The 300 Spartans - Released August 29, 1962. Directed by Rudolph Mate
Xerxes (played by David Farrar) has been moving westward from Persia conquering as he goes with a gigantic army at his command. When he comes into northern Greece, he is delighted to have a chance to scoop up the Greeks into his empire as well. The only problem is that in Greece there is a place called Sparta, and all the worse for Xerxes, Sparta is full of Spartans, a nation of warriors trained from their youth to fight as a unit.
Xerxes is in northern Greece and the Spartans are in the south, so he can just wipe out the Athenians who are closer, and deal with the Spartans later. This doesn't strike King of the Spartans, Leonidas (Richard Egan) as convenient for him. He doesn't want to wait to deal with the Xerxes problem, so he and his personal bodyguard of 300 Spartans go north to introduce Xerxes to the Spartan way of military combat. The other Spartans don't accompany him because they are obligated to stay in Sparta for a religious festival and because Spartan politicians turn out to be like politicians the world over; they decide not to deal with Xerxes unless they absolutely have to, which translates as doing nothing and hoping Xerxes will go away.
Director Rudolph Mate's story of how Leonidas and the 300 Spartans face off against the vastly larger Persian army at Thermopylae is shot in Greece and has many scenes of epic landscape and hordes of soldiers on the screen. Some of the political wrangling between the Spartan leadership starts to build like an ancient version of Advise and Consent, but finally the matter of how Xerxes and the Spartans are going to meet at a narrow little strip of land (Thermopylae) is established and we get to the battle scenes.
There is also a love story between a Spartan soldier, Phylon (played by Barry Coe), and a Spartan girl, Ellas (played by Diane Baker), and this sub-story seems uncomfortably inserted into the tale (it is reminiscent of the love story between a navy man and his girlfriend that was a side-trip of no importance inserted into The Caine Mutiny of 1954.) Director Mate does a much better job integrating this episode of true love into The 300 Spartans and Mate's larger theme of sheer stubborn willpower (everybody tells the 300 Spartans they're going to fail, but they just don't care) is not much hampered by young love.
Compared to the much newer version of this story (300 directed by Zack Snyder in 2006), the version by director Mate is told with more fidelity to history and facts; whereas Snyder's version (based on the Frank Miller graphic novel) takes a lot of liberty and uses enormous amounts of CGI. But either way, the audacity of a relatively small military unit tying up Xerxes’ mammoth army - and giving Xerxes an equally large emotional crisis - makes for some over-the-top filmmaking. Mate, in contrast to Snyder, doesn't go for the bait very often, instead frequently opting for formations of men moving around as seen from a distance. Unfortunately, this is tactically more interesting than it is cinematically, which feeds the sense of stiffness that seeps repeatedly into the movie.
Mate has a large number of uniformed bodies (the Spartans wear red cloaks so that if wounded, enemy soldiers cannot detect the spilled blood) to put on the screen, but it is nothing like the numbers of soldiers one could see in super-epics (e.g., El Cid or Fall of the Roman Empire). This hurts the sense of scale in The 300 Spartans at crucial moments, making battle scenes seem static at times. However, when it comes to closer in-fighting, Mate's movie is innovative; the arms swinging swords on the screen do so with a fervor you wouldn't normally see with movies shot on a studio soundstage. The red capes help us to keep clear who is attacking who, and in the pitched battle when the Persian forces and the Spartans are muddled together, The 300 Spartans excels.
Richard Egan's King Leonidas isn't the half-crazed, spittle-spewing Leonidas of the Snyder version (which, all credit due, is well played by Gerard Butler), but Egan balances military authority, gravitas and determination into a nicely done portrait of desperation, duty and stubbornness - a virtue as far as the Spartans of the film are concerned.
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