy. Seeing those vehicles in that place is, from this reviewer's standpoint, far more effective than what the History Channel might have done using hordes of computer-generated cartoons. The shades of Homer's heroes must have stirred and smiled.

In fact, Ms. Hughes' story telling is so evocative that, sometimes, we can't help but feel that if only she opened a door a little faster at Mycenae or turned a corner more quickly at Troy, we might actually be able to catch a flesh-and-blood glimpse of "La Belle Helene," before she could slip back into the shadows of time and myth.

No, Bettany Hughes Helen can't be easily categorized, anymore than could the original Helen. So what? Just slip the disc into the machine, tip some water into the Ouzo, sit back and enjoy the ride.