Wednesday, December 30, 2009

THE 300 SPARTANS (1961)

Here's a film I really wanted to like. I was rooting for Rudolph Mate's movie, shot on location in Greece and unenhanced by computer graphics, to be better than the other movie about the Battle of Thermopylae, Zack Snyder's 300. I wanted The 300 Spartans to be the better film because I found 300 a profoundly distasteful film. There's something really unpleasant about Frank Miller's representation of the Persian Empire and his fetishization of Spartans in the original graphic novel. Miller and Snyder try to excuse their images by saying that they represent a "tall tale" subjective Spartan viewpoint of the conflict, but that doesn't hide the fact that the images came from Miller's own mind and portray a pretty-much racist vision of the East as the realm of despotism, decadence and depravity. Obviously the Persians have to be the bad guys in any version of this story, but that doesn't mean that Miller and Snyder had to turn them into monsters and mutants. It's also pretty galling to anyone who knows ancient history to see the Spartans presented as champions of freedom without any mention of all the helots ground under their collective heel. I was once a Frank Miller fan but I don't think he's done anything good since about the second Sin City graphic novel, and a lot of his recent stuff is just sick. Meanwhile, The 300 Spartans is the work of Mate, director of great films like D.O.A., Union Station and The Violent Men, and cinematographer of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. So I wanted to be able to say: here's the real Spartan movie for anyone who wants the real story without all the cartoon trappings.

Not only did The 300 Spartans disappoint me on that score, but it ended up giving me a new appreciation of 300's qualities. Snyder, falling under Miller's spell as Robert Rodriguez did, made an expressionistic film as an act of fidelity to Miller's panels. To my taste he often errs on the side of exaggeration, but I can't dispute that he invests nearly every frame with an energy and enthusiasm that is usually absent from Mate's movie. Mate has one great advantage over Snyder, at least as far as I'm concerned, and that's the Greek locations. He makes good use of them at times, as when he decorates a hillside with colorful Persian tents, but his direction doesn't do the landscape justice. His extras too often act just like extras, if "act" is the right word for it, and his world-historical battles include a lot of half-hearted milling about. 300 has spoiled me to an extent because Mate simply hasn't enough extras to fill the scenery the way Snyder and his technicians can. And if you're going to follow the Greek historians and say that the Persians were invading with millions of men, any feeling that the landscape is underpopulated is fatal. Might I have felt differently had I seen The 300 Spartans (hereafter 300S) first? Possibly, but I think the battle scenes would look lackluster anyway.

What about the story? For starters, Mate and his writers appear to agree with Miller and Snyder that Sparta's history with the helots is best left unmentioned. So be it: neither film is about the history of Sparta. If anything, despite embedding "Sparta" in the title, 300S is less about Sparta than 300 is. The later film is a showcase for Miller's conception of the Spartan warrior and the warrior type in general. 300S is more about Greece as a whole than Sparta in particular, and the difference has something to do with contemporary politics. The script is an allegory on the need for different countries to unite against the 20th century version of Eastern despotism, Communism. Arguably, Sparta represents the United States, and many Spartans are played by American actors in contrast to Sir Ralph Richardson as an Athenian ally. Spartans are portrayed as a more pious people than other Greeks, even when it puts them at a disadvantage. In both films, as in history, King Leonidas (Richard Egan in 300S) can only bring his personal bodyguard to Thermopylae because Spartans are obliged to observe a religious festival. While Miller and Snyder scoff at the superstitious imposition, 300S has Leonidas affirm that Spartans respect the gods no matter what. More importantly, though, while some Spartans question allying with less pious Athenians or other Greeks, Leonidas plays the Greek nationalist, stressing the need for unity in defense of freedom. Mate's team has an analogy in mind with lingering American isolationism or distrust of "decadent" Europe. You could even argue that the Athenian Themistocles's maneuver to give control over his own fleet to Leonidas symbolizes the British accepting American leadership in the common defense of Europe or the "Free World."

There's another American parallel that might have been more obvious to moviegoers at the time. 300S appears the year after John Wayne's The Alamo, and the expected success of the Duke's peculiar blockbuster may have inspired the making of our movie. In at least one instance the film seems to imitate The Alamo, when Leonidas launches a night raid against the Persian camp.

So far, so-so. I've only been describing thematic details. What really disappointed me about 300S, apart from the weak looking battle scenes, is the acting and the halfhearted melodramatic additions to the Thermopylae story. Casting Richard Egan as Leonidas takes the American analogy too far, since he comes across more as a cattle baron than a king. There are moments when he does demonstrate Laconic authority, particularly a wordless bit when he surveys the battlefield for the first time. I also appreciate that he never screams like a bass Dalek as Gerard Butler sometimes does. But Egan gives Leonidas no real personality apart from generic stalwart heroism. Despite his limitations, he comes across like Ralph Richardson compared to the romantic leads, Barry Coe and Diane Baker. These two form the sort of couple that comes on to sing ballads in the middle of Marx Bros. movies. Coe, a 1960 Golden Globe winner as Most Promising Newcomer, betrays that promise here with awful line readings and just plain awful lines like, "Hey, this is a great battle!" He's a Spartan who's in disgrace because his father's in the Persian camp. She's his spunky girlfriend who demonstrates some of the legendary athleticism of Spartan women by limply ju-jitsuing him when he gets too frisky.

Diane Baker and Barry Coe as 300S's loser lovers. Below, Ephialtes (Kieron Moore) makes his move before Baker kicks his butt in demure, ladylike fashion.

She does the same to her other suitor, Ephialtes the traitor. Frank Miller envisioned him as a role fit for Lon Chaney Sr., a disgruntled hunchback who betrays Sparta because Leonidas won't let him fight in the phalanx. In 300S, he's a dumb lummox of a shepherd who gets the hots for Diane Baker's character when she has to recuperate in his master's house. He goes straight from getting ju-jitsued by her to the Persian camp as if getting rejected by a girl was enough to make him betray his country. This is where the writers' halfheartedness comes in. They've set up a rivalry for the girl between Ephialtes and Coe's character, but they don't play it out. Give this situation to Cecil B. DeMille and he'd have Ephialtes insist on the girl as part of his reward from the Persians. He'd then have Coe, whose character has been sent home by Leonidas, infiltrate the Persian camp to rescue Baker and fight Ephialtes to the death. That's my hunch, at least. Nothing like this happens in 300S. Ephialtes gets his reward and doesn't even get rebuked by Leonidas as in 300. The boy and girl are sent away before the final battle. What was the point of having this hapless couple in the movie if they're not going to be involved in the climax? That's easy: they're there for what used to be called "heart interest," to have a love story to keep the women in the audience interested through all the boring military stuff. That's the sort of general-audience thinking that makes a hodgepodge of superfluous stuff out of many a classical Hollywood film. By comparison, in 300 Snyder kept the women (at least) interested by expanding Queen Gorgo's role and having her kill somebody with a sword. Score another one for 300.

You've got to have dancing girls in a movie like this one.

There are other loose ends in 300S because of its expanded scope. Mate introduces the historical character of Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, an ally of Persia and admiral of her own fleet, as a romantic interest for King Xerxes, and the strategic storyline seems to be setting her up for a naval showdown with Themistocles's Athenian fleet at Salamis. The movie leaves you waiting for the other shoe that never drops; there's no payoff whatsoever to Artemisia's presence in the movie. The character is in there just to be another pretty face, but since when does Xerxes of all people (played by the once-mighty David Farrar of Black Narcissus fame) need a romantic interest? This is typical of the film's unfocused approach to its essential subject matter.

Both Thermopylae movies insult the intelligence, though in different ways. Choosing between 300 and The 300 Spartans is a trade-off between psychosis and cliche, with neither really getting to the heart of the history that makes the tale worth telling. But while Mate's film is mainly a perfunctory genre exercise, 300 is at least about something, whether we like it or not. 300S is of historic interest in its own right as a Cold War era reading of the Persian Wars and will be preferred by those even more averse to Miller in CGI than I. Judging the two films in simplest cinematic terms, however, Snyder's is the better movie, if not necessarily a good one. That's not what I expected to say, but I have to call them as I see them.

The trailer for The 300 Spartans was uploaded to YouTube by FirouzanFilms

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