Based on actual event occurring in 480 B.C. Greece. This scintillating drama stars Richard Egan as the Greek soldier Leonidas, who led 300 Spartan soldiers against an overwhelming Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae. Unable to recruit the soldiers he needs to defend a critical Greek mountain pass against Persia's King Xerxes, Leonidas nonetheless prepares for battle. When warned that the number of arrows his tiny army will face "will blot out the sun", Leonidas replies that his army will "fight in the shade." With its superb cinematography, realism and musical score, this story of courage and self-sacrifice is inspired filmmaking at its best.
"Yesterday, we only probed your positions. When we attack today, our arrows will blot out the sun!"
"Then, we will fight in the shade."
The Battle of Thermopylae, which took place over the course of three days in the late summer of 480 BC during the Persian invasion of Greece, is one of the most famous and best known clashes ever recorded in history. Today, it still stands as the model of courage and bravery when the odds are in the favor of the enemy, the epitome of the fight for freedom and justice in the face of tyranny and oppression. The now familiar account, thanks in large to Frank Miller's graphic novel and Zack Snyder's visually wild adaptation, tells the tale of 300 Spartans standing against a Persian army of over one million soldiers. Essentially, it's the greatest underdog story ever told.
However, the Greeks were known for propagandizing and often mythologizing bits and pieces of their history. This particular and admittedly major event hyperbolizes certain details, especially the number of soldiers involved in the skirmish, with Snyder's movie, of course, further exaggerating the facts. The reality is that King Leonidas led a force of just over 7,000 men — 300 of which were actually Spartans — while Xerxes I tried to invade with something closer to around 150,000 combatants. While these figures are pretty startling and dire, they are not quite as melodramatic and spectacular as first recorded by Herodotus.
And when it comes to fictionalizing a story, even when based on reality, tragedy and sensationalism are precisely what we want, which is the point I'm driving at. One of history's greatest underdog stories and arguably the most famous last stand ever documented has yet to be told in a film adaptation that's satisfyingly entertaining, unless one actually thinks Snyder's ridiculously over-the-top movie has any merit. (Frankly, cool visuals alone do not a good movie make, they only make eyes bleed.) This brings us to Rudolph Maté's 'The 300 Spartans,' which inspired Frank Miller's comic, and which in turn inspired Snyder's eye-bleeding but ultimately disappointing CG retelling of the fable.
Working from a script that took five writers to complete, Maté's film aims for the sword-and-sandal epic that was typical during its production period. Shot on location in various parts of Greece, hundreds of extras litter the background, marching through rough terrain or to do battle against the enemy. Compared to today's CG-infested flicks — of course, Snyder's is the first coming to mind — this is a wonderful sight to behold. And with stunning wide-angle photography work by Geoffrey Unsworth ('2001,' 'Cabaret,' 'Superman'), Maté fills the screen with a variety of wide and extreme long shots, often with the primary cast in the forefront, so that audiences can appreciate the lovely view as well as overwhelm them with Spartans entering glorious battle.
If there is one definite positive comment to be made about this 1962 version of the legendary battle, it is this. It's a lovely picture to watch and technically well-made. However, and as mentioned earlier, the story lacks the sort of sensationalism needed for making battle sequences more exciting — there's really not much to draw audiences into the drama. We do have the requisite star-crossed romance between Phylon (Barry Coe) and Ellas (Diane Baker), but it's ultimately too hammy and distracting to be taking serious. Other performances, especially from our would-be hero Richard Egan as King Leonidas, are dry and monotonous while the only actors worth mentioning, such as Sir Ralph Richardson as Themistocles and David Farrar as Xerxes, are cartoonish and feel largely like bit roles.
Rudolph Maté, who is best known for his stunning cinematography in Carl Theodor Dreyer's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc,' does a respectable job behind the camera. Aside from a couple rather slow moments, he keeps the narrative moving, building up the suspense to that final moment when the Spartans are surrounded and they bravely accept their fate. The scene is just enough to bring a tear to the eye, but Maté can't deliver that final punch that really tugs at a viewer's emotions. The same could be of the overall film. 'The 300 Spartans' is mild entertainment, but not a memorable telling of the legendary Battle of Thermopylae.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'The 300 Spartans' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc housed inside a blue, eco-cutout case. At startup, viewers are taken directly to a menu screen with a photo still of the cover art and generic options along the bottom.
'300 Spartans' march unto Blu-ray with a strong and solid 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. For a fifty-plus year old film, the source appears to be in great condition, displaying excellent resolution and clarity for a majority of the runtime. The weakest segments are related to the original photography, when scenes fade in and out, and are easily forgiven due to that fact. For the most part, the presentation is detailed with sharp, well-defined lines in clothing and the surrounding foliage. However, a good portion of the movie is also fairly soft with several average-looking sequences.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the transfer comes with a consistent thin layer of natural grain, giving the image an appreciable cinematic quality. Except for the poorly-resolved moments, contrast is crisp and comfortably bright while blacks are true and accurate with good shadow delineation. Colors benefit the most from the move into high-def, showing bold, vivid primaries and warm, cleanly-rendered secondary hues.
In the audio front, the sword-and-sandal epic shows its might and force with a slightly more impressive DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. Dialogue is crisp and distinct in the center, revealing every scream, shriek, and cry while in the heat of battle with excellent clarity. Imaging is fairly broad with good fidelity and balance while background activity is clean and discrete, providing the track with a nice sense of presence. The mid-range is surprisingly extensive, exhibiting strong detailing in the upper frequencies. Every clang and clink of swords striking one another is noticeably heard, and every instrument in the score is distinct and diverse. Bass isn't the most exciting, but it's adequate for a film of this vintage.
'The 300 Spartans' is the typical sword-and-sandal epic with the requisite romance and large-scale battle sequences. However, the now-familiar story lacks the sensational element necessary to make the whole spectacle exciting and is largely weighed down by mediocre performances. The Blu-ray arrives with a strong picture quality and a slightly better audio presentation. The lack of supplements is another arrow to the heart, making the overall package a rental at best.