Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? The 300 Spartans (1962)

               Now that I have seen and reviewed "300:  Rise of an Empire",  I thought it would be appropriate to review the movie that inspired Frank Miller to create the graphic novel.  “The 300 Spartans” was made with the cooperation of the Greek government which provided 5,000 soldiers.  The film was shot near the site of Thermopylae.  It was directed by Rudolph Mate.  It was his only war movie.

                The credits roll over shots of the Acropolis.  The Persian Emperor Xerxes (David Farrar) marches into Greece with a variety of units.  A captured Greek spy sasses Xerxes about freedom versus slavery.  Cold War analogy.  A Greek traitor named Demaratus is an advisor to the Emperor.  He is also accompanied by a Greek queen named Artemisia (Anna Synodinou).  She is more than just an advisor, if you get my drift. 

Artemisia and Xerxes plotting
                The Greeks are meeting at Corinth to discuss the invasion.  Themistocles (Ian Richardson) argues for unity.  When a foe quotes the first Delphic prediction about blood running from the roofs, Themistocles counters with the second prediction referring to the “wooden walls”.  Later Themistocles and Leonidas (Richard Egan) discuss strategy using a model of Greece.  The Spartans will hold at the mountain pass of Thermopylae and Themistocles will bring the fleet.  Unfortunately, the Spartan council refuses to allow the Spartan army to go to war during a religious festival.  Leonidas defies them by taking his bodyguard of 300 men.   

                Phyllon (Barry Coe) is the son of a traitor, but engaged to the niece of Queen Gorgos of Sparta.  He wants to prove himself, but Leonidas refuses to take him along because of his father and to set up a redemption arc.  Phyllon and Ellas (Diane Baker) tag along.  The Spartans are joined by 700 Thespians.  The Greeks arrive at the pass and begin to fortify it.

                Leonidas leads a surprise night attack on Xerxes camp.  Phyllon sneaks into the group to begin his redemption.  They catch Xerxes with his pants down as he is canoodling with Artemisia.  As a result of the ass-whipping,  Xerxes executes all the camp followers to motivate his men.  Meanwhile, Leonidas gets the unwelcome news that the Spartan army will not be coming.  They are on their own.

                In the first Persian assault, the infantry advances in lines and the Spartans await in lines.  The Persian cavalry attacks through the infantry and the Spartan front line ducks!  The horsemen are trapped between the first and second lines and a melee results.  After this initial fight, Leonidas meets with Xerxes second in command.  “Our arrows will blot out the sun.”  Leonidas:  “Then we will fight in the shade.” 

                On day two the Persians send in chariots which are dealt with by archers and javelinmen.  Next it’s the Immortals with their wicker shields and short spears.  The Spartans fight in a phalanx.  Phyllon has pretended to be dead and then sets fire to hay behind the Immortals.  War epics love fire!

the Spartan phalanx
                A Greek traitor named Ephialtes visits Xerxes to tell him of a goat path to get behind the Spartans.  Leonidas sends Phyllon back to Sparta to inform them of the situation.  The Thespians stay thinking they will become famous for their sacrifice.  Oops!  Note the title of the movie.

                Spoiler alert if you are so ignorant that you don’t know the outcome of the battle.  Xerxes leads the final attack in his white chariot (shouldn’t it be black?).  Leonidas advances in a wedge shape.  Leonidas is killed and the remnants carry his body to a hill and form a circle around the corpse.  Xerxes offers them their lives if they give up the body.  They prefer a barrage of arrows.  Remember Thermopylae!

                I was pleasantly surprised at how accurate “The 300 Spartans” is.  You get the basic facts about the battle from the film, but a lot of the details are fudged.  The background is the strongest section.  Xerxes did march into Greece with a huge multi-ethnic army.  Greeks like Themistocles did view the struggle as freedom versus slavery (as posited by Herodotus).  The main characters are based on actual personages and are not caricatures.  Their relationships are Hollywoodized.  There is no evidence that Artemisia and Xerxes had an affair, but it is not beyond possible.  Themistocles and Leonidas did not meet to discuss strategy, but the strategy discussed is fairly close to what actually happened.  The movie does an admirable job fitting in the most famous quotes from Herodotus.  For example, the “fight in the shade” line.

                The movie veers away from history and military sense in the battle itself.  The raid on the Persian camp was crap, of course.  But necessary to redeem Phyllon.  There is no record of Xerxes killing the camp followers.  The battle is laughable in its tactics.  The narrowness of the pass did not lend itself to lines of infantry.  Plus the Spartans would have been in a phalanx anyway.  Given the nature of the terrain there would have been no use of cavalry or chariots by the Persians.  The Immortals are accurately dressed, but the Spartans look like legionaries.  The fire surprise is pure bull shit, just as it was in “Spartacus” and “Braveheart”.  The role and motivation of Ephialtes is fine and certainly closer to the truth than in “300”.  Xerxes may have had a white chariot, but he did not participate in the battle.  The death of Leonidas is as per Herodotus.  Overall I would give the film a C for accuracy. 

Leonidas is the dude on the right with the Roman helmet
                “The 300 Spartans” is surprisingly not sucky.  Egan and Richardson do a good acting job, but the rest of the cast is low rate, especially the females.  However, nobody embarrasses themselves.  The romantic subplot is lame and perfunctory.  The dialogue is average, but gets points for borrowing from the ancient sources.  It was cool hearing the famous quotes.  Although the tactics are shaky, the action is pretty good.  The hand to hand is well done and the deaths are not laughable.

                “The 300 Spartans” is a fun companion to “300”.  It is entertaining in an early 1960’s B-movie sort of way.  Watching it and then comparing it to “300” could not be a bigger contrast between an Old School war movie and whatever the Hell “300” is. 


Grade =  C


  1. I was also pleasantly surprised by The 300 Spartans, when I watched it after 300. The battle scenes pale compared to 300, which was a visual feast, but I actually learned something about the Persian invasion and how the Greeks fought them off. Watching 300 just made me wish I did more sit-ups.

    1. Having watch both movies growing up with Richard Egan which i think is his best work , i think both have good/ bad moments.
      Interesting that Kevin Hardy describes the proud Spartans
      as Legionarres

    2. I meant that the movie has them dressed like Roman legionaries.

  2. the war movie buffMarch 20, 2014 at 7:47 PM

    I agree. I did not expect it to be as good as it is. The best word for it is quaint. It's fun seeing the characters from 300 in a different portrayal. It's also always fun to see how movies manage to get fire into historical battles.

  3. I actually saw The 300 Spartans before 300 came out. I was equally skeptical when I saw chariots and cavalry but what I liked best was the close in fighting. So many 50s/60s movies were just characters flailing short swords at each other in a wide angle predictable fashion. While T300S has this in a duel scene, the battles are pretty decent when they close in.

    I did laugh at the Spartan prisoner lecturing Xerxes about freedom. To bad he didnt reply "Shall I have the helots explain it to me?" Zing!

  4. It is better than your average "sword and sandals" movie. I was really surprised at how not bad it was. There's a ringing endorsement for you!


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