The 300 Spartans (1961)

This is an amusing spectacle of a film with an awful lot of ridiculously boring bits. Alas, the guy playing Leonidas has no acting chops at all, and set against the rounded vowels and British consonants of the gentleman playing Themistocles (who actually can act), his tendency to pronounce “earth” “oyth” and rush out his lines as if speed is all that matters… is hilariously jarring. The costuming is a little obviously pasteboard, and at least one of the sets is a terrible cardboard wall.

This film is actually aware of Herodotos: it has no clue at all about how to choreograph a battle involving Greek hoplites (protip: short shorts go stabby, not slashy, and CLOSE UP YOUR LINES), but it does speechifying to a very Greek length. Alas, not really willing to go full-on GREEK HISTORY: Xerxes is distracted from war by sexytimes with a (sadly unattended by her own entourage) youthful and pale Artemisia, and there is some subplot involving a young Spartan and his affianced bride who follows him from the Lakedaimonian plain to the Hot Gates – afoot, without change of clothes or supplies – and much manly beating of chests and disclaiming responsibility among the Persian generals. It does have the Thespians, though, which is nice. It wasn’t just Leonidas’ bodyguard at Thermopylae, you know… although, as usual in cinematic depictions, the lightly-armed auxiliaries have been left out of the picture.

The division the film makes between “East” and “West,” “tyranny” and “freedom,” also echoes Herodotos a little (tho’ for the author of the History, the division was less “East” and “West” and more “barbarian” and “Greek”), although its expression here to my mind has as much to do with its Cold War context as any attempt at faithful historicity.

But it bears comparison with the Frank Miller/Zach Snyder 300, because – poor dialogue, bad acting and all – it tries. And cruelly whimsical as it shows Xerxes to be, it demonises none of its characters: all of them are men, not inhuman monsters, though some of them are over-proud tyrannical men.