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