Most people assume that 300 (2007, dir. Zach Snyder) was the first movie made about the battle of Thermopylae. But in fact there is an earlier version of the story, The 300 Spartans (1962, dir. Rudolph Maté). Frank Miller was deeply impressed by the latter film when he saw it while growing up, so in some sense his 300 is an homage to Maté’s film. And from a standpoint of basic accuracy, it’s a better film.
Rather than going into the basic facts about Thermopylae, I’ll just direct you to my first blog post ever, where I discuss both the 3rd Persian War and Greek hoplite warfare.
The 300 Spartans does a fairly good job of following the facts of Thermopylae as we know it. The film opens with the Persians marching into Thrace. Xerxes (David Farrar) has a chat with the exiled Spartan king Demaratus (Ivan Triesault) in which some of the dialog is draw straight out of Herodotus. In fact, the film repeatedly uses famous Spartan comments reported by the Greek historian, which right there puts it a whole level above Snyder’s work in terms of basic accuracy. And there’s a good deal more concern to depict the Persians wearing things actual Persians wore (although there are a lot of generic Hollywood belly-dancers too).
The various Greek city-states debate what to do about the invasion. Themistocles (Ralph Richardson) and Leonidas (Richard Egan) are both forward-looking enough to realize their two states, traditionally rivals, must work together to find a solution, and they are repeatedly thwarted by small-minded men who simply don’t want to acknowledge the scale of the problem facing them. In particular, Leonidas is opposed back home in Sparta by a group of unspecified “elders”, who seem to be the ephors, a council of five elected men who shared political authority with the two Spartan kings. (Although the film generally has only a vague sense of what life in Sparta was like, it does understand that Sparta had a dual monarchy and a governing council, which again puts it a step above 300.) The ephors insist that Sparta cannot respond to the Persian invasion until the Carnea festival is over. Leonidas, however, feels that the matter cannot wait, and departs with his bodyguard of 300 men, who are not subject to the ephors’ authority on this. Again, this is loosely following Herodotus’s account, although modern scholars are a little skeptical about this.
Where the film digresses is with the insertion of a invented Hollywood romance. Whereas in 300, the love relationship is between Leonidas and his queen, Gorgo, in this film, it’s between Gorgo’s niece, Ellas (Diane Baker) and Demaratus’ son Phyllon (Barry Coe). They want to be married, but because Demaratus has been accused of helping the Persians, Leonidas refuses to allow Phyllon to marry or fight with the other Spartans. This sets off a tedious sub-plot in which the two lovers chase after Leonidas’ army, and then stumble across an elderly couple whose lecherous son Ephialtes falls in love with Ellas, thus providing him with a motive to betray the Spartans to the Persians by showing them how to get around the pass at Thermopylae.
Meanwhile, Xerxes is consorting with Queen Artemisia (Anne Wakefield). In contrast to Eva Green’s man-hating fury, Wakefield’s Artemisia is a fairly traditional evil woman for the period. She uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants, and Xerxes’ libidinous dalliance with her is used to demonstrate that he’s a lousy ruler who ignores the good advice of his generals. But this Artemisia isn’t that important to the plot; once the fighting starts she is almost completely forgotten.
One thing The 300 Spartans shares with 300 is a general disinterest in recreating actual hoplite warfare. Both the Spartans and the Persians are dressed more accurately in The 300 Spartans (for example, the Persian Immortals are correctly shown carrying wicker shields), but when it comes to combat the film either doesn’t know how to depict a hoplite phalanx in action or it simply doesn’t care. The Spartans just stand in long lines, single file, with the next line standing 30-40 feet behind them doing nothing. Instead of showing how the Spartans successfully employed the hoplite system to maximum effect for the terrain available (and chose Thermopylae because it would maximize the power of the phalanx by negating the Persian advantage of numbers), the Spartans in this film are just better fighters.
They repeatedly repulse waves of Persians who employ ludicrous tactics. In the first attack, Xerxes orders his cavalry to advance behind the concealment of his infantry. The plan is that at the last minute the cavalry will ride through the infantry, catch the Spartans by surprise and capture them all so Xerxes can publicly execute them. None of that makes much sense, and it doesn’t fool the Spartans at all. When the cavalry charges, the Spartans just fall down and let the cavalry ride over them, and then stand up and turn around to trap them between two groups of Spartans. The fact that the front row of Spartans are now standing with their backs to the Persian infantry is just ignored. Here, see for yourself:
Then Xerxes sends in chariots, which the Spartans defeat with arrows and javelins. When the Spartans use their spears, it’s mostly to throw them, and they prefer to fight with what look to be Roman short swords instead. Then the Immortals get sent in and the Spartans trick them into advancing past a flammable pile of hay which they then light on fire, trapping the Immortals. The film exhibits absolutely no idea about how phalanxes actually worked.
But there is one nice detail I have to commend, because I complain about it in other war scenes. When the Spartans are finally outflanked and surrounded at the end of the film, refusing to surrender Leonidas’ body, Xerxes does the smart thing. He doesn’t send in his infantry to fight them. He lets his archers pick them all off, because a unit of infantry in stationary formation is vulnerable to missile fire. It’s refreshing to see a movie that actually understands this.
The 300 Spartans has not aged particularly well. The acting is the usual turgid 50s style, the female characters are good for nothing except being love objects, the soundtrack is obnoxious, and the stunt-work is thoroughly unconvincing. But in terms of its ability to recount what actually happened, it’s hands down better than 300.
Want to Know More?
The 300 Spartans is available at Amazon.
Our best source for the Persian Wars is Herodotus’ The Histories, Revised (Penguin Classics).There’s also a version, Herodotus: The Persian War (Translations from Greek and Roman Authors), that’s only the sections about the Persian Wars with scholarly explanations added.
Philip Souza’s book on the The Greek and Persian Wars 499-386 BCis a good introduction to the subject.