The Classic Version
Behind The Scenes
Helen Of Troy was one of the most popular and successful of the
"Sword and Sandal" epics of
the fifties. Directed by Robert Wise, and shot on a lavish scale in CinemaScope,
with the proverbial "cast of thousands", it was released by Warner Bros. in
1956. This is the story of that production.
The film career of Robert Wise had been as diverse as it was distinguished. Born on 10th September 1914 in Winchester, Indiana, Robert E. Wise was the youngest of three brothers. He first entered the film industry at the age of 19 when one of those elder brothers, who was working in the accounting department at RKO, got him a job in the studio's sound department. A head sound effects man, realizing the potential of young Wise, made him his protégé, and he worked on many films at the studio, until, tiring of editing sound effects and music, he began to edit film as well, notably; The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); My Favorite Wife(1940) and The Devil and Daniel Webster(1941) Also in 1941, Orson Welles, impressed with his body of work, asked Wise to cut his masterpiece; Citizen Kane, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Editor. After editing The Magnificent Ambersons(1942), he was given his first chance behind the camera, as co-director, on Val Lewton's The Curse of the Cat People(1944). He followed this with The Body Snatcher(1945), also for Lewton. For the next four years, Wise toiled in RKO's B-picture department, consolidating his reputation, until he was assigned to Blood on the Moon(1948), and turned in a first-rate, atmospheric western. He followed this with The Set-Up(1949), a prizefight drama that took place in "real time", and it was this film that proved to be the turning point in Wise's career. Moving on to other studios, he directed such films as; Two Flags West; The House on Telegraph Hill; the classic science fiction drama, The Day the Earth Stood Still; The Captive City, and Destination Gobi, for Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century-Fox, and then he moved to MGM in 1953 for Executive Suite. It was at this point in his career that Wise was approached by Warner Bros again, and was asked to direct Helen of Troy, which would be his first feature in CinemaScope.
was on holiday in San Francisco, after completing Executive Suite, when
his agent informed
him of Warner's offer. Intrigued by the idea and curious as to whether he could
pull off an "epic" - a complete change of direction from his usual style, Wise
agreed to do it . He had seen the CinemaScope process demonstrated at Fox a year
or two prior to his involvement with Helen and he had realized that CinemaScope
was seen as the sort of thing where you point the camera at the actors head-on,
and do a ten-minute scene in one shot; no cuts; no angles; no over-the-shoulder
stuff. Wise saw this as a challenge; feeling that there was no real reason why
he couldn't shoot Helen of Troy in the same way he'd shot his
black and white films, and to hell with the frame size! In fact, with the help
of Harry Stradling, the cinematographer who would be assigned to the film, Wise
was proved right, and Helen was probably one of the first 'Scope films to be
shot that way.
The vast Cinecitta Studios in Rome, built in 1937 on the orders of Mussolini to "rival the biggest and best of Hollywood" (after sending his son there to see what the studios looked like) was enjoying something of a revival when Wise and his crew of thirty Warner Studio technicians arrived in 1954. Business was booming, and several costume epics were in various stages of production. Paramount had gone there to shoot Ulysses with Kirk Douglas and Sylvana Mangana. Anthony Quinn had just completed Attila the Hun with Irene Pappas and a young Sophia Loren; and Howard Hawks was wading half-heartedly into Land of the Pharaohs, with Jack Hawkins and Joan Collins, after completing exteriors in Egypt. Wise was also slightly perturbed to find that a "home grown" Helen of Troy film had just been completed, starring Hedy Lamarr. Planned as a major production, this aborted spectacular emerged as a modest 73 minute film entitled LAmante di Paride (US title: The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships), that, thankfully for Warner Bros, came and went so fast that nobody really noticed.
Casting the role of Helen - "The most
beautiful woman in the world" - was no small problem for Wise. Most of the
current Hollywood "love goddesses" had been considered, including Lana Turner;
Elizabeth Taylor; Rhonda Fleming; Yvonne de Carlo; Ava Gardner, and - Warner's
preferred choice - Virginia Mayo. Wise felt that using relative "unknowns" for
the principle leads would be more effective, and he most definitely did not want
Virginia Mayo under any circumstances!
Eventually the part went to Rossana Podesta, an established star, who'd had a small part in Ulysses and had appeared in a number of mediocre and non too successful Italian films, but was the requisite "unknown" outside Italy. The one problem was that Podesta didn't speak any English at that time. Wise wanted to avoid a clash of accents or dialects amongst characters who were supposed to be speaking the same language, and the rest of his cast were largely British, classically trained actors, such as Cedric Hardwick; Stanley Baker; Harry Andrews and Niall MacGinnes for the male characters, and Janette Scott and Nora Swinburne for the females.
The only way around this was to have Podesta learn her lines by rote, and Wise employed a voice coach to help her, with remarkable effectiveness. Another member of the female cast had the same problem - and endured the same solution - the part of Helen's handmaiden had gone to newcomer Brigitte Bardot! French actor, Jacques (Jack) Sernas, had been cast as Paris, the son of Priam, king of Troy, and he could speak English. Unfortunately, although he had a fine speaking voice, the timbre didn't match the rest of the cast, and his voice was dubbed, as were the parts of other Italian speaking actors.
Wise ran into problems almost from day one. There is no Producer credit on Helen of Troy, so there was no one person responsible for getting the show on the road. Wise, arriving in October of 1954 to carry out an initial survey of facilities and locations, found that an English executive was in charge of "European Production". This man was appointed "Administrator", not "Producer", and it soon became apparent to Wise that he was not going to be particularly helpful. Realizing the complications of the huge production that he had taken on, Wise attempted to get a Producer credit from the studios, but they refused. He also found that this "Administrator" had appointed two Production Managers for the film; Maurizio Lodi-fe and Giuseppi De Blasio, whom Wise found, thankfully, to be both amiable and competent. But the obstructive attitude of the Administrator would continue to be a millstone round Wise's neck from the time of his return to Italy the following April to commence shooting, and for the subsequent ten months of production. Wise now had his complete crew, which was a pretty mixed bag, consisting of his key Americans; some English and Italian, and also a few French.
Great care was also taken to avoid injury to any of the animals in Helen, as the film industry had had a miserable reputation in the past for cruelty inflicted on unknowing animals used in filming, a notorious example being the deaths of over a hundred horses during the filming of MGM's 1925 version of Ben Hur. Another depressing example would be Warner's 1936 Errol Flynn vehicle, The Charge of the Light Brigade, where horses were driven over rocky ground in which pits and trenches had been blasted by dynamite to accommodate low angle filming. Many horses, tripped by wires, tumbled into these jagged holes and died horrendously. After members of the local SPCA visited the Sonora location, charges were filed against the studio. (Several years after Helen of Troy, another production, Solomon and Sheba, filmed by a different studio in Spain, would achieve similar notoriety by driving horses over a "cliff" for the climactic battle scene, with predictable results).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Administrator - or Mr. X as we'll call
him, seemed to be doing his best to undermine Wise at every opportunity.
As the huge production began to slip, not surprisingly, behind schedule,
Mr. X began to criticize and complain about Wise's decisions. Not to
Wise directly, but via a series of cables to Jack Warner and the
executives back in Burbank. The result of this would be a telephone call
to Wise in the middle of the night from Hollywood, with the studio
wanting to know what was going wrong. Wise would then have to explain
what he was doing and why - and would invariably receive the backing of
the studio, in spite of some of the unforeseen expenditures that were
being incurred. Nevertheless, Mr. X continued with his sinister
activities, much to the outrage of the secretaries who had to send his
nefarious cables for him. So incensed were they that they began to keep
copies of them to show to Wise. He, in turn, sent all his cables via Mr.
X's office so that he would know exactly what the director was doing,.
This went on all through the last half of the production, and no
director needs that kind of pressure. Wise found it extremely wearing,
but, as he says, "We got through it."
With most of the big Troy scenes shot, the main unit moved to a small town on the sea shore for some location work. One evening, when the shooting there had been completed - ahead of schedule - several of the key crew members had gone up to cinematographer Harry Stradling's hotel room, for drinks on the terrace overlooking the ocean. You can probably picture a very convivial scene as they relax, no doubt feeling quite pleased with themselves to be back on course after a difficult and sometimes complex shoot. Then the telephone rang. Edward de Blasio took the call, and sat listening, the colour draining from his face. The room suddenly went quiet. "That was the studio," he said. "The set's just burned down."
Released in 1956, Helen of Troy was a hit for Warners. And while the
script and some of the performances may not compare favorably with, say,
Robert Rossen's Alexander the Great, the visuals easily surpass most of
its contemporaries. Every dollar is up there on the screen. Would Wise
do it any differently today? With hindsight, he says he would probably
have taken more time in preparation and perhaps used bigger names in the
lead roles of Helen and Paris, but generally he is satisfied with the
film. It did his career no harm at all and he still occasionally
receives letters from people who've seen it and loved it! He would go on
to direct such classics as West Side Story, The Sound of Music , The
Sand Pebbles, and, of course, many others-but never another "epic".
"They're just not my cup of tea," he says.
Copyright © 2002 John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
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