The 300 Spartans is a 1962 CinemaScope epic film depicting the Battle of Thermopylae. Made with the cooperation of the Greek government, it was shot in the village of Perachora in the Peloponnese.
The working title was Lion of Sparta.
It stars Richard Egan as the Spartan king Leonidas, Sir Ralph Richardson as Themistocles of Athens and David Farrar as Persian king Xerxes, with Diane Baker as Ellas and Barry Coe as Phylon providing the requisite romantic element in the film.
Greek warriors, led by 300 Spartans, fight against a Persian army of almost limitless size. Despite the odds, the Spartans will not flee or surrender, even if it means their deaths.
When it was released in 1962, critics saw the movie as a commentary on the Cold War, referring to the independent Greek states as “the only stronghold of freedom remaining in the then known world”, holding out against the Persian “slave empire”.
King Xerxes of Persia leads a vast army of soldiers into Europe to defeat the small city-states of Greece, not only to fulfil the idea of “one world ruled by one master”, but also to avenge the defeat of his father Darius at the Battle of Marathon ten years before. Accompanying him are Artemisia, the Queen of Halicarnassus, who beguiles Xerxes with her feminine charm, and Demaratus, an exiled king of Sparta, to whose warnings Xerxes pays little heed.
In Corinth, Themistocles of Athens wins the support of the Greek allies and convinces both the delegates and the Spartan representative, warrior king Leonidas I, to grant Sparta leadership of their forces. Outside the hall, Leonidas and Themistocles agree to fortify the narrow pass at Thermopylae until the rest of the army arrives. After this, Leonidas learns of the Persian advance and travels to Sparta to spread the news and rally the rest of the troops.
In Sparta, his fellow king Leotychidas is fighting a losing battle with the Ephors over the religious harvest festival of Carnea that is due to take place, with members of the council arguing that the army should wait until after the festival is over before it marches, while Leotychidas fears that by that time the Persians may have conquered Greece. Leonidas decides to march north immediately with his personal bodyguard of 300 men, who are exempt from the decisions of the Ephors and the Gerousia. They are subsequently reinforced by about 700 volunteer Thespians led by Demophilus and few other Greek allies.
After several days of fighting, Xerxes grows angry as his army is repeatedly routed by the Greeks, with the Spartans in the forefront. Leonidas receives word sent by his wife that, by decision of the Ephors, the remainder of the Spartan army, rather than joining him as he had expected, will only fortify the isthmus in the Peloponnese and will advance no further. The Greeks constantly beat back the Persians, and following the defeat of most of his personal bodyguard in battle against the Spartans plus the killing/death of Xerxes’ own two brothers, Xerxes begins to consider withdrawing to Sardis until he can equip a larger force at a later date. As he prepares to withdraw, as advised by Artemesia (who, having a Greek mother, has her own agenda to dissuade the king from continuing invasion), Xerxes however, receives word from the treacherous and avaricious Ephialtes of a secret old goat-track through the mountains that will enable his forces to attack the Greeks from the rear. Promising to richly reward the traitorous goatherd for his betrayal (just as Ephialtes had expected) an emboldened Xerxes sends his army onward.
Once Leonidas realises he will be surrounded, he sends away the Greek allies to alert the cities to the south. Being too few to hold the pass, the Spartans instead attack the Persian front, where Xerxes is nearby. Leonidas is killed in the melée. Meanwhile, the Thespians, who had refused to leave, are overwhelmed (offscreen) while defending the rear. Surrounded, the surviving Spartans refuse Xerxes’s demand to give up Leonidas’ body. They are then all annihilated as the remaining Immortals rain down a barrage of arrowfire.
After this, narration states that the Battle of Salamis and the Battle of Plataea end the Persian invasion, which could not have been organised and victorious without the time bought by the 300 Spartans who defied the tyranny of Xerxes at Thermopylae. One of the final images of the film is the stone memorial bearing the epigram of Simonides of Ceos, which the narrator recites in honour of the slain 300 Spartan men’s bravery:
“Oh stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their word.”
Then ends with:
“…But it was more than a victory for Greece, it was a stirring example to free people throughout the world of what a few brave men can accomplish once they refuse to submit to tyranny!”
- The battle scenes were shot near the village of Perachora, on the mainland side of the Corinth Canal, as it was impossible to shoot at the actual location in Thermopylae, where 2,500 years of silt had shrunk the Malian Gulf drastically since the battle in 480 BCE, turning the strait where the battle was fought into a broad coastal plain.
- The Greek Defense Ministry agreed to make available to the producers up to 5,000 members of the Hellenic Army for a pre-negotiated fee.
- However, the film’s budgetary constraints reduced the numbers drawn to only two battalions (approximately 1,100 men).
- In 1970, despite the attributed Cold War connotations, the film was dubbed in Russian and shown in the USSR. The film proved to be very popular, with 27.1 million total viewers.
- Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel 300 depicts the same Battle of Thermopylae. The comic artist saw The 300 Spartans as a boy and said “it changed the course of my creative life”. In 2006, his book was adapted into a successful film of the same name directed by Zack Snyder.
Production & Filming Details
- Director: Rudolph Mate.
- Producers: Rudolph Mate and George St. George.
- Screenplay: George St. George.
- Story: Gian Paolo Callegari, Remigio Del Grosso, Giovanni d’Eramo, and Ugo Liberatore.
- Music: Manos Hadjidakis.
- Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth.
- Editor: Jerry Webb.
- Production: 20th Century Fox.
- Distributor: 20th Century Fox.
- Release Date: 29 August 1962 (US).
- Running Time: 114 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.