And before there was Gladiator there was Braveheart.
And before that.... oh, screw it. We could keep leap-frogging epic precedents all day, but in the end, we're still going to end up in the days when going to the movies was a black tie event, when three-hour films were split in half, when the audience was expected to sit through curtained overtures and interludes. In other words, we'll always end up at El Cid (1961).
The Collector's Edition of Samuel Bronstron's epic film, starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, is now out on DVD, and you can't help but see the similarities to 300. Both are set in Mediterranean Europe, both center around wars against ruthless middle-eastern would-be invaders, and both involve a charismatic leader who'd rather face treason charges than let his country fall.
Where they differ, however, is in the characters and the dynamic between them. As opposed to 300's gung-ho King Leonidas, Heston's Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (aka El Cid) is a medieval Spaniard of moral fortitude, a leader of uncompromising mercy, much to the ire of the royalty to whom he declares fealty. His lover and later wife, Jimena (Loren), spends the first half of the film loathing him passionately for murdering her father, and Vivar persists and waits and forgives and accepts her hate until she realizes that he is, if not a prophet or messiah, a better man than her father ever was.
The collector's edition is a neat little box set, including not only two discs packed full of your usual behind-the-scenes footage but also theatrical production postcards and quality reproductions of the original program and complementary comic book. It's not likely to jump off the shelves: Sad is the state of the younger generation's classic-film appreciation, especially when the box looks more like Gone with the Wind than one of the original war epics.
Nevertheless, while the dialogue in El Cid may be as cheesy and obvious as 300, it does carry with it one lesson that its contemporary does not: 300, as Dan Savage argued, was a homophobic, xenophobic film of black-and-white virtues, whereas as El Cid's message is that the Christian and Islamic worlds are better served by cooperation, collaboration and unity against common extremist foes.