With today’s eyes this version of the Battle of Thermopylae serves only ‘Sword and Sandal’ genre enthusiasts (although this one was Greek-made with Hollywood involvement) and curiosity seekers interested in the origins of Frank Miller’s cult graphic novel 300 and by association the monumentally successful Zach Snyder film. Otherwise it’s a dull historical actioner from start to finish.
300 Spartans (1963) dir. Rudolph Maté
Starring: Richard Egan, Ralph Richardson, Diane Baker, Barry Coe, David Farrar
By Alan Bacchus
It’s 490 BC the Persian Army led by Xerxes I are nipping at the heels of Greece, then a collective of city states, but powerful enough to have beaten them at the Battle of Marathon ten years prior. Rumours of an even larger Persian army than before has been amassed, thus putting fear into the Athenian senators. But as usual debates about how combat the force divides the group. Clever politicking by Themistocles give the military command of the union of armies to the Spartans – the state known for its military culture and legendary fighting skills.
With Leonidas in charge, it doesn’t take long to determine their most advantageous position is to secure the thin corridor of land called Thermopylae. Thus, here is where the famous stand of 300 Spartans against a Persian army of thousands took place, a massacre which history has already spoiled for us the audience.
If Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments were the pinnacle of the epic films of the 60’s and say, the Samuel Bronston films such The Fall of the Roman Empire and El Cid were a tier below, 300 Spartans probably sits a tier below that. Hammy dialogue and uncharismatic performances fail to elevate the material beyond a simple history lesson. Rudolphe Mate’s direction lacks any flare or panache, although the Greek countryside does like wide and beautiful. The picture fails to hide its shortchanged budget. While the bigger scenes are not underpopulated costumes and set design seem to get the short shrift.
Mate’s action is also only rudimentary choreographed. But what he does manage to convey is some of the violent brutality of warfare. There’s an aggression to the fighting not seen in other films of its type at the time, and extensive use of blood effects, from a pre-Peckinpah era might have been advanced at the time. And the final moments of the Spartan army, protecting the body of Leonidas are quite thrilling. We see the ring of Spartan soldiers, surrounded by the Persians, bombarded with hundreds of arrows. The power of their violent and painful deaths is not lost on us.
The 20th Century Fox Blu-Ray edition of 300 Spartans is dressed up to look like the Zach Snyder version of the story, carefully disguising the fact it’s a 50 year old film. I imagine some uninformed customers will feel short changed.