The 300 Spartans (1962)
This midlist epic – an American runaway production shot in Greece with some Italian involvement which gives it a slight peplum feel — about the Battle of Thermopylae must have stuck in the mind of comics writer-artist Frank Miller Jr since his take on the material (300) pretty much follows the storyline used here, albeit with fantastical exaggerations. Those who feel 300 played to the hawkish mindset of Bush II America, by demonising the Persians (Iranians) as exemplars of everything despicable to the neocons while valorising Spartans as survivalist can-do bodybuilders, will note that the 1962 film is even more blatant, casting American actors as the 300 heroes while using well-spoken Brits as the invading Persians or the equivocating Greek (even Spartan) politicians who hamper King Leonidas (a stolid Richard Egan) in his attempts to defend all Greece from the hordes of the venomously nasty King Xerxes (David Farrar). There’s a subplot about a Spartan lad (the weedy Barry Coe) barred from joining the 300 because his father seems to be in the enemy camp: he redeems his name in battle and is honourably spared the final slaughter by carrying the ‘go tell the Spartans’ message – his sweetie (Diane Baker) is also useful for the plot, in that her rejection of goatherd Ephialtes (Kieron Moore) motivates him to turn traitor. It spends a lot of time on pre-battle politics, with Xerxes hanging about with dancing girls (a detail of his rottenness is that he has his own soldiers’ women massacred to motivate them to get Greek replacements) and his slinkily treasonous queen Artemisia (Anne Wakefield) while visionary Themistocles of Athens (Ralph Richardson) and a windy Corinthian (Laurence Naismith) argue what to do about the unprecedentedly huge army on the borders.
The best performances come from the number twos – John Crawford as Leonidas’s main man and Donald Houston as Xerxes’ often-exasperated general. In retrospect, the oddest part of the saga is that, despite their reputation as the world’s greatest and most committed warriors, the Spartan army missed out on Thermopylae (as they had the equally epochal Battle of Marathon a generation earlier) because they were too busy staying at home on a religious holiday to go out and fight – the reason there were only 300 Spartans at the battle is that the King could take his personal guard, but not the rest of his troops. By holding out, as in The Alamo and Zulu, for an unexpectedly long time against a vastly superior force, they become bigger heroes than if they’d won, and a closing narration explains that their example then inspired a victory which was significant (in 1962 terms) as an alliance of European democrats resisted a monolithic Asian tyranny. As ever, the parallels are strained – though, interestingly this and 300 also illustrate the common American complaint of competent soldiers hamstrung by gutless or venal or manipulative politicos. Rudolph Maté, who had directed mini-spectacles in Hollywood (The Black Shield of Falworth), was always strong on visuals (he was better known as a cinematographer) but a bit stiff with action. The most impressive scenes here rely on design (those rich red Spartan battle-cloaks) and staging (their triangular formation in the last stand), but the actual waves of attack and defence are all scrappy, hard-to-follow and give little feel for the terrain and tactics that make this particular battle interesting in the first place.
Like Sin City (also taken from a Frank Miller Jr comic), this tries to match the original look of the material, reproducing Miller’s distinctive, stark, graphic (in every sense of the word) imagery. Director Zack Snyder, hot off the Dawn of the Dead remake, has a basic but still-gripping story, little-different from the last film version of this bit of history (The 300 Spartans), and tells it reasonably, with British or Australian performers adopting Shakespearean-Scots accents (after apparent months in the gym to get their abdominals in shape, though we suspect computer cheats to tone up some of the bodies) and gruffly tossing off dialogue (‘freedom isn’t free at all’, ‘A new age has come, an age of freedom, and all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.’) which sounds like burst word-balloons or (more disturbingly) slogans from a t-shirt a gun-hoarding right-wing American nut-job might wear.
The opening montage, showing the boyhood of King Leonidas, is a paean to the value of systematic child abuse in turning out a perfect warrior – as, after preliminary sword-battering by his father, the seven-year-old is dragged off to brutal combat school where he has to fight and kill to survive, then turned out near naked into the snow for a manhood ritual which involves facing and then killing a large wolf. As an adult, Leonidas (Gerard Butler) greets an emissary of Persia who asks that Sparta kneel before the expansionist King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) by pushing him into a pit, against the advice of obviously traitorous politician Theron (Dominic West). The set-up is that Leonidas has to stand in ‘the Hot Gates’ against Xerxes’ all-conquering, unimaginably vast armies with only three hundred of his best men because Theron has been bribed by the enemy and conspired with a cadre of leprous-looking mountaintop priests (close relatives of Darth Sidious?) and a Millerian near-naked writhing pole-dancer calling herself an oracle to withhold the rest of the armies from the fray. This feels like the oft-voiced complaint that the American military would have won any given war sooner or at all if it weren’t for them darned politicians and bureaucrats back in Washington, though attempts to wrangle this story into a contemporary relevance (by 2006, Persia was Iran – an American bogeyman since the Ayatollahs took over) keeps tripping up because it would be as easy to see American foreign policy in the absurdly over-equipped, over-adorned, decadent and all-consuming Xerxes as it is in the staunch, stand-by-your-brother warrior valour of the Spartans (who think using a bow and arrow is cheating, but have no objection to spears).
Besides Miller’s usual depiction of all women as killer sluts, there’s a broad racist streak in the depiction of many of Xerxes’s circle of ambassadors, plotters and warriors as black men covered in bling, with Xerxes himself a nine-foot-tall creature boasting multiple piercings and enough outrageous queenery to distract from any possibility that the macho Spartans (who sneer at Athenians for loving boys) might be a little bit gay. There’s plotting back at the capitol, with Leonidas’s queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) trying to get the council on-side (and being fucked in the ass by Theron, whom she repays with a knife in the gut that fortuitously spills a lot of Persian coins to show how traitorous he is) and a weird sub-plot about a hunchback (Andrew Tiernan, with an ultra-Lon Chaney look) who wants to be a Spartan warrior but ends up a betrayer because Leonidas won’t give him a uniform and features in another Millerian pervy orgy with voluptuous or freakish whores. But the main business of the film is slaughter: stylised, slo-mo (with the most detailed decapitations ever on film), scored with heavy rock or mock-classical pomp, sado-homoerotic in spades (this would be a great rugby club outing film), fantastical (Xerxes’s horde includes armoured elephants and rhinos, plus fanged, giant monsters and masked swordsmen out who might fit better in the armies of Ming the Merciless), exciting-to-the-point-of-monotony and full of admiration for the greatest war-makers of their era on the condition that they fight in defence of their country rather than set out to ravage someone else’s. There’s no suggestion that the primacy of martial values in Sparta is a reason why their politics and religion becomes so corrupt and the manly cast (David Wenham, Vincent Regan, etc) get only the broadest strokes to play (howls of grief, rough combat humour, body-piling and strutting pride). It’s unfair to complain that a comic book adaptation is comic-bookish, and the CGI-augmented armies, storms, battles and vistas work better in the stylised, non-realist context than they do in would-be ‘proper’ epics like Troy or Gladiator. However, even more than Sin City, it’s a film for boys who have no idea what girls (or indeed men) are really like.
300 Rise of an Empire (2014)
This isn’t so much a sequel as the bigger picture, filling in on what happened before, during and after the Battle of Thermopylae (ok, Hot Gates) at sea as the evil Persians tried to invade the Democratic Greeks. It carries over the style of the Frank Miller-derived original, which is to say lots of CGI-assisted slo-mo footage of near-naked folks dismembering each other (now in 3D, though they miss the Dredd change-the-aspect-ratio-for-greater-spatter trick), bizarre fantasy touches like a weedy Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) dipping himself in a pool of molten gold and emerging as an eight-foot God and sea monsters devouring drowning sailors (this might be a dream). With Gerard Butler dead on the battlefield in the first shot, the hairy hero lead is Themistokles (the stiff Aussie Sullivan Stapleton, reminisicent not so much of The Rock as a Rock), Athenean hero,who is pitted against Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek who got tired of being gang-raped from infancy in the galleys and joined the other side (when told her origin story, Themistokles doesn’t even seem to ponder the question of whether his side are really the Good Guys) and became the naval commander of the Persian Empire. Green is the only reason to see the film, hissing like a dragon lady, sword-fighting topless, basically raping the hero when they meet for private negotiations, inventing suicide bombing and throwing off the cardboard dialogue as if it were speakable. Lena Headey returns as Queen Gorgo, narrating what seems like the first half-hour of the film as an illustrated lecture with ‘pecs and limb-lopping. Scripted by Zack Snyder (director of 300) and Kurt Johnstad,from Miller’s graphic novel Xerxes (graphic as in violent and sexually); directed by Noam Murro.