After rewatching 300 last week I felt compelled to track down the film that inspired it, hoping too that I might discover a discarded classic of sword-and-sandal cinema. I did find a copy of The 300 Spartans at my local library and I did watch it. And, well, mm.
Before I go into details I’ll just replay the summary here. The story’s the same but for those of you just joining us: King Xerxes is intent on invading Greece to fulfill his father Darius’s dream of a Mediterranean empire. With a massive army massing just outside Greece’s borders, its several city states are locked in debate about just what to do about it. Though fiercely independent by nature, Athens and Sparta form an alliance that they hope will rally their Greek brothers to join them in the war against tyranny. Themistocles of Athens leads his navy against Xerxes’ ships while King Leonidas of Sparta leads his troops against Xerxes’ soldiers. This leads to a showdown that will forever after be known as the Battle of Thermopylae.
So, all of that said, let’s review The 300 Spartans. It is definitely more accurate in terms of historical costumes, especially concerning the uniforms of the Persian soldiers, king, and the fact that the Spartans actually wear, y’know, armor (though I am curious to know why the costume department thought the elite Immortals should go into battle with wicker shields). And it is definitely more accurate in terms of historical politics. Both of Spartan’s two kings are portrayed, as well as the importance of the alliance with the Athenian Themistocles, and the ephors are a simple council of five old dudes, not diseased and inbred monster-priests.
But The 300 Spartans is perhaps too loyal to its history. The screenwriters were unable to shoehorn all the exposition they wanted to keep into workable dialogue. This film is two hours long, and about an hour and fifty minutes of it is actors telling each other historical facts. It does not make for stirring drama. Director Maté seems to know this, and throws in a scene of Xerxes’ dancing girls whenever the narrative hits a new bump to drag across. Which was nice of him, I thought.
It’d be awfully blase of me to generalize an entire decade of films and say The 300 Spartans was typical of the 1960s, a film made in a time that wasn’t as self-conscious as our own, but it’s not like Hollywood hadn’t produced thoughtful or compelling films before. The biggest sin the amateur historian makes is thinking past decades or centuries didn’t have the same thoughts or feelings we had. They knew quality stories when they saw them. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was produced in 1939, Casablanca and Citizen Kane were both made before 1943. Across the Pacific Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was released in 1954, a stunning film in every way and a thoughtful and compelling depiction of ancient warfare. So we can’t make excuses for The 300 Spartans‘ cheesy acting or lackluster story. The only real thing it’s got going for it is its scope.
Films like this you can really admire and wonder at in equal measure. The cast of this production is immense. The real locations and the sheer mass of soldiers assembled is impressive. But on the flip side, there is not a single decent action scene in the entire film. Armies fighting each other rely on no discernible formations, the Spartans’ superior fighting prowess is constantly informed though no evidence of it exists – the men carry their spears and shields like props and have no idea (indeed seem to have no interest in even attempting) how to march, and every battle is depicted as both sides throwing themselves at each other willy nilly. The choreography is almost as bad as the acting of the supporting characters.
And oh boy is it bad. The leads, particularly Richard Egan as King Leonidas and David Farrar as King Xerxes, are serviceable. They seem to be chosen based on looks and voices alone, and their looks and voices are kingly, that’s for sure. But every single secondary character is either too melodramatic to even parody or so out of place they seem to have wandered into Greece and onto the movie set directly after lunchtime somewhere far, far away. For the record, that’s where the expression “out to lunch” comes from. It comes from this movie. You won’t find that on Wikipedia, but trust me.
Anyway, is it a better movie than 300? It’s a completely different movie than 300. Which is funny because it tells the exact same story over just about the exact same time period. Frank Miller and Zack Snyder’s 300 was way more obsessed with depicting the Spartans as carnage-loving killing machines (by all historical rights, they very well may have been) and the three-day Battle of Thermopylae as an endless montage of extreme action sequences. For my money, Snyder’s is the more entertaining movie. Nowhere near as historically accurate, but the fact that both 300 and The 300 Spartans drew from the same historical record means they use many of the same lines. Yes, your favorite lines from both films have been quoted for 2500 years. The only point we can give to Maté’s film is that his people seem more like real people.
Actually I take that back. Whereas in 300 the lines are so over-the-top they’re entertaining, The 300 Spartans‘s lines are so wooden the actors may as well be wicker shields. The kicker is, if 300 didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have anything to compare The 300 Spartans to, no reason to rent it, and this movie would just be a boring depiction of an inspiring legend. It’s not an offensive film, so we can give it that point. The Persians in this version are human beings and actually somewhat sympathetic. So, hey, well done, 1962.
I mean, none of the Persians are actually played by Persians, but at least they’re not, um, voodoo ninjas.
Alright, 300‘s better.
The 300 Spartans (1962)
Directed by Rudolph Maté
20th Century Fox
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