The 300 Spartans (1962), about the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, is an oddity. It's something of a throwback to the kind of early CinemaScope spectacles 20th Century-Fox and the other Hollywood studios produced when that widescreen format was new, during 1953-54. It also resembles the "sword-and-sandal" pepla (mostly) Italian film companies produced between the runaway success Hercules (1958) and the game-changing release of Fistful of Dollars (1964) when, virtually overnight, Italian filmmakers traded in their swords and sandals for six-shooters and riding spurs.
The 300 Spartans is not a terrible film, but it is an awfully undistinguished one, neither as epic as the early CinemaScope historical epics nor as free-wheeling as the best Italian pepla. Indeed, it's not clear why this movie exists at all as there were few if any other Hollywood productions quite like it.
Wikipedia cites patently absurb figures on The 300 Spartans, claiming it had an $8 million budget against box office earnings of $76.52 million. That would put it ahead of obviously more popular and lasting ‘60s movies like Goldfinger, My Fair Lady, The Jungle Book, and Thunderball. A far more reliable source lists The Longest Day as Fox's top-grossing movie of 1962, with $17.5 million in domestic rentals, with The 300 Spartans not even cracking Top Ten lists of their top-grossing and highest-budgeted films that year. More likely the film cost well under $1.5 million to make with domestic rentals of about that amount or even less. In other words, don't believe everything you read on the Internet.
The film does have some but not many redeeming values and Fox's high-def transfer is an improvement over its 2004 DVD release.
One of the problems with the overlong (114 minutes) film is that there's virtually no story to speak of. It's all a polemic build-up to the big battle at the end. Conqueror Xerxes I of Persia (David Farrar of Black Narcissus) leads his slave army into Greece, then a loosely connected, isolationist country of city-states, "the last remaining stronghold of freedom," says the narrator.
Meanwhile, in Corinth, Themistocles (Sir Ralph Richardson, so billed) wins support to grant Sparta and its famous army full control over the entire Greek military against Xerxes, including Greece's never-seen but much-discussed naval fleet. King Leonidas (Richard Egan) of Sparta is pleased with this new alliance, but the Ephors want to delay sending forces until after a religious festival, apparently with the intent of needlessly burning screentime.
Meanwhile, Leonidas's niece, Ellas (Diane Baker), hopes to marry Phyllon (a character suggested by Spartan Aristodemus), but Spartan spy Agathon (John Crawford), recently tortured by Xerxes's men, accuses Phyllon's father of treason, having seen him at Xerxes's camp. The requested blessing for the marriage is refused and Phyllon is stripped of his Spartan rank, though he and Ellas follow the army into battle.
The 300 Spartans appears to have been spearheaded by George St. George, a minor writer who seems to have produced both this and the obscure Aliki My Love (also 1962) back-to-back in Greece with cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Maté, though no other credits overlap and that film was not distributed by Fox.
The Greek government cooperated with St. George in The 300 Spartans' production, providing Greek Army soldiers as extras, and all this probably kept costs down. But the movie offers precious little in terms of distinctive Greek scenery. Most of the locations resemble the terrain around Agoura Hills and Malibu, not far from Hollywood. There's no mention in the credits where studio interiors were shot, but given the British cast in supporting roles, it's not unreasonable to speculate those might have been shot on London soundstages rather than somewhere in Greece.
Egan, Baker, and Coe were all Fox contractees. Egan lacks charisma but is serviceable, Coe less than that, and only beautiful Diane Baker leaves any lasting impression, despite being saddled with an uninteresting character to play. The British cast fare better. Farrar, in his last film before retiring to South Africa, is excellent and Richardson, despite a fake wig and beard that make him resemble an elderly G.I. Joe, has one nice scene debating with opposing delegate Laurence Naismith. Red-headed Welshman Donald Houston hardly makes a convincing Persian but he's okay, as is prolific character player Robert Brown as one of the leading Spartans.
The film's battle scenes are moderately impressive in dramatizing effective Spartan military strategy against overwhelming odds, though the movie's Cold War parallels are both clumsy and obvious.
Video & Audio
The 300 Spartans, filmed in CinemaScope, looks fairly good, not great. Dissolves and other opticals are notably grainy. It would have helped had the film sported 4-track magnetic stereo audio but apparently it was originally released monophonic and the 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is as dull as the image. A 1.0 Dolby Digital Spanish track is included, and optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. The disc is Region "A" encoded. The only Extra Features
are a trailer and a couple of TV spots.
Worth seeing once, The 300 Spartans ranks low on the list of ‘60s Hollywood epics. Parts of the film are above average, but mostly it's dull and undernourished. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.