What comes to mind at the mention of Sparta and the Battle of Thermopylae? Frank Miller and Zack Snyder’s 300 has probably prejudiced a lot of us because, love it or not, it’s pretty hard to forget. Fake chests. Men in Speedos. Dancing oracles. Chiseled Persian kings with lots of piercings. Boisterous, masculine yells of “THIS IS SPARTA!”
Yeah, no, we won’t be talking about that movie, but the one that helped inspire 300: 1962’s The 300 Spartans. The chests are real in this one, and so is the gravity of the political situation in the Greece of 480 B.C.
First off, Greece isn’t a united country but lots of little nation states, each with their own fighting force. King Xerxes (David Farrar) of Persia is staging an invasion because he wants power, and he’s smugly confident that he’ll get it. He’s also out for revenge, seeing as his dad, Darius I, was defeated by the Greeks some years before. A Spartan spy, Agathon (John Crawford) gets caught counting the Persian troops, and instead of killing him Xerxes has Agathon tortured and then let go. He wants his numbers to strike fear into the hearts of the Greeks.
The Greeks have their backs against the wall. The surrounding nations have basically taken turns invading them, and they know if they don’t do something about it they’re going to be obliterated. Greece’s kings hold a meeting in Corinth to figure out what to do, and it’s agreed that Sparta’s army is the best so they should lead the various Grecian troops.
King Leonidas (Richard Egan) is a fearless warrior and a cunning strategist. He thinks the battle should take place at the Pass of Thermopylae because it’s a narrow area that opens up to all of Greece and therefore very important. The problem is that the Spartans don’t have a navy, so Themistocles of Athens (Ralph Richardson) volunteers his. They plan a classic pincher’s move against the Persians.
Back in Sparta, love is in the air. Ellas (Diane Baker) and Phylon (Barry Coe) want to get married before Phylon goes off to war, and the two of them ask permission at a big ceremony in which Ellas’s aunt Gorgo (Anna Synodinou), queen of Sparta, grants Phylon a shield, making him an official Spartan warrior.
However, their happiness is momentary. Just as he and Ellas are about to ask Gorgo and Ellas’s father for permission to marry, a messenger comes in with the news that Phylon’s dad has turned traitor and is now with the Persians. Phylon is sent off in disgrace and exiled. He gets to keep the shield, though.
On the war front, things aren’t looking good for Leonidas. His army decides not to leave until after their next religious festival, but Leonidas thinks that will be too late. He and his bodyguards set off for Thermopylae even though their numbers are ridiculously low at three hundred. The rest of the army will follow later.
Phylon decides to follow Leonidas to prove his loyalty, and to his chagrin and joy, Ellas comes with him. For some reason Phylon didn’t pack anything for the journey, not even a tent, but he and Ellas are happy to be together. What Ellas is supposed to do when the battle starts is anyone’s guess, but oh well. And for a while they don’t do too badly even if it is strenuous–Phylon catches fish for a very tired Ellas, who’s not used to walking so much, particularly in her flimsy little sandals.
Eventually, though, Ellas gets sick from exhaustion and Phylon carries her to the house of a goatherder and his family in the mountains. This family seems good, although isolated, and the old goatherder even tips Leonidas off to a goat trail the Persians won’t know about, which gives them a strategic advantage.
Unfortunately, Ephialtes (Kieron Moore), the young man adopted by the goatherder and his wife, is a creeper. He tries to proposition Ellas, who, like any good Spartan woman, kicks his tail, and as revenge he runs off to Xerxes and tells him about the goat trail. When Leonidas figures out that he and his forces are going to be surrounded, he sends the other Greek armies away while he and the Spartans stay at the Pass.
As far as the actual battle goes, since records weren’t kept in the same way we don’t have a blow-by-blow account, but what’s in the film is probably pretty accurate. We know the Greeks put up quite a fight, chipping away at Xerxes’s forces. What gave the Persians the advantage was Ephialtes’ betrayal, and what the movie doesn’t show is that the real Ephialtes led the Persian forces to close in on the Spartans. It was the Alamo of ancient Greece; wiping out Leonidas and his three hundred bodyguards.
Naturally, winning at Thermopylae allowed Xerxes and the Persians to take control of even more of Greece’s nation states, a temporary victory. Similarly to the Roman Empire in its later years, the Persians found they were spread too thinly, making it difficult to support their regime. They were finally defeated and expelled from Greece by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. Sparta was down but not out; their decline began in 371 BC after a sound defeat at the Battle of Leuctra.
The film has an almost documentary-like approach to the battle and the events surrounding it, but it’s not so heavy-handed that the human interest aspects get lost. Well, kind of. There’s not much character development so it’s hard to remember most of the names, let alone feel for these people, but it’s possible to empathize on some level because we know the Spartans and the Greeks are doomed and their society is in jeopardy. On the other hand, the dialogue, which is delivered with all the gravity of a Shakespeare play, is pretty bland, but it’s a means to an end. The battle is the thing. 300 Spartans could have easily worked as a silent film. Heck, even some of the actors emote and gesture as if they don’t need audible dialogue.
300 Spartans downplays how brutal the Spartans really were, probably because it would have been tabu under the Production Code, and this was one of the things that Miller and Snyder got right. Any child that was less than perfect was thrown into a pit, and children were taken from their parents at the age of seven to learn to be soldiers. If Ellas and Phylon married, Ellas would have had to shave her head and wear her hair short for the rest of her life. However, The 300 Spartans nailed the free and independent attitude Spartan women had.
Despite its shortcomings, The 300 Spartans is a compelling movie. It certainly made an impression on Frank Miller, who loved the film from the time he was a kid. It’s always interesting to see what lasting effects movies and history have on a child’s mind, although where Miller got the idea of putting the Spartans in Speedos is kind of a mystery.
We’ll be looking at another Jane Austen film tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…
~Any purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~