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The 300 Spartans had a certain reputation among kids my age, mainly because it never seemed to be shown anywhere (it did turn up on cable TV a while back). Everyone remembered it as some kind of uncompromised historical picture that was about fighting and little else.
Although it does stick to the facts much more than the average fantasy-oriented sword 'n sandal epic and has a fine music score and some attractive cinematography, the script for this ode to the warriors of 2600 years ago is simply terrible. Ralph Richardson enlivens a couple of scenes and Richard Egan provides a sturdy main hero, but most everyone else is lost in a welter of silly dialogue.
First things first: Rudolph Maté was a legendary camera stylist responsible for any number of masterpieces and admirable efforts. He filmed The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Liliom, Dante's Inferno, Dodsworth, Come and Get It, Foreign Correspondent, To Be or Not to Be, Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai before becoming a director himself. The films he directed range from excellent (D.O.A., Miracle in the Rain) to so-so When Worlds Collide, to downright awful.
The 300 Spartans isn't Maté's finest hour by a long shot. The dry script is almost entirely made up of flat exposition. People introduce themselves with tedious self-explanations and descriptions. When Xerxes' queenly girlfriend Artemisia (Anne Wakefield) enters, the camera cuts away to show two underlings exchange excited statements about who she is and where she comes from. David Farrar growl and sneers as Xerxes, hiding behind what I think is a fake hooked nose. When he's not making arrogant military decisions, like refusing to secure Thermopylae before the Greeks can, he's making incredibly stupid ones, like killing all of his army's camp-following women so that his soldiers will be without comfort until they seize the spoils of Greece (the booty?). That really had to be a boost to morale.
All of this is spelled out in monotonous detail. Junior High Schoolers will recognize some of the overly-serious lines from their textbooks. Spartans are expected to return holding their shields in victory, or being carried on them, dead. When threatened that "Persian arrows will blacken the sky," Leonidas comes back with the tough-guy rejoinder, "Then we'll just have to fight in the shade!" The average peplum programmer is a half-hour shorter than this show, and the excess shows.
At one point, Xerxes' head commander Donald Houston exclaims that "Those Greeks aren't human, they fight like machines!" Maybe I have my definitions wrong, but did the concept of a machine exist in the technology of 600 BC? 2
The film is handsomely shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, one of England's greats, but visually it all just sits there. Athens and Sparta are represented by a few interiors and depopulated exteriors, and their cultural differences must be established by more boring dialogue. Nothing looks lived-in or anything more than a set for the actors to enter, argue, and exit.
The authentic Mediterranean locales are pretty but are not well used. Thermopylae looks like the shore of a placid lake and not the Aegean sea. The visual treatment of the battles is particularly disappointing. Xerxes' army doesn't seem any bigger than that of Leonidas. The rocky, sloping site of the fighting doesn't lend itself to anything grandiose, and it doesn't read as the kind of geographical bottleneck where a few determined men could withstand a larger number. Some of the fighting, with Xerxes angrily watching from his observation post, is structured well even if it reminds of some kind of football game with spears. We hear constant boasts of Spartan military superiority but when the armies clash, it's just a jumble of swords where nobody seems to have an upper hand. 1
A lot of familiar faces are put into roles of varying humiliation. Donald Houston, John Crawford and Robert Brown are soldiers, Lawrence Naismith a briefly-seen orator, and Ivan Triesault a traitorous Spartan who shows Xerxes how well Greeks can fight. Barry Coe is handsome as the soldier fighting to regain his pride, but poor contract player Diane Baker is once again wasted in a silly part as the faithful Ellas. She does get to contribute an interesting sidelight on the emancipation of Spartan women - the rigid culture grants her no civil rights, but she bests both Coe and Greek traitor Kieron Moore when they try to get fresh with her.
Ralph Richardson's mighty navy is never even glimpsed, making one guess that the extensive model shooting to represent it was scrapped - or was wiped out by the cost overruns being racked up by the same studio's superproduction Cleopatra.
The lines of Greek warriors in their shining armor are occasionally impressive, but the compositions and framing are mostly dull, as if poor Mat&e; thought the film was being shot flat or something. This is one movie where the full widescreen makes the visuals seem less compelling. On the other hand, Manos Hadjidakis' great score lends a lot of feeling and interest to many scenes.
Greece was a battleground of Cold War ideologies in the 1960s. As in many pictures of the time, the narration implies a modern parallel. The hordes from the east are the barbaric commies come to rape our women and grind our superior culture into dust. To resist, Greece needs unity. After being abandoned by isolationists, Leonidas' 300 have to defend Thermopylae virtually alone. They lay down their lives as an example of patriotism to shame future generations. The most strident example of this covert Cold War film is John Wayne's The Alamo, where the Texican land-grab from Mexico is treated as if it were the last stand against anti-Americanism.
Today, the idea of a maniac from Baghdad threatening the West with a massive army sounds like good propaganda against the deposed dictator-criminal Saddam Hussain.
Interestingly, the film doesn't play up the negative aspects of Spartan culture, like their execution of all but perfect babies and their abandonment of the chronically unhealthy. Not that Xerxes' alternative was desirable, but Sparta seems to have been founded on eugenic concepts later embraced by Nazi race fanatics.
Fox's DVD of The 300 Spartans is a beauty and fans of this spear 'n shield noisemaker will be pleased. The color is excellent and Geoffrey Unsworth's sparkling images are in fine shape. A two-channel stereo track is on board. A super-hyped trailer ("this is like nothing ever seen on the screen before") is accompanied by three B&W TV spots that are crude by modern standards. The football analogy is carried forward with the narration "See the first use of the flying wedge!" as Leonida's men rush forward in a V-shaped formation.
The attractive cover illustration tones down the film's brightly-colored costumes to closely resemble art from Gladiator of a couple seasons back.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The 300 Spartans rates:
Movie: Good -- or Fair ++
Supplements: Trailer, TV spots
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 25, 2004
1. One alarming shot shows a tight view of several Persian warriors being struck by Greek spears. Right in the middle of the frame one of them is almost hit in the eye, and blocks it with his hand. Before the camera cuts, he looks visibly hurt and puts his hand painfully to his lips. Moral: don't work as an extra in any movie where guys fling pointed sticks around.
2. Rebuttal: Hard Greek facts from Michael Kulikowski, 4/26/04:
Dear Glen, A quick note on your review of The 300 Spartans. As always, very enlightening cinematically; but I might point out that Thermopylae was fought in 480 BC, not 600, and that Athenian theatre was already using mechanical devices on stage that were clearly conceived of as machines -- hence the later Latin phrase deus ex machina, the god that descends from a machine to resolve all the loose ends of the play's plot. Best, Michael Kulikowski
Assistant Professor of History, University of Tennessee
Note: several other readers corrected stubborn Savant on the 'machine' issue, and they appear to have been absolutely correct. Mea Culpa. I could weasel out of my error by adding that the character who compares the Greeks to machines is a Persian who has never seen Greece ... but Savant would never be that petty.