Monday, March 12, 2007

THE 300 SPARTANS (1962)

By sheer coincidence, I watched this movie about the battle at Thermopylae between a small group of Spartan warriors and the much larger Persian army of King Xerxes only a week before a brand new movie about the same battle ("300," based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller) was released--and set a box office record for biggest March opening. I'm not a big fan of the current trend of "video game" movies, and the reviews of "300" have been terrible, but this early 60's epic is a largely empty affair full of blah writing and acting, and only average battle scenes, with some nice location scenery about the only bright spot. In 480 B.C., Xerxes (David Farrar, giving by far the best performance in the film), ruler of the Persian Empire, is out to crush the resistance of the independent Greek states, whose rulers can't agree on a war plan; should they unite or fight as separate forces? Themistocles of Athens (Ralph Richardson) pushes for unity but others, such as Xenathon, are trying to undermine him. Spartan King Leonidas (Richard Egan) takes his personal bodyguard troop of 300 to the pass at Thermopylae to hold off the Persian army, composed primarily of slaves, believing he'll get back-up troops after the current religious festival ends, but when the Delphic Oracle predicts disaster, the Greeks decide to stay put to defend Athens. The Spartans, having been taught to value the love of freedom even above their own lives, are fierce fighters (something that is probably more graphically illustrated in the recent film) and are able not only to hold off the Persians (with some help from a few other Greek volunteers) but to burn down the king's camp. Even Xerxes' personal army, known as the Immortals, is defeated, spreading fear among the slave army. Queen Artemisa (Anne Wakefield) advises Xerxes to back off and save face by claiming that he's had a vision from the gods to retreat, but Ephialtes (Keiron Moore), a local who has been spurned by Greek lovely Ellas (Diane Baker), goes to Xerxes with information about a secret goat herder's path, and Xerxes uses this information to launch a sneak attack, leading to the climactic battle in which the vastly outnumbered Spartans die valiantly. The sets, backgrounds, and costumes all look good, but the actors are strictly second string except Richardson (who hasn't much to do) and Farrar (who film buffs will remember as the man who turns the nuns' heads in BLACK NARCISSUS), and Farrar's screen time as the hissable villlian is the only time the non-action scenes come alive. There is a moderately interesting subplot involving the young Spartan Phylon (Barry Coe, who is nice to look at but seems to be barely hiding a "good-ol'-boy" accent), his father, who is assumed to be a spy but isn't, and the aforementioned looker Ellas, but that all ultimately feels like it's part of a different movie. The last battle is nicely handled. The film winds up feeling like a particularly slow episode of HBO's (much more interesting) series ROME. [FMC]

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