The 300 Spartans (1962): A Retrospective Review

The 1962 classic offers a less action-oriented, and a more historically-rich take on the battle of Thermopylae than does its counterpart “300” from 2006.  Doing without the bare torsos, and abundant displays of physiques, the 1962 film takes its time to develop the intra-Greek political storyline prior to the battle.  The movie takes multiple artistic liberties, some of which are similar to the 2006 movie and some which differ, and the result is an interesting and compelling contrast, reflecting two different periods in cinema history.

 

Filmed on location in Greece, “The 300 Spartans” has an authentic feel to the scenery and good use has been made of panoramic views.  Dusty paths and rocky hillsides, mountains, olive trees and a blue bay of water are convincing and realistic, as if the film was shot at Thermopylae itself.  The armor and costumes worn are passably appropriate for the period with some allowances for the 1960’s American audience. On the other hand, there are hardly any Spartan beards, no long hair, nothing remotely resembling a phalanx, and Spartan women are conservatively dressed.  The actors’ strong American and British accents mix oddly in an effect more reminiscent of a WW2 film than ancient Greece.

Panoramic shot of Thermopylae. Leonidas sits in the foreground.

“The 300 Spartans” makes an admirable attempt to explain the difficulties faced by the Greeks in uniting and forming an effective military alliance.  Particularly, a debate at Corinth between Greek delegates, sets out the political situation as Xerxes army and navy approach from the north of Greece. Contrived, yet important scenes between the Athenian Themistocles and King Leonidas give a clear sense as to why Thermopylae was chosen as the battle site, but also touches on the tensions and complexities of the alliance.  Appropriately, Themistocles is depicted as a wily politician and visionary strategist, and Leonidas’ blunter, simpler military style crystallizes the contrast between Athens and Sparta. Just like the 2006 movie, the film erroneously depicts Leonidas acting on his own and against the will of the ephors, who are once again cast as the overly-religious obstacle to full Spartan mobilization.  Whether this is done to further emphasize the heroism of Leonidas, or to create dramatic tension before the battle, it gives the mistaken impression that Thermopylae was only Leonidas’ doing (when in all likelihood it was the decision of the ephors as well). What the 1962 film does get right however is that Thermopylae was not envisioned as a suicide mission, but as a holding action for which reinforcements were expected.

Themistocles and Leonidas make plans.

Richard Egan’s portrayal of Leonidas is less macho and less muscular than Gerard Butler’s, but he is hard-nosed and tough, and employs his laconic wit effectively.  He communicates the stoicism, but doesn’t deliver the same level of pathos, probably due to the different cinematography. Extreme close-ups were not the rage in 1960’s Hollywood.  While Butler’s portrayal zoomed in on the warrior code of Leonidas, Egan gives his Leonidas a more patriotic, dutiful emphasis, but also flashes his toothy smile and is less grim overall.  Egan’s character could have done with some monologue or background to give his portrayal greater depth. In this regard, “300” outperforms its predecessor noticeably.  

 

The character of Xerxes, the Persian Emperor is presented differently than in “300.”  Less divine, more human, and still temperamental, the Xerxes of The 300 Spartans is supremely confident at the outset, yet frustrated by conflicting advice as difficulties arise.  Less egocentric, and more fallible, he wishes to avenge and outdo his father Darius, but struggles to be an auspicious leader. The 1962 film does a good job describing the various counsellors and their often vain attempts to make Xerxes heed them.  Interestingly, the character of Demaratus, the Spartan ex-King, makes an appearance here, as does Artemisia the Queen of Caria. The former explains the disposition of Sparta to the Emperor, and gives a very hands-on martial display. The latter has an intriguing sexual relationship with Xerxes; both she and Demaratus may be conflicted by dual loyalties which are never fully explored in the script.  

The General Hydarnes speaks to Xerxes. Artemisia listens in.

The combat scenes are underwhelming, and even unintentionally comic seen with 21st Century eyes.  Leonidas makes (an entirely fictive) raid on the Persian camp by wading through water at night in full armor(!).  The Spartans do not use their phalanx against a cavalry attack; instead the frontmost hoplites lie down and let the horses jump over them before rising again to trap them from the rear.  Another time a Spartan feigns death in order to light hay on fire and burn Xerxes’ Immortals. The death of Leonidas is not the dramatic climax it should be. It’s certainly not “300”!

 

The film invents a romantic subplot: a young Spartan by the name of Phylon, a newly come-of-age Spartiate,  and his beloved Ellas seek to be wed, but their plans are thrown into turmoil by the war and the suspicion that Phylon’s father may be a traitor.  Travelling to Thermopylae in the footsteps of the 300, they cross paths with Ephialtes the shepherd who is soon revealed as a scoundrel. Phylon joins the 300 and vindicates himself in combat.  Sent back to Sparta by Leonidas to convey the king’s last message, the couple secure the Hollywood happy ending.

Phylon, unaware that his father is suspected of treason, asks Leonidas for permission to marry Ellas.

“The 300 Spartans” references both the Athenian and Spartan prophecies, and it interweaves them nicely into the plot.  Athenian doom is predicted by the Oracle at Delphi, and its only rescue is the “wooden wall,” which Themistocles takes to mean its newly-built navy.  The Spartans are also foretold their doom unless one of their kings dies. Egan’s Leonidas takes the news in stride, stating “I accept the challenge!”  Leonidas’ queen, Gorgo, is understandably disturbed and worried, especially once it becomes clear that Leonidas will leave with only three hundred hoplites.  Anna Synodinou’s portrayal is markedly more gentle, and emotional than Lena Headey’s, revealing weakness which the latter left unspoken.

 

Ultimately, the 1962 movie is an enjoyable two hours for those fans of classical Sparta who are open to a different cinematic take on the battle of Thermopylae.  It can be forgiven its idiosyncracies, and taken as a pleasing contrast to the macho “300” of 2006.