Judge Patrick Naugle loves movies about gladiators.
We! Are! Sparta! Err…circa early 1960s!
It's 480 B.C. and the Spartan King Leonidas (Richard Egan) is standing firm against an army of thousands with only 300 at his command. During the famed Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas and his band of brave soldiers stand tall against the armies of the pompous Persian King Xerxes (David Farrar, Lilacs in the Spring), who wants to crush the small city-states of Greece to achieve "one world rules by one master." Outnumbered but not overpowered, the Grecian leader meets in Corinth with delegates from other Grecian states to fortify a pass through Thermopylae and hold off Xerxes's army before reinforcement arrive. It will take all of Leonidas and his army's skill, courage, and fortitude to fend off a nearly insurmountable band of warriors hell-bent on overtaking Greece!
It will be difficult for movie fans to go into The 300 Spartans without thinking of director Zach Snyder's 2006 action film 300. Both films are based on the real life Battle of Thermopaylae, which has gone down in history as one of the best examples of the few standing tall against the many. Although Snyder's 300 and The 300 Spartans share many similarities, they are truly two different films.
300 is a stylized version of King Leonidas (based also on the comic book by Frank Miller, who was in turn inspired by the 1962 film) that often covets style over substance. That film was led by Gerard Butler in one of the most macho, chest thumping performances ever captured on film. 300 also reveled in fantasy, using twisted creatures and hulking monsters to tell its story (in other words, using the phrase "based on" may be a bit of a stretch). The 300 Spartans is, by comparison, a lot less exciting of a film than Snyder's thunderous 300 but feels far more rooted in realism. This is a straight forward historical epic; there are no supernatural undertones or genetic mutations in the soldiers, just the golden age Hollywood at its most expensive.
As hard as I tried not to compare the two films, I kept thinking back to how exciting 300 was and how slowly The 300 Spartans moved. This isn't to say The 300 Spartans is a bad movie; far from it. Classic movie lovers will find a lot to like here, including gorgeous cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey), impressive but mostly bloodless battle sequences, and meticulously recreated period costumes. By all accounts, The 300 Spartans is one of those grand old golden age Hollywood epics that current studios wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole…or spear.
The 300 Spartans was directed by Rudolph Maté (Three Violent People), which ended up being his second to last film before passing away in 1964. Maté's sure hand is all over the film; although the film takes a while to get going, once the Spartans begin their mission the action moves at a nearly breakneck pace. Horse chariots, archers, spear throwers, and sword fighters populate the second half of the film, making for an exhilarating (and carnage filled) cinematic experience. A sequence near the end where various soldier's are lit on fire is especially impressive considering this was well before the time of CGI or digital wizardry.
While the actors are all fine in their roles, there isn't really a standout here; the late Richard Egan (Pollyanna) is a decent if under-whelming Leonidas (Butler's version is clearly superior), and David Farrar as the vein King Xerxes can't hold a candle to Rodrigo Santoro's monstrously seductive version in Snyder's 300. The rest of the cast is mostly extras in gladiatorial garb screaming and running at each other.
I can easily see people being split down the middle on The 300 Spartans. If you saw this movie before 300, I can understand why you'll feel this is the superior version. However, if you are a younger viewer who was enthralled with 300, The 300 Spartans may seem slow and chatty without much in the way of visual flair. If you are willing to give it a chance, the film picks up considerably in the second half and offers a gratifying cinematic spectacle.
The 300 Spartans (Blu-ray) is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen in 1080p high definition. Fox is to be commended for how pleasing this image looks—for a film well over fifty years old, the print looks nearly brand new. Colors are bold and bright and the black levels are solidly rendered. Fans of this classic film will be very happy with how the transfer looks. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono in English. This DTS-HD audio mix does a fine job of offering up a quality reproduction of the original mono mix. There isn't much in the way of dynamic range, but what it lacks in surround sound it certainly makes up for in clarity. Also included on this disc is a Dolby 1.0 mix in Spanish, as well as Spanish, French, and English subtitles. Extra features are slim with only a few TV spots and a couple of theatrical trailers.
Not one of the best Biblical epics from Hollywood's golden age, but worth
seeking out for the costumed pomp and action pageantry.
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