See, it all started back around 499 B.C. The Persian Empire was having some serious trouble with their territories along the Greek coast. The city-state of Miletus led a revolt against the Persian conquerors, but their hope that the famously fierce Sparta would rush to their aid did not come to fruition. Sparta was having enough trouble just keeping its serfs from revolting and didn’t have time to go helping other cats in a revolt of their own. The rebel city-states did find aid from Athens, however. A victory in the provincial capitol of Sardis encouraged other conquered Greek cities to rise up as well, and before they knew it, Persia was looking at a good chunk of its empire suddenly breaking away. The key to sustaining the empire was in whuppin’ the Greek mainland, specifically, in whuppin’ Athens. Sparta was a threat as well, but their hesitance to travel very far out of their own territory meant Athens was in the bullseye.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a historical rule that goes something to the effect of the larger the army, the less effective they are. Look at Russia during World War One. Everyone figured they would steamroll over Germany and end the war in a month. In fact, their millions upon millions of men were sadly trained, poorly equipped, and routinely thrashed by better disciplined, better commanded, and better outfitted German armies of a much smaller size, and you can bet each one of those German armies, upon facing that massive wave of Russians, was getting a speech from some commander about the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Of course, history is always written by the victor, so exactly how heroic the Spartans were when compared to the Persians (or the other Greeks) remains in the arena of debate, and there are more than a few historians who point out that, empire or no, Persia was considerably more socially and scientifically advanced than the violent, superstitious Spartans. But Greece won and the Persians lost, so Sparta gets to be the good guys.
Prior to the stepping up of the legendary three-hundred Spartans, the Greeks launched a surprise offensive against the Persians and scored a major victory. This defeat was compounded by the death of Persian King Darius (his descendant would have his hands full with yet another Greek, round about 334 B.C.) and a similar revolt in the Persian territory of Egypt, which would also have their hands full with that other Greek guy a few decades later. That’s why they have the city of Alexandria, after all. Xerxes ascended to the throne of Persia and soon relaunched the campaign against the Greeks. And this is where, in 481 B.C., the film picks up the action, covering the meeting in Athens of the Greek city-states to form the League of Hellenes, lead by warrior-state Sparta, to repel the Persian invaders. In 480 B.C., the Persian fleet arrived, and the war was on. Well, sort of.
Sparta, apart from being one of the fiercest warrior societies in the world, was also a deeply religious and superstitious city-state. And unluckily for the rest of Greece, the Persians had scheduled their invasion at a very inconvenient time, as the greatest warriors in Greece refused to fight until after an upcoming religious festival. Not very good form for the leaders of Greece and for the League of Hellenes, which most of the city-states joined only because they believed undefeatable Sparta would be leading them into combat. Apparently the king of Sparta, Leonidas, felt the same way. He led a small army of 300 — his personal guard, basically — to join Athens and the rest of Greece in the battle, with the promise that the greater portion of the Spartan army would be allowed to leave as soon as the religious council said it was okay. The Spartans took up a position in the Pass of Thermopylae, a narrow mountain way that the Persians had to travel through and that would render their massive numbers a deadly hindrance while the Spartans, hopelessly outnumbered, would be able to sprint about and rather easily beat thousands upon thousands of their enemies.
300 Spartans begins with the council in Athens and spends some time introducing us to the few characters who will have more to do than run at each other with spears. Richard Egan stars as Leonidas, the Lion of Sparta, the king willing to die alongside his men while the Athenian king said that was okay, he’d stay in Athens and set his spear against the charge (which, in retrospect, was probably a good idea given Athens’ role in the final showdown with Persia). We get some very brief glances at his relationship with his wife, Gorgo (not the monster that terrorized the British Isles, but Anna Synodinou). There is also a relationship between a disgraced Spartan warrior and a young farm woman, but really this is all just filler until we get tot he meat of the movie, which is derived almost entirely from the detailed, more or less historically accurate (however accurate ancient history may be) depiction of the clash between the Spartans and the Persians.
The battle scenes are suitably huge in that “cast of thousands” way that was so exciting before the advent of CGI and computer-rendered battle scenes. The choreography of the fights isn’t like what people are used to today, where everything looks very slick, fast, and cool. This looks more like what might happen if a lot of guys in tunics started poking spears at one another. It’s chaotic and confused but still breathtaking thanks to the sheer scope of the spectacle on display. The film strives for historical accuracy almost to a fault. If you don’t have a passion for history and for Greek (or Persian) history in general, then this film could seem a little draggy in spots, I suppose. It adheres to the historic accounts almost to the point of becoming a docudrama. Boredom never occurred to me, though, and I found the whole thing a thoroughly rousing adventure.
Still, there are reasons this film is less well known than its brethren like Ben-Hur and Spartacus. In fact, it’s the attention to historical detail that keeps this film in the lower tier of 1960s epics. Being a military history, it allows for very little character development. Most of the acting rests upon the shoulders of Egan as Leonidas and David Farrar as Xerxes. Farrar gets to villain it up good and chew a little scenery as he reclines in his tent surrounded by his beautiful mistress and, as was required in every sword and sandal epic ever made, a harem of dancing girls. He’s over the top, but that fits in a film of this scale. Egan, on the other hand, is given less with which to work. His job is mostly to wear armor and be steady of voice. You hardly even notice when he dies (oh come on, that can’t be a spoiler! The story’s over two-thousand years old!).
Some of the dialogue is over-ripe. You could hear Heston or Douglas pulling it off because they projected such booming, larger-than-life characters, but Egan comes across as just a regular Joe more than the leader of an army comprised of the best warriors the world had ever seen. He needed to be more over-the-top, to bellow more, to posture and be the hero. Instead, he seems like a guy you might actually meet. The overwrought epic dialogue sounds wooden and, at times, just a tad silly. But no worries. The history of the event is more than enough to carry the film, and any sub-plots are throwaway afterthoughts that get lost amid the grandiose scale of the battle. Some of the lines are actually good, my favorite being when a Persian general informs Leonidas that “Our arrows will blot out the sun,” to which Leonidas simply replies, “Good. Then we will fight in the shade.” The scope cinematography is also beautiful, taking full advantage of the sweeping Greek locations. Costumes and other details seem decently accurate, excepting if you will the whole “naked Spartan warrior” thing. The love subplots here take up hardly any time, and that’s because we didn’t come here to see some intense study of Greek romance. We came here to see 300 Spartans kick some ass and make grand speeches as they survey the insurmountable odds before them.
So even if you don’t know the history and somehow missed that other movie about this same battle, you can probably figure out what happens. The narrow mountain pass is the Spartans’ greatest weapon, and the Persian army finds themselves bottlenecking, unable to maneuver, and crippled by their own size. Every Persian attempt to defeat the Spartans is met by crippling defeat that threatens to throw the entire army into mutiny. It is only when a Greek traitor alerts the Persians to a secret trail that they are able to beat the small army they outnumber 3300 to one. The Spartans are killed and the Persians pour into Greece only to find that while they were stuck in Thermopylae, the Athenians had been building a mighty armada of ships. The two navies would clash in the Battle of Salamis, a decisive battle that would end the war and send the Persian empire into a tailspin from which they’d not even have time to recover before Alexander the Great came knocking on their door. But that is another movie, and it starred Richard Burton.
Release Year: 1962 | Country: United States | Starring: Richard Egan, Ralph Richardson, Diane Baker, Barry Coe, David Farrar, Donald Houston, Anna Synodinou, Kieron Moore, John Crawford, Robert Brown, Laurence Naismith, Anne Wakefield, Ivan Triesault, Charles Fawcett, Michalis Nikolinakos | Screenplay: George St. George | Director: Rudolph Mate | Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth | Music: Manos Hatzidakis | Producer: Rudolph Mate, George St. George