Apparently, as a kid, Frank Miller saw the 1962 swords-and-sandals epic The 300 Spartans, and it stuck in his impressionable craw. Fast forward a few decades, and pop culture’s imagery of the legendary 300 Spartan warriors is based on Frank Miller’s iconic graphic novel… and especially the films it spawned. I like to call the modern films ‘300 Man-Breasts” because of the verging-on-porn images of oiled up bare-chested warriors, wearing only a cape and a leather briefs. It doesn’t seem very sensible to have nothing between you and your enemy’s sword beyond a shield and a whole lot of moxie, but that’s just me. Impractical, yes, but these almost-naked muscle-men sure are pretty to look at.
The 1962 film apparently sticks a bit closer to the legend of the 300 warriors that famously faced, held off, and eventually were slaughtered by the invading army of tens… or hundreds of thousands of Persian soldiers led by King Xerxes. At the time (480 BC), the Greeks were a bunch of independent states without much in common, other than the fact that they were Greek, and Greece was the last target of the massive Persian empire. When it is clear that Xerxes (David Farrar) are days away, the Greeks convene to discuss what to do. Rather than “to each their own”, they reluctantly agree it might be good to band together to save Greece, or else they are all screwed. The intellectual leader Themistocles of Athens (Sir Ralph Richardson) suggests that the Spartans, led by King Leonidas (Richard Egan) go first. As the Spartans are the burly studs of the Greek world, they more than happily agree. The climax of the story is when Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (the group is so small because Sparta wanted the rest of their army to enjoy a festival before going off to fight) face off against the massive Persian army at the narrow coastal passage at Thermopylae. Xerxes throws cavalry, chariots, immortals, and the best that he’s got at the Spartans, only to be outsmarted by Leonidas’ tactics at protecting the passage.
Richard Egan is an appropriately studly Leonidas, even though he doesn’t take off his shirt. Sir Ralph Richardson serves as sort of the narrator, since he’s pretty much all talky talk every time he is on screen, and his appearance gives a sort of dignity to what is otherwise a pretty cheesy film. For instance, there is the requisite side-story of young lovers Phylon (corny Barry Coe, who is practically drawling his lines) and Ellas (Diane Baker, who is impressively third-billed, as if to prove there ARE women in the story). David Farrar is alright as power-hungry Xerxes, even if he spends half his time making out with Artemisia (Anne Wakefield, you are no Eva Green).
When it comes to the battle scenes, when they finally arrive, you can’t help but pine for the stylized glory of the 300 movies. In this version, everything is brightly lit, the warriors throw spears like girls, and when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, there is a little clanking and shoving, then the Persians may as well be hollering, “Run away! Run away!” It is easy to dismiss the kind of lame battles as of the era, but if you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (from just two years earlier), you know that it could have been done better. Regardless of the clunkiness of some of the movie, you have to admit it is a classic story for a reason. The film itself may not be great, but try not to be moved as King Leonidas’ men are surrounded on all sides after their valiant fight. Makes you want to holler, “SPARTA!!!” like Gerard Butler.