Friday, January 14, 2005

The 300 Spartans

My DVD of The 300 Spartans arrived from Amazon.Com today. I seem to recall seeing it as a child. I know I saw it a few years ago on TCM. Naturally, I watched it again tonight.

The 300 Spartans is based on the battle of Thermopylae, recounted in Herodotus's Histories. It was at the pass of Thermopylae that King Leonidas of Sparta and 300 Spartans fought King Xerxes of Persia and his absolutely vast army (Herodotus estimates 3.4 million; modern historians number his forces at anywhere from 25.000 to 300.000). Although Leonidas and his are ultimately defeated, they delayed Xerxes long enough for the rest of Greece to gather enough forces to defeat the Persians.

The 300 Spartans was one of the last sword and sandal epics, released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1962. Beyond Richard Egan and Sir Ralph Richardson, some of the acting is a bit stilted. Some of the battle scenes seem rather disorganised at times, not quite what one would expect of two highly trained forces of soldiers. And an entirely unneccessary romance is introduced into the plot. But don't let these shortcomings deceive you. The 300 Spartans is one of those movies that is greater than the sum of its parts.

First, The 300 Spartans is one of the few historical movies that remains somewhat loyal to its source material. The plot more or less follows Herodotus' tale of the battle, with only a few departures from the text. This is remarkable for any movie based on a historical event, even those made today. Second, while some of the battle scenes could have used better choreography, there are others that are absolutely brilliant. The final showdown between the Spartans and their Persian enemies is appropriately dramatic and accomplishes much without the benefit of a big budget or special effects. Third, both Richard Egan and Sir Ralph Richardson give stellar performances. Indeed, Egan has some of the best lines from any movie, particularly the line "Today we will fight in the shade," in response to Persian claims that their arrows will blot out the sun (the line is straight from Herodotus!). Fourth, the film is beautifullly shot. It has some fine cinematography.

The average film goer today probably has not heard of The 300 Spartans, which is unfortunate. While the film does not match Spartacus, it is superior to many other sword and sandal movies. And it tells one of the most compelling stories straight from the pages of history.

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