Spartacus (1960): Everybody talks about Ben-Hur (1959), but it’s Spartacus that deserves that second look. Sure, Ben-Hur had Charlton Heston unwittingly acting out a homoerotic subtext Gore Vidal had worked in, and that’s priceless. But Kirk Douglas had wanted to play the lead role of Judah Ben-Hur, and when he couldn’t he put together the much better movie Spartacus, written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and directed, in part, by a young Stanley Kubrick.
Clash of the Titans (1981): No, not the 2010 remake: The original version is where it’s at. Kids today may be spoiled by Hollywood’s fixation on hyper-real CGI, but before that there were expert visual-effects artists like Ray Harryhausen, whose stop motion creations hold up to this day — from Bubo, Titans’ charming mechanical owl sidekick (criminally absent from the remake) to the creepy Medusa. Also notable for being ground zero of the “Release the Kraken!” meme.
Conan the Barbarian (1982): Remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent worked for him? The outsize Austrian was a perfect fit for the role of the Crom-worshiping Cimmerian, influenced less by sword-and-sandal films than by the D&D set. This was the 1980s, so you expected an R rating for the obligatory medieval-style nudity, but some scenes were so hilariously over-the-top you’ll wonder how they pulled it off, as when Conan has sex with a witch who literally becomes a demon in the sack, at which point Conan tosses her into a flaming pyre. Talk about the pull-out method!
300 (2006): Faithfully adapted from Frank Miller’s comic book of the same name (but probably not faithfully adapted from the historical Battle of Thermopylae), it’s hard not to read 300 as a summation of the W Bush-era political climate. An army of hunky Spartans fights an army of Persian drag queens — because “Freedom isn’t free at all.” Can’t get enough Sparta? Check out 300: The Complete Experience, a Blu-Ray release bundled with 40-page Digibook as well as new extras, including a Picture-in-Picture feature that offers alternative perspectives.