August 1, 2010 -- Many avid moviegoers have seen the impressive 2007 film “300,” but relatively few have seen the 1962 that inspired it. Comic artist Frank Miller said the 1962 film, The 300 Spartans, “changed the course of my creative life.” Miller later would use this inspiration to create the graphic novel “300” on which the 2007 film is based. Like Frank Miller, I was impressed by the 1962 film when I first saw it years ago. It is an epic action film with a cast of thousands, the kind of film that probably could not be duplicated today because of cost and other factors. It is also reasonably accurate in its historical depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
This film was made at a time in history when many of the modern special effects we now take for granted were not available. If you wanted to show an army of thousands on screen, you rounded up thousands of extras and provided them with thousands of costumes, helmets, spears and shields and trained them all to march and fight. The combat scenes are different than modern combat scenes since they are not amped up with special effects. On the other hand, the action seems more realistic because it is done essentially like a stage play in real time. This requires real skill and training. The action in the film is not flawless, but it is competently staged.
The dialog is fairly wooden and the pacing is slow in the early part of the film as the stage is set for the Battle of Thermopylae. The main characters of Spartan king Leonidas (played by veteran action star Richard Egan), Athenian politician Themistocles (Sir Ralph Richardson of “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”) and Persian emperor Xerxes (David Farrar, in the last film of his 30-year career) are all solid characters and the actors give good performances. Xerxes is a truly evil villain in this film, ordering the deaths of some his own men, as well as the execution of women in his own camp. The weakest characters are a couple of young lovers, Ellas (Diane Baker of “Marnie”) and Phylon (Barry Coe of “Jaws 2”). This love story subplot doesn't work all that well. The political maneuvering is also slow going. This is all similar to the 2007 film “300,” both films have good battle scenes, and little else to recommend them.
There are a number of Greeks involved in the making of the film, including Anna Synodinou, who plays Queen Gorgo, an ally of Xerxes. The film was shot in the village of Perachora, about 56 miles west of Athens, Greece. The Greek army and government cooperated in the making of the film. Military advisor to the film, Major Cleanthis Damianos, and historical story advisor Paul Nord are listed in the film's onscreen credits. Ugo Liberatori, Remiggio Del Grosso, Giovanni D'Eramo and Gian Paolo Callegari are listed as original story material sources for screenwriter George St. George. Charles Fawcett, who plays Megistias, has a very interesting background. Although a U.S. citizen, he fought in the Greek civil war and also fought with the RAF, the Polish Army and the French Foreign Legion. He even played a role in the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The film is well lensed by Geoffrey Unsworth and it looks great, made in Cinemascope with color by De Luxe. While the remake is a better film, you will learn more about Greek history by watching the original film. It rates a C+.
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