Win One for the Grecians!
The 300 Spartans
As Hollywood has grown and changed over the generations, the style and capabilities of the films produced has certainly change as well. There was a time when the historical epic had a specific look and feel that, at this point, would seem absolutely foreign, even alien to modern eyes. These were giant spectacles that made tens of millions of dollars, but if something were released that looked like these now, they'd be laughed off as B-movie fare. The technology, the style, and the substance of these films has moved on from the "classic" epics of old.
I couldn't help but think of this while watching The 300 Spartans. The film is a historical epic from 1962 and feels very much of its era. Made for (the equivalent of) just over $1.3 Mil, the film raked in a solid $72 Mil at the time of its release (an over 50-fold return on investment). It was a mega-hit that inspired the likes of none other than comic artist Frank Miller. It had huge and long lasting cultural impacts on those that watched it. This was Hollywood on the 1960s.
But you go back and watch it now and, man, this film is laughably bad. It feels like a high school production of a script about these Spartan soldiers. It has all the style and substance of non-union performers throwing things together in a warehouse with a shoe-string budget. It's the kind of film that you absolutely could see Mike and the Robots mocking on Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix.. It is, in short, just plain bad. There is no other way to put it when you watch it with modern eyes.
The film covers the (historical but largely mythologized) events of the Battle of Thermopylae, when 300 Spartans (and a couple of thousand other Greek soldiers that don't really fit into this mythologized version of events) defended a small pass into Greece against the whole of the Persian army (realistically about 17 to 30 thousand men, or a 15-to-1 difference in army size). Against all odds (again, 15-to-1), the Spartans (and other Greeks) were able to fend off the Persians long enough for the rest of the Grecian army to arrive, sending the Persians limping back to their empire to plot a new conquest.
That's a solid story, with or without the mythologizing around it. The issues with the film come from just how the film is produced, and I don't think there's any better issue to point at then the script. This story moves at an absolutely leaden pace. We're introduced to the Persian King, Xerxes (David Farrar, in his last on-screen role), a decadent ruler who wants to take over Greece. Why? Well, that's never explained. We get to see him and his men discuss taking over Greece, how they'll do it, how brave their men are, how they'll tear through everyone else. On and on this goes, and it's a good ten minutes of the movie telling us what will happen without showing us much of anything.
When we finally do get to meet who will be our hero, King Leonidas of Sparta (Richard Egan), the film still can't really get out of it's own way. We continue to get lectures from a number of characters all telling us how mighty the Persians are, how they'll cause such carnage if they get into Greece. There's a lot of talk about how the armies of these Grecian city states banding together will be able to strike a blow, maybe even finally unify Greece as a single country. It's a lot of talk, but what the film never really manages, in these early scenes, is finding a way to make us care.
The Persians are conquerers, sure, but we hardly see them act violent or evil. Their servants seem to be well treated, the army is clear and organized. Everyone seems happy in this Persian force. Meanwhile the Greeks are a bunch of bickering whiners. They bitch and moan and fight, and none of them really seem unified in a cause. The film, in short, fails to set its villain up as a villain, nor does it make its hero (and his allies) all that heroic in the opening act of the film. A lot of time is spent telling us what will happen, but very little is invested in making us feel it.
The film, frankly, doesn't do itself any favors with the way it treats its characters. It throws around a ton of Greek names, most of which (due to their age) sound absolutely foreign, to the point that it's hard to keep up with who is who and what any of them are supposed to be doing. A character will show up, someone will say, "ah, it's such and such person," they'll laugh and talk, and then the film will just assume we'll remember who this person is for the rest of the two hour slog of a film. Most of the time we don't, so we just have to coast along, assuming actions on screen will let us know who someone is and why we should care. I never really cared, and I think this is why.
Then there's a tacked-on love story between a young woman, Ellas (Diane Baker), and the soldier that she wants to marry, Phyllon (Barry Coe). I will say, these two actually had decent chemistry and if the film had really focused on them, their story in and around the epic war about to happen, I might have been more invested. But these are side characters that the film is happy to dismiss when it doesn't need them (they all but disappear in the last act), while the focus is on the war.
This would be fine if the action sequences were any good. They aren't. They're, in fact, laughably bad. Spears are thrown by actors that really can't throw spears. Arrows are shot haphazardly. Swords are slashed, shields are hefted, but none of it has any real weight because the performers really don't know how to fight. These guys were hired, I assume, because they acted in the classic American style of the time and had solid, chiseled jaws, but they were not trained to be Grecian warriors and it shows. A lot of time and money was clearly spent on the sets and props but what fails the action is the actors themselves.
But then, the actors really aren't great in any circumstance. Richard Egan stars Leonidas, but he plays him as a big, swaggering Western hero. Sure, that was probably what he was hired for at the time, but it comes across as such an anachronistic performance. His chiseled jaw spouts off mush-mouthed lines, everyone cheers, and I was bored. David Farrar is slightly better as Xerxes, just because the film is oddly focused on the villain (more than the hero) and Farrar gets a lot of time on screen to try and build his character. He's hobbled by a bad script and an underwritten part, an I wouldn't say he does anything magnificent as the heavy, be he's at least not a complete void on screen. Most of the actors are much, much worse.
I went into this film knowing it wasn't going to be Zack Snyder's 300. It had neither the means to make a film like that, nor a director with that strange sensibility. I just wanted to experience what this film was on its own merits and judge it fairly. Well, I've seen it, and its bad. Some of that is the constraints of the era, much of it, though, is down to sloppy writing and lazy producing. This was a epic from a time when historical epics were king (think Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments and more) and audiences absolutely ate it up at the time. It was destined to be a hit. It couldn't fail.
Taken out of that time, with an audience that isn't primed for this style of film done this way, though, and it's hard to see the appeal. It's slow, it plodding, it spends too long focused on all the wrong parts, and even its action is laughable at best. This might have inspired many to follow their dreams into Hollywood. All it inspires in me is the desire to watch anything else.