Esther and the King (1960) ***

Taking a Biblical tale as a starting point, veteran director Raoul Walsh (White Heat, 1949) stirs up heady brew of intrigue, rebellion, politics and romance. Returning home victorious, King Ahasuerus (Richard Egan) discovers his wife Queen Vashti (Danielle Rocca) has committed adultery and that his minister Klydrathes (Renato Baldini) has been squeezing the people blind with punitive taxes, hanging them for non-compliance.

Casting his wife aside, the king seeks a new bride. Since he has conquered all the known world except Greece, marriage to make a political alliance is not an option, so, given women are treated as mere chattels and the king is all-powerful, all the likely virgins are rounded up including Hebrew Esther (Joan Collins) on her wedding day.

Her husband-to-be Simon (Rik Battaglia) kicks off, attacks Klydrathes and becomes a wanted man. The queen’s lover and the king’s chief minister Prince Haman (Sergio Fantoni) attempts to fix the bridal selection, inserting his hardly-virginal choice Keresh (Rosalba Neri) into the proceedings while attempting to murder clear favorite Esther. When that fails, Haman plots to usurp the crown. With the Hebrews facing possible annihilation, Esther is put in the position of giving in to the king in order to save her people. As her serenity soothes the savage beast, her initial hate turns to growing attraction.

Meanwhile, Simon is on a rescue mission and Prince Haman cooks up a devilish plot that will see the Hebrews blamed for passing on military secrets to the king’s enemies. Naturally, all hell eventually breaks loose.

More a drama than a typical big-budget DeMille offering, with battles taking place off-screen, action is limited to a few chases and skirmishes. There is a fair amount of sin on show what with a tribe of concubines at the king’s disposal, a whipping, a striptease by Vashti in a last gasp attempt to win back the king, and some very seductive dancing routines by female slaves who, at times, look as if they were coached by Busby Berkeley. Substantial amounts appear to have been spent on costumes and production design, so historical atmosphere is well captured.

Once you realize there’s not going to be any kind of big battle or major action centerpiece common to the Biblical genre, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy the political machinations, the initial torment of Esther, introduced as a rebellious soul, and the king, more at home with soldiers, shaking off his despondency at marital betrayal as he responds to Esther’s coaxing.

It was 1961 before it reached Britain.

Top-billed British actress Joan Collins (Seven Thieves, 1960) has a difficult role. Normally, you would expect expressions of passion or depths of anguish, but the rebellion she displays at the start soon disappears when she enters the palace and is helpless to change the situation except by, initially against her will, accepting the king’s desires. In that sense, her portrayal is understandable but the understated performance gets in the way of a woman who is supposed to be devastated by the loss of her husband and then trapped by the needs of her people into making the marriage.

Taking second billing, Richard Egan (300 Spartans, 1964) makes a thoughtful king, showing very little temper, possibly because he doesn’t need to with everyone, beyond the conspirators, cowering in his presence.   Regal and stately suits him fine rather than the more common explosions we are accustomed to seeing from people in that line of work.

Both stars were in need of box office redemption. It should have been a screen pairing made in heaven, both Collins and Egan coming to the fore in the mid-1950s, and if they had sustained their early promise, it would have been a star-studded picture. As it was, Collins had been billed above Richard Burton in The Sea Wife (1957) and above Jayne Mansfield in The Wayward Bus (1957) but had gradually drifted down the pecking order, in her previous outing credited behind Edward G. Robinson and Rod Steiger in Seven Thieves (1960).

Egan’s career had followed a similar trajectory – top-billed in pictures as diverse as drama The View from Pompey’s Head (1955), western Tension at Table Rock (1956), film noir Slaughter on 10th Avenue (1957), and romance A Summer Place (1959) but for his previous film, Pollyanna (1960) billed behind both Jane Wyman and Hayley Mills.

While Egan would enjoy a career resurgence it was the end of the line, at least temporarily, for Joan Collins. She was coming to the end of her seven-year Twentieth Century Fox contract but fell out with the studio after being rejected for Cleopatra, and on the evidence here you can see why. After leaving Fox, she only made five more films during the decade. This was the final picture for Irish actor Dennis O’Dea (The Fallen Idol, 1948). Director Raoul Walsh made only another two.

Sergio Fantoni (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) excels as the spurned lover and Rik Battaglia (The Conqueror of the Orient, 1960) as the schemer. Rosalba Neri (Top Sensation, 1969) and Danielle Rocca (Behold a Pale Horse, 1964) both make striking appearances. Look out also for Gabriele Tinti (Seven Golden Men, 1965).

The 300 Spartans (1962) ****

Doomed for half a century to be seen as Saturday television matinee material and then put into the shade by the Zack Snyder’s stylish 300 (2006), The 300 Spartans is in sore need of re-evaluation.  Lacking the big budget of an El Cid (1961) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and released during an era when historical drama – Barabbas (1961), The Mongols (1961), Sword of the Conqueror (1961), The Trojan Horse (1961), and The Tartars (1961) – was at a peak, this is a stripped-down version of the famous Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. and none the worse for it.

Clever camerawork suggests thousands of warriors involved but there is little sign of scrimping in the wardrobe department and there is more than enough action. Also, this is a surprising literate picture, with great lines for cynical politicians as much as for warriors and peasants. Themistocles (Ralph Richardson) comments: “Some day, I may enter religion myself. It’s better than politics. With the gods behind you, you can be more irresponsible.”  Told that the invading Persian army has “arrows that will blot out the sun,” Spartan King Leonides retorts, “then we will fight in the shade.”  And there’s sexist banter typical of the period between a peasant couple: wife – “goats have more brains than men”; husband – “who can understand the ways of the gods, they create lovely girls and then turn them into wives.”

Originally titled” The Lion of Sparta”, the film could not have been made without the wholesale cooperation of the Greek army which supplied over 2,000 soldiers. Those playing Spartans had to be over six foot tall. Since the Greeks had no cavalry and few knew how to ride, around 200 were given a crash course. It was a bonanza for the soldiers – their normal wage of $2 was supplemented by $5.50. Thermopylae no longer looked like the area immortalised by the battle, so the action was shot at Loutraki, near Corinth and 80 miles from Athens. 

Quite how Leonides ends up fighting the massive army on its own is down to a mixture of politics and religion. Oracles foretell doom. The various Greek states refuse to join together, although Athens lends Sparta its fleet (“Athens’ wooden wall”). Even Sparta officially refuses to participate on the grounds that battle would interrupt a major religious festival. Leonides’ “army” of 300 men is comprised of his bodyguard. A romantic subplot involving a young couple results in catastrophe. Just how ruthless is the opposition is shown when  Persian king Xerxes slaughters all his soldiers’ wives to make the men more determined to get to Greece where doubtless they will enslave the female population. When his archers fire, he doesn’t care if the arrows hit his own men.

What marks out the best historical action pictures is the intelligence behind the battle. Strategy is key. The first weapon, of course, is surprise so the Spartans sneak into the Persian camp from the sea and burn their tents. During battle, to counteract the Persian cavalry, the front row of the Spartan army lies down and allows the horses to jump over them, then rising up, traps the cavalry and drives them into the sea. Other clever measures are used deal with the Persian crack infantry regiment, the Immortals. Even at the end, the Spartans continue to confound the enemy with clever ruses.

Richard Egan is effective as Leonides, Ralph Richardson excellent as the wily but honourable Themistocles while Hitchcock protégé Diane Baker (“glaringly miscast” according to Variety) has the female lead though Anne Wakefield as a Persian queen the more interesting role. Former British star David Farrar (Meet Sexton Blake, 1945) is the intemperate Xerxes.

Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rudolf Mate delivers the directorial goods, his handling of the dramatic scenes as confident as the action and masking the holes in his budget by making clever use of trees as the invaders march, suggesting an army far bigger than he could afford to put on the screen. Color-coding the Spartans – they were in red – made the action clearer to follow. George St George, with few credits of notes (and few at all) doubling up as producer, wrote the script. This thoughtful drama with striking action deserves reassessment.