I freely admit that Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s historically-inaccurate, LGBT-insensitive (yet supremely homoerotic), machismo bullshit, green screen nightmare 300 (2006) is entirely lost on me. Its characters are thin or, where fleshed out, are so rooted in stereotypes and broadly drawn that bonding with them as viewers ought to proves nearly impossible. It doesn’t help either that the world they populate is all CG, bronzed and glossy, giving us plenty of style with virtually no substance. But people do so like it, and even I see the inherent visceral appeal of it in spite of my many objections.
And of course, the story of the 300 Spartans who led a small army against the Persian Empire at the Battle of Thermopylae is indeed an inspiring tale of courage and valor in the face of almost certain defeat. It’s a story that would most certainly make for a terrific film in the right hands, a film like, oh… I don’t know… 1962’s The 300 Spartans from Rudolph Maté? Now, if anyone’s hands were the right pair for the material, they most certainly belonged to Maté. He had come to direct such pictures as the film noir staple D.O.A. (1950) only after having worked for many years as a cinematographer, photographing such iconic works as 1946’s Gilda and Carl Theodor Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). While The 300 Spartans may not be on par with any of these three pictures (and let’s face it, most films aren’t), it’s as heartfelt and realistic a presentation of the Battle of Thermopylae as you’re likely to find.
Richard Egan (Love Me Tender) stars in The 300 Spartans as King Leonidas, a man who stands up to the authorities that would see Greece fall to the Persians and valiantly leads his men on a mission that he knows will almost certainly spell their demise. And not once does he snarl, deliver a rousing lunchtime motivational speech, or push kick someone into a conveniently-placed bottomless pit. In short, Egan manages to portray an extraordinarily brave and selfless man without the cartoonish aplomb of 300’s Leonidas.
Contributing greatly to The 300 Spartans’ realistic presentation, Maté actually shot the film on location in Greece and with a staggering host of extras clashing as the Persian and Greek armies. Sure, some strategic cutting occasionally makes it look like there are more men on set than there likely were, but it’s all practical, in-camera trickery and the production team still had to costume and organize hundreds of extras at once, many of whom would have to engage one other in the film’s lengthy battle sequences. And these battles, while not nearly as ornate as audiences are accustomed to today, are truly impressive in scope and befitting the scale of an A-grade, American studio-backed peplum picture.
This is not to say that the picture is perfect, or even an objectively great film for that matter. There are some stilted performances throughout, though not from Egan or costar Ralph Richardson to be sure. And there is even some wraparound narration that attempts in vain to link the fate of the 300 Spartans to the success of American Democracy, which is only implied but is totally there. In this, the film forces a message every bit as hokey as that of 300, though at least it’s predominantly relegated to the opening and closing bits of narration.
Still, if your thing is epic historical dramas, The 300 Spartans is definitely not to be missed. And it’s now available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Studio Classics, a growing library of consistently-impressive HD catalogue releases. The transfer of the film here looks terrific by-and-large, with vibrant colors, an almost total lack of noticeable damage or debris, and a rich grain pattern. At points, though, some additional stabilization would have been in order, and an early wide shot depicting Ralph Richardson’s character addressing a body of Greek politicians, plays choppily for some reason. Apart from those minor issues, this is truly everything I have come to expect from Fox Studio Classics.
My only real complaints about the release are a lack of special features per usual, in addition to the cover art. Special features are limited to trailers and TV spots, but honestly, when you consider that a Blu-ray from Fox Studio Classics will set you back a mere $10-$15 and for a catalogue title no less, you can hardly complain about a lack of features. However, the fact that the cover art utilizes the same bronze and red color palette that characterizes the artwork of Snyder’s 300 is, I think, worth getting a tad upset about. Subordinating The 300 Spartans to 300 like this may help Fox scrape in a few more dollars, but it really does the film, which is a far more respectful and earlier retelling of the Spartans’ tale, a great disservice.