Review of old movies: “The 300 Spartans” (1962)

I didn’t intentionally watch this on Veterans Day, although it’s an appropriate choice for a day honoring fighting men. Instead, I was just dozily freefalling through Netflix’s streaming movie offerings late that evening, saw The 300 Spartans and the notation that it had inspired Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300, and checked it out.

It wasn’t bad. In fact, it deserved a serious look and I waited until the next day, after a good night’s sleep, to watch the whole thing.

It’s excellent.

The trailer is below. While it overall makes The 300 Spartans look like a swords-and-sandals movie, you do see a little of the realistically staged fighting. The trailer doesn’t convey the insight into the Spartans’ fighting mindset that you get from the rest of the movie, though.

It seems that director Rudolph Maté, aware that everybody knows how the Battle of Thermopylae turned out, instead made his movie about how the Spartans got into that pass and why they are still remembered for it today. And then he filmed the battle in detail. (Did I mention this is a good movie?)

You expected Captain Kirk on that couch after the dancing girls, right? It was a Sixties kind of thing.

Sense of realism

The movie starts out in a small room where politicians are arguing. Sounds off-putting, I know, but the camera angles and the confines of the set draw you in, while the intensity of the debate shows how high the stakes are.

Then Maté brings us into the Spartan mind. The politicians discuss something the Delphic Oracle said. That’s just hooey to us, but look how seriously they take it . . . seriously enough to play politics over. Their matter-of-fact belief in oracles stimulates our belief in the world that is unfolding before us.

Leonidas is in the debate room, too, and we learn that one of the politicians is his friend and political ally. Richard Egan plays the original Lion King as a stern but good man of few words and very controlled but energetic body language. Don’t be surprised if after watching this you start moving briskly around, a determined look on your face, speaking in short, brutally honest sentences and getting things done right.

David Farrar’s Xerxes isn’t a diva with fabulous makeup. He comes across as an ordinary and rather spoiled man with a huge number of totally obedient men at his command. He is capable of ordering horrendous executions or calling them off at the last moment on a whim, but deep down, he is bent on conquering Greece. Even the Spartans, you’d think, would sue for peace or get steamrolled. (Hint: They don’t, of course, and, surprisingly, they aren’t.)

Persians

Persian “Immortals” (Xerxes’ bodyguard) watch as Leonidas and his men approach in flying wedge formation in “The 300 Spartans.” (Source)

The costumes, sets, and battle choreography make you think of reenactors rather than extras. I am not a history expert, but it looks like they tried to be historically accurate, and it’s fascinating. Even the musical instruments are accurate (there is a modern symphonic soundtrack, too).

There’s some snark at IMDb about a few seconds where the pink towels that some actors used in the battle scenes to protect themselves are visible.

I call it snark because these guys were actually in hand-to-hand combat in the big battles (true, there are some smaller scale groaners when people fake getting speared, but those are few and far between). Why were the towels pink? Skin tones, but also because it didn’t show the actor’s blood as much. Imagine doing those scenes, hacking away at each other over and over again, take after take. Of course, people got injured.

The warriors’ robes are red, Leonidas points out, so enemies will never see Spartan blood, but these also serve as a springboard for the viewer’s imagination as the fight goes on. Oh, there is some gore shown, but very little by today’s standards. What is shown is realistic enough and also at the tolerable limit in those days (again, this was the early Sixties – that same year, in Dr. No, James Bond was having to explain to Honey why it was necessary to kill a bad guy).

Showing, Not Telling

The more funky parts of Spartan culture are not presented, and the story is shaded in Sixties political ideals. Leonidas and Themistocles are good, free-minded men who dream of a united Greece but are hampered in bringing this about because of all those self-centered city-states.

This is not to say the movie simplifies things. The argument about how to respond to the approaching Persians, for example, is reminiscent of isolationist/greater good arguments that all of us have heard in the opening years of the 21st century here in America.

Everybody has valid viewpoints (even Xerxes), and wills clash more and more as the movie goes on. Leonidas leads by example through it all (never kicking anybody into a well) and comes across, not macho or crazy, but as a good leader.

Nobody ever really explains the Spartan creed – everybody lives it. The movie is very focused that way. Even the love story subplot shows what life was like in the society (and also ends up on the battlefield, as all love subplots in war movies should but rarely do).

It works: Eventually you get the general idea of how those men ended up in the pass and fought so well that we still enjoy hearing about them today.

Thermopylae

I waited in vain for “We dine in Hell!”, but the rest of the dialogue at Thermopylae seems accurate. A special treat is the way Richard Egan gives the answer, “Come and take them” in Greek to the Persian messenger. It sounds like “mo’lon la’ve,” and richly conveys the whole “eat me” sense of Leonidas’ reply!

The Spartans weren’t alone in the pass; some 700 Phoceans joined them. I was surprised to recognize the name of their state, Phoces. That’s from a Helium article I did. In terms of Greek states back then, I think Phoces was pretty small potatoes at the time, although they sometimes laid claim to ownership of the Delphi Oracle. And they had the guts to send 700 men to help Leonidas.

The Phoceans died too, but it happens off screen in The 300 Spartans, as the story remains focused on Leonidas. The last few battles are just incredible. The Spartans have a lot of surprises in store for the viewer as well as for Xerxes. You’ll find yourself saying, “Did they really do that?” (yes) and “I can’t believe they did that” (people fought seriously back then, with the tools they had at hand).

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so will not say more now, other than adding that there is even geologic accuracy – a hot spring in the pass (Thermopylae means “hot gateway”).

Thermopylae hot springs

The hot springs are still there at Thermopylae today. (Miriam Mollerus)



Categories: Reviews of old movies

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